Childhood obesity and diabetes seem on an unstoppable rise, but can a new way of teaching children about food make all the difference?
On a spring-like day in February at Washingborough Academy, a primary school in Lincolnshire, a fortysomething teacher bites into a heavily salted Swedish liquorice lozenge for the first time. “It’s not bad,” he says, with a grimace, “except that it tastes like sewage.” Another teacher refuses to try it, but a third likes the strong taste, commenting that it reminds her of the sea, or maybe a Fisherman’s Friend. The teachers are tasting the lozenges — or not — as part of a lesson on how certain foods can be vile to some but joyous to others. This is one component of a new method of food education called Flavour School, which will launch in Britain this summer.
It may seem strange to British eyes, but in many countries, the idea of offering children a sensory education in eating is a perfectly normal thing. Teachers in Finland, Sweden, France and the Netherlands see taste lessons as a basic part of every child’s development. From nursery onwards, children are encouraged to explore food with all their senses: to learn the difference between bitter and sour, or to pay attention to the way that the red or green skin of an apple makes us expect it to taste. For more than 20 years, Swedish children have been given “taste lessons” through the Sapere method. In Latin, sapere means “to taste”, “to be able to” and “to know”. Research suggests that at the end of a course of these lessons, a child will be more open to tasting a variety of foods, including vegetables, and less susceptible to the junky “kids’ foods” so heavily promoted in every supermarket.
I first became aware of the Sapere method when I wrote a book, First Bite, about the psychology of learning to eat. I’d been idly thinking how brilliant it would be if someone could give children lessons in eating when I discovered that, in Finland, they do just that. The Finnish version of Sapere, which is taught in every kindergarten in the country, was introduced just over a decade ago as a weapon against child obesity. Children aged one to seven are encouraged to taste a huge variety of foods in a playful way. Sometimes, the children go berry-picking; at other times, they taste yoghurt blindfolded and try to identify whether it is sweetened, plain or fruit-flavoured.
The pupils of Washingborough school in Lincolnshire relish the chance to learn more about food
The children hardly realise they are learning, yet Finnish kindergarten teachers have reported a dramatic improvement in pupils’ attitudes to food since the lessons were introduced. Instead of finding beetroot revolting, some children now beg their parents to buy it. The more I learnt about Sapere in Finland, the more I wished that we had something similar in Britain.
Then I met an energetic couple from Hackney — chef Nick Wilkinson and sustainable food expert Geraldine Gilbert — who were expecting a baby, which made them think about how to improve children’s food. They had read my book and said they wanted to bring Sapere to Britain. What’s more, they had found the perfect school to kick-start it: Washingborough Academy, which has already won awards for the quality of its food education. The first day I visit, Washingborough children are buzzing with Flavour School and the chance to play with different foods. Joshua Nix, in year 1, says that squeezing a lime made him feel like the Hulk, except that it is “very messy and hard to squeeze”. Alexa Scott handles a piece of root ginger and marvels at its resemblance to tree branches. “It feels so heavy and bumpy.”
For Jason O’Rourke, head teacher of Washingborough, adding Flavour School lessons to the curriculum is a matter of urgency. Like other teachers around the country, he has been horrified by the rising numbers of British children who suffer from entirely preventable health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, caused by poor diet and lack of activity. Seventeen years ago, not a single child in the UK suffered from type 2 diabetes. Last year, more than 600 children were registered with the condition. Almost one in five children arrive at school already overweight or obese, and by the time they move on to secondary school, it’s one in three. “If we had maths results like that, we’d be out of a job,” O’Rourke remarks.
British schools have been promised new funding from this September — some of the forecast proceeds from the sugar tax — to finance initiatives to help pupils adopt healthier lifestyles. In return for the money, the signs are that, for the first time, schools will have to account to Ofsted for how well they deliver on food education under a new healthy-rating scheme. Flavour School may be an idea whose time has come.
For the children themselves, judging by the first reactions, the selling point of sensory learning is that it is so much fun. Last month, at St Matthew’s Primary School in Cambridge, some reception kids aged four and five who are part of a Flavour School pilot were smelling mystery jars containing different ingredients hidden by foil and trying to describe the contents. A jar of star anise reminded them of “those yucky pink sweets”, aka liquorice. “Ahh!” said Nel, breathing deeply into a jar of cinnamon. “That smells like a really lovely perfume, but I can’t say what it is.” When they smelled a jar containing gruyère cheese, most of the children recoiled from the stinkiness. Toby, a wide-eyed blond boy, crinkled his nose. “It reminds me of this thing called Mini Cheddars,” he said sagely.
Dough preparation at Washingborough Academy
We are now 17 years on from the revolution in British school food that was started by dinner lady Jeanette Orrey and continued by Jamie Oliver in 2005, in his TV series Jamie’s School Dinners. The quality of food in most school canteens is far better than it was in the dark days of Turkey Twizzlers in the 1990s. But when it comes to children’s practical ability to feed themselves in a healthy way, we seem to be going backwards. Primary-school teachers encounter five year-old children who don’t realise that you peel an orange before you eat it because they’ve never had one at home. Nor is food ignorance limited to those on low incomes. I’ve met numerous middle-class kids who believe that a packaged fruit roll is just as good as a piece of fresh fruit because it says “one of your five-a-day” on the label.
It was O’Rourke’s alarm at the way most British children eat that made him invite Stina Algotson, president of Sapere International, to import taste lessons to the UK. Algotson, who has been teaching this method to both children and teachers since 1995, explains how Sapere helps children learn the basic building blocks of taste, from savoury cod’s roe to sour lemons and sweet lingonberries. Flavour School will do the same, but with British produce: cheddar instead of cod’s roe and blackberries or tart apples instead of lingonberries. “The wish to try new foods is the key to health,” Algotson says. A child who has been through the Sapere system, she claims, will “see more things, taste more things and hear more things”.
A typical Flavour School lesson will look nothing like food education as we usually think of it in the UK. There will be no dreary lectures on five-a-day, nor any classes in how to bake sugary flapjacks and cupcakes, which still, strangely, form a large part of our children’s cooking lessons. The Sapere method starts not with cooking but with eating. A full course of lessons has 10 components, taught weekly over the whole school year, culminating in a “grand” festive meal, which may be shared with parents. The core elements are open-ended games that get children to explore food with all their senses, not just taste.
While training the teachers, Algotson splits us into five groups and gets each one to prepare a Sapere lesson built around a different sense. One group puts on headphones and notices how much louder it makes a piece of rye crispbread sound as it crunches. This exercise, which is designed to get children to pay attention to the sound of food, is a revelation. You can hear every crack and rustle of your teeth against the crispbread. It’s disturbing. Eating cheese with headphones on is almost silent. “I felt as if I was travelling into my own mouth,” says Hattie Ellis, a food writer.
Parents whose children have done Sapere sessions report their kids are, within reason, braver about trying new things. After just one apple-tasting lesson at Washingborough, a parent told one of the teachers that she had been “marched” by her child to the nearest supermarket and cajoled into buying a variety of apples.
By the time a Swedish child is 10, says Algotson, they may have built up a vocabulary of 1,000 different words for describing food. By contrast, many British children are practically illiterate when it comes to food. Sally Brown and Kate Morris are cookery teachers from Buckinghamshire who have joined this first cohort of Flavour School trainees. They devised the hugely successful CBeebies children’s cooking show I Can Cook and, since 2000, have been teaching cooking in British schools. Over the years, they’ve noticed that many children, even from privileged backgrounds, have “no expression for giving words to what they eat”. Morris once asked a group of children to describe the smell, taste and feeling of porridge in the mouth. The only word the children could come up with was “pale”.
Peeling vegetables for the preparation of coleslaw
“But how will that actually help?” asked an education-policy wonk I met recently when I tried to explain Flavour School to her. She couldn’t see how teaching children about something as rarefied as their senses could possibly make any difference to their health. The signs are, however, that it can. It’s near-impossible to measure the effects of diet interventions such as this, because there are so many competing factors influencing what a child eats. As Algotson says, deadpan: “We don’t have the statistics as in, ‘We have the Sapere method, now they are all thin’” — though a study in one Finnish town, Jyvaskyla, suggested that it did have the potential for reducing the incidence of overweight children. What there is very good evidence for is that sensory education increases a child’s willingness to try new foods. This is a pretty useful thing if we are to have any chance of weaning children onto a more balanced diet that includes at least a few real vegetables. In the absence of any intervention, a child who won’t taste broccoli becomes an adult who never eats it.
At Washingborough, O’Rourke sees Flavour School as an opportunity for children to get a “different relationship” with food. He is an unusual head teacher who places food as at the heart of the school day. The school has orchards and kitchen gardens, which supply fruit and vegetables for its many cooking lessons. As I toured the school with him, I heard one classroom of year 5s earnestly debating whether a red pepper was a fruit or a vegetable, and saw another group grating huge bowlfuls of parsnip, carrots and red cabbage for a tasty winter coleslaw dressed with yoghurt, olive oil and mint.
But even here, with all this exciting cooking going on, O’Rourke feels that some children are lacking a basic knowledge of different textures and flavours. A while ago, the school cook at Washingborough started serving chicken drumsticks and was upset to see half the portions going straight in the bin. Teachers discovered that, although chicken was their favourite meat, most children had never eaten any with a bone in before. It took intensive coaxing from the teachers to persuade them this dark, chewy meat was perfectly safe to eat.
In an ideal world, no one would need an education in eating well, because we would learn it automatically sitting at our mother’s table, supping slow-cooked casseroles, seasoned with herbs plucked from the garden. In real life, many family meals are a rushed sandwich in the car on the way back from football, and even teachers often feel lacking in kitchen skills. The great thing about Flavour School is that it can be taught even by a teacher, or parent, who never developed confidence in cooking. It takes almost no resources to teach and it’s enjoyable . “You can do it with just an apple or a banana,” says Algotson. Maybe this won’t be the magic bullet to save a generation of British children from a future of poor health. But it’s a start, and as the novelist Junot Diaz once wrote, “Sometimes a start is all we ever get.” flavourschool.org.uk
How to hold flavour school at home
1 Spice-jar lotto — take some spice jars and temporarily replace the lids with pieces of foil, piercing the tops with a fork. Sit with your child and smell the various jars. From smell alone, can they name any of the spices? Talk about what the different smells remind you of (curry, apple crumble, being on holiday).
2 Play with your food. If you have a preschool child, next time you bake together, let them explore the ingredients with their (clean) fingers before you start. Feel the softness of the flour. Do you dare to touch the slimy egg yolk? Notice how the ingredients change as you cook. Whip egg whites together and talk about how they turn from translucent and liquid to foamy and white.
3 This suggestion comes from Sally Brown and Kate Morris: hide a different ingredient inside three clean paper bags and ask the child to feel inside and guess what they are. Try a whole carrot with leaves, an aubergine, a garlic bulb. When they make their guesses, ask why they have made that suggestion. Perhaps it feels shiny or hairy.
4 Mix equal amounts of cinnamon and sugar in a bowl. Pinch your nose and try half a teaspoon. It should taste of nothing but sweetness. Now release your nose and see how your whole head seems to flood with cinnamon aroma. Talk about how flavour is mostly really smell.
5 The vanilla game: get a tub of vanilla yoghurt, a tub of plain yoghurt and some vanilla custard. Taste each in turn and talk about whether they are sweet or sour. Now take sugar and add it, little by little, to the plain yoghurt until it tastes as sweet as the vanilla yoghurt. You may be amazed by how much you end up adding. This is a sensory lesson on hidden sugars.
6 Any time you are cooking a meal and not in a mad rush, try to include your child in the process. Let them snip chives, crush garlic, spin salad, feel bread dough. Even if they are picky eaters and don’t want to have exactly what the adults are eating, you can still invite them to smell some of the ingredients as you cook. This can feel like a safe way to experience new foods until a child becomes brave enough to put it in his or her mouth.
7 Put on headphones and see how it changes the sensation of eating different foods. Does a piece of toast crunch louder? What about a piece of cucumber? Can the child notice any other sounds in the kitchen — the whirr of a coffee machine or the clatter of lentils or macaroni in a jar?