The Joy of Spuds – why austerity cooking needs to be on the school menu

Mary-Ann Ochota

There are going to be new guidelines for kids’ meals in schools. But small glasses of fruit juice, more milk and fewer chips only go somelon boat 225x300 The Joy of Spuds   why austerity cooking needs to be on the school menu far.

The big challenge is to turn out a generation who can make good choices in the supermarket, turn out affordable, decent meals and keep themselves and their own families in good health. God knows, we can’t afford the medical bill otherwise.

Schools need to teach cooking that is actually useful. Austerity cooking. Skills that mean every 16 year old can feed four people for five quid.

If you don’t know how to cook, you can’t eat cheaply. You end up buying ready meals, and salt, fat and sugar make up for poor flavour and dubious skill. Food doesn’t need to be fancy to be tasty and nutritious.

I went to a pretty decent state school in Cheshire. Our family weren’t well off, but my mum taught us to value our education, and she always, always fed us well, even when the budget was tight.

In Year 7 we’d have a Home Economics class each week. We’d be given an ingredients list the week before, and be expected to bring in the necessaries ready to cook during school.

My over-riding memory is the expense of the ingredients.

The chicken curry recipe required 200g of chicken breasts, the most expensive cut of a chicken you can buy. Sure, most kids didn’t notice or care that chicken breasts are expensive. Their mums furnished them with the appropriate bit of carcass on the right school morning, job done.

My mum bought a chicken leg (a bit cheaper, and in a value pack) and we spent ten minutes before school while she showed me how to de-bone and chop it into the bitesize chunks. Voila, as good as chicken breasts.

When I rocked up at school and dropped my ingredients off at the kitchens, I bumped into Kate, one of the even poorer kids in school. Her mum had given her a chicken leg too, but it was still whole and she was worried the teacher would tell her off, the humiliation of explaining why she had the wrong bit of chicken was too much to contemplate, better to be thought of as careless than poor. Thanks to my mum, I knew what to do. I showed Kate what my mum had shown me, we spent ten minutes deboning and chopping, and now she knew the skill too.

We were learning the wrong things in class. We should have all been told to bring in a cut of meat that was cheap, and learn how to adapt the recipe. The recipe should have had an extra onion, a couple of potatoes and ‘whatever veg is in the fridge – carrots, mushrooms, peppers, some old cabbage’ – and that way, we would have learned the art of cooking cheap. You can make one chicken leg generously feed four hungry people if you know how. Spuds, onions, garlic and green veg, with beans and a bit of meat, some spices and fresh herbs…simple, tasty, nutritious food that poor people living in temperate climates have eaten for centuries.

Kate and I agreed that the weekly ingredients lists were stressful, and we sometimes thought about saying we’d forgotten our ingredients just so we didn’t need to add to our parents’ food-shopping burdens.

The most ridiculous recipe Kate and I suffered through was The Melon Boat. A honeydew melon and glace cherries added £3 to the family shop, and the ‘recipe’ was ‘cut melon, scoop out seeds, put a glace cherry on a cocktail stick in each wedge to look like the mast of a sailboat’. For heaven’s sake.

I pray the melon boat is no longer taught in schools, but I’m sure the chicken breast curry is. It’s great that nutrition guidelines for school meals are being simplified. It’s great that Jamie Oliver, Jack Monroe and their ilk are showing the grownups how to eat for less. Now let’s teach the kids.


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