Any leaders or educators involved in outdoor learning of any kind are particularly well placed to make food and cooking a crucial part of what they do. And I have decided to make a commitment to putting food learning at the heart of what we do in our groups.
The famous Jamie Oliver campaign with kids in school in England and America flagged up that many children can't identify fruit and veg. Then he said "Do you know what fixes that? Two, one hour sessions....." and I thought, well I know that school doesn't always have the time or opportunity to commit two, one hour sessions to food but I know I do. I work along schools, nurseries, parent and toddler and community groups as well as my own independent regular sessions and I know that I can do at least that, or even do better than two, one hour sessions.
We already use fire a lot in our learning and so it follows naturally that food or drink will be prepared on that fire. Kids often get excited about hot chocolate and marshmallows when a fire is lit and that is o.k. but we can do much more than that. When working with one particular group who I knew might be hungry as many would not have had breakfast, we began by simply toasting bread around the fire. It made an enormous difference to how they felt and interacted with each other and learning outcomes formally and informally were much better. For the rest of those sessions we began with an outdoorsy campfire breakfast, it set up the rest of the day in a positive way.
I use stories a lot alongside the food we cook. We will tell the Big pancake story while making drop scones on the fire and re-enact the magic porridge pot while making porridge. The enormous turnip is a great one when making soup or stew as is Stone Soup [image above] and the Ginger Bread Man. I have a keen interest in fairy and folk tales anyway but these stories told alongside cooking communal food on the fire bring an extra breadth of meaning to both the story, the food and to the group sharing it all. On the whole these stories have something important to say about sharing, communities, working together and often poverty and hunger which can be particularly poignant but important when working with some groups. With the Summer holidays approaching many families will struggle with hunger in the absence of free school meals over that time. We all know that food banks are too busy and used by many and even by families headed by adults who are professionals-it's a much wider problem than many are prepared to admit. We are not in a Fairy Tale but many children in the U.K. do experience real hunger and as outdoor leaders we are well placed to acknowledge that and do the little we can to tackle it.
Not all outdoor leaders and providers make food a part of what they do despite fire being a central element of their work. Many are unsure of where to begin or how to tackle modern "food fussiness" in children and even adults. We don't have all of the answers but because food is central to what we do, we take the approach that we have adventures in every sense and that includes trying new food. We have "food heroes" who are those who have tried something they anticipated they wouldn't like. Peer pressure is a help and a hindrance when tasting new foods and can swing one way or the other. Fortunately we have a group where we grilled mackerel fillets on the fire and two very enthusiastic mackerel lovers enabled the rest of the group to taste and then love it. Now in that group we can never make enough mackerel tacos, there's a queue around the woods waiting for seconds and thirds! I'm now on a mission to get prawns securely on our menu, I will let you know how that goes.
There is no doubt in my mind however that if people prepare their own food from scratch they are many more times likely to taste it and love it. If I had a pound for every time a parent said to me "I can't believe my child ate such and such, we can't get them to eat that at home..." I would be loaded! I do say though, it's not a negative thing about home it's a different scenario with different rules. It's about their peers and the preparation and the communal activity of cooking and eating food together. Eating outdoors is often an important part of those different rules on it's own.
[There's a blog all about just that here:
Sometimes just the wind in your hair, the rain or sun on your face and the sheer amount of time it takes to cook is enough to make anyone eat anything!
And then of course you can't talk about food and the outdoors without talking about foraging. It is a particular delight to be able to introduce a group, of any age to the idea that they can eat a beautiful spring beech leaf straight from the tree. Foraging is a great vehicle for helping groups and individuals to try new foods. It's good practice to only taste a small amount when trying new wild foods for the first time which frees them up to have a go, then if they hate it there isn't a whole plateful in front of them to finish off. Many foraged foods taste familiar but there is always something new to be discovered such as texture or the discovery of something that is surprisingly sweet or citrus.
Not all outdoor food needs to be cooked over a campfire. We often just boil water using various methods, to eat "just add water" food stuffs like noodles and cuppa soups especially if we are doing a walk or visiting a new site. Recently we made homemade pot noodles in our metal mugs with fresh sliced veg, rice noodles and soy etc. They went down a treat and we only needed to boil water really. We used the jet boil but also in another session used the kelly kettles. This was an occasion again when kids who are usually a bit worried about what they eat, were very enthusiastic and ate the lot!
So, back to the original question, what is the place of food in outdoor learning? When I asked other practitioners what they feel about food in their sessions, many expressed the same feelings as me that it is crucial for communal cohesion and some require it for groups where food poverty could be an issue. Others didn't engage with food in their sessions but maybe more out of a lack of training or confidence about how to build it in rather than a reluctance. Some raised points about cultural diversity and cooking over fire and had great stories of families or adults discovering that they felt at home again, cooking great traditional dishes over fire, in a communal setting-how exciting!
Funding food as an integral part of your sessions can be a barrier. There is no doubt it does push the cost of sessions up. But there are simple basic foods that if made from scratch are very economical and can feed a whole group of people. My favourites being, soup, stew, porridge, popcorn, drop scones and fritters. You can fritter anything pretty much! Outdoor leaders and educators are in an ideal position to fill gaps in food education whether it be in cooking or just being able to understand where it came from and how to I.D. it. And for those of you that feel your work isn't about propping up schools, or you are anti curriculum, this isn't about school, this is learning for life-learning that can extend lives, save lives and be passed down through families.
Some groups may even grow their own food and that would be a great soil to sandwich or soil to soup experience for anyone, the ideal story. Most formal education does not have enough space for food education in their curriculum and many families don't cook from scratch and pass down the knowledge of cooking anymore. We can operate like food ninjas and spring in, rustle up some food to share as part of our everyday delivery and no one will even know we were there. If it is a central part of what you do most of the time, the food knowledge of groups just grows naturally and exponentially.
And finally, at the end of the day, all food is about the outdoors.