As the recession drags on, we're finding more families digging their own vegetable gardens, making fewer trips to supermarkets, and spending less on what might be called "economic frou-frou." They're also spending more time in their kitchens, apparently cooking food from scratch.
That may be bad news for food retailers but there's an unexplored upside: In my experience, cooking can be a valuable social connector for teens and their families and, indeed, for teens with other teens. It is an activity far more delicious than any web experience. Fun though it may be, and a big consumer of time, social networking obscures the truths about human relationships and experiences, as does "reality" TV; neither strengthens real bonds between people and neither creates meaningful memories of personal accomplishment and team play.
So I propose a new way of looking at cooking -- as a teen sport that is congruent with how families today are deciding to spend their leisure hours. I believe that if teens started cooking together, and then eating together, there's a good chance they could teach their parents how to eat better, and thereby to address our national obesity crisis.
What has been missing in the national finger-pointing about health, nutrition and childhood obesity (along with subsequent adult obesity), is, simply, a common social method of dealing with the issues. Dr. Marion Nestle, an attack-dog on nutrition policy says, "I've long argued that the best way to get people to eat more healthfully is to teach kids to cook."
A savvy but vulnerable generation, today's teens are at the mercy of food manufacturers' millions of promotional dollars. But we know, from their fascination with food programs on television, that teens are clamoring to develop their own culinary identities. They have become zealots about vegetarianism, about sustainability, about carbon footprints, and social responsibility, and they have begun to wag their fingers at many of their parents' irresponsible habits. But they lack good information about what is healthy and what is not.
Rather than engaging in fruitless bickering over "good food versus bad food," I posit a simple alternative to ramping up teenagers' knowledge about how best to eat: Eat fresh food. To my way of thinking, it's the only message that matters. I've learned from my own teenage daughter that when offered fresh versus processed food, she will invariably use a knife to chop vegetables rather than to open a package.
I'm thrilled walking around my neighborhood and seeing tomato plants and corn stalk where last year there were marigolds and zinnias, but you don't need a vegetable patch to get kids involved. Here is how we can engage our teenagers (and their families):
Weekdays: Buy five fresh ingredients and put them on the counter. Ask your teen(s) to make dinner. Make up a number of additional ingredients they can use from your pantry or refrigerator. Allow 40 minutes for thinking and for cooking, allow 20 minutes for eating. Sit down together; talk about the experience. You keep the journal: they do their homework. I've read that poor children in India, when given an online computer with no instructions, have quickly figured out how to surf the web, a result of innate curiosity and instinctive play. So getting dinner on the table ought to be a less formidable challenge. You may be surprised what your teen has picked up from the Iron Chef.
Weekends: Give your teen $50. Have him/her invite three friends to meet up at a farmers market. They shop for ingredients, cook together, write down their recipes, begin cookbooks or blogs, do videos, text as they cook, and create their own taste memories. (And let them keep the change.)
Along the way, teens discover where food comes from, how nutrition affects their well-being, how cooking is a social connector. In the process, we will change the way families eat. The payoff? Fresh and formative taste memories can become an important clue in resurrecting the shattered landscape of adult culinary pleasures.
MAC-AND-CHEESE with Cauliflower & Creamy Red Pepper Sauce (adapted from Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs)
Many of the ingredients in this dish can be found in the farmer's market -- cauliflower, chives, garlic, and red bell peppers. This unusual spin on mac-and-cheese is studded with surprise nuggets of cauliflower and the gorgeous bright orange sauce is made from cooked red peppers and garlic that get pureed until silky.
5 ounces very sharp yellow cheddar cheese
2 medium red bell peppers, about 12 ounces
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon honey
1/8 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
8 ounces ziti or penne rigate
5 cups small cauliflower florets
3 tablespoons finely chopped chives
Shred the cheese on the large holes of a box grater and set aside. Cut the peppers in half and remove the core and seeds. Cut into 1-inch pieces and put in a small saucepan with 1/2 cup water. Cut the garlic in half and add to the pan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium and cover. Cook 15 minutes or until the peppers are very soft. Transfer the contents of the saucepan, including the water, to a food processor. Add the butter, honey, chile powder and salt to taste. Process until very smooth and return to the saucepan. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cauliflower and cook 12 minutes or until tender. Drain well and shake dry. Transfer to a large bowl. Heat the sauce and pour it over the pasta. Add the cheese and stir well. Add salt and sprinkle with chives. Serves 6
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