03/12/2014 02:59 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT

'Starting from Scratch' book helps children understand what's on their plate

TORONTO - When Sarah Elton realized that six-year-old kids in France were using sharp chef's knives to hone their culinary skills, she was galvanized to write "Starting from Scratch: What You Should Know about Food and Cooking" in a bid to make Canadian children more comfortable in the kitchen.

It was while researching her second book, "Consumed: Sustainable Food for a Finite Planet," that Elton observed the kitchen blades in a French cooking facility.

"I said to the man I was interviewing, 'Well, I guess you don't let the kids use those,' and I was joking. He said, 'Of course, we let the kids use those. We wait till they're old enough. We wait till they're six.' I burst into laughter because in North America if you told a parent you must wait till your kid is six to use a chef's knife, they'd look at you like that's crazy.

"It shows the different attitudes towards children's skill and ability.

"When my kids were in their twos I would give them a blunt butter knife and they could chop mushrooms. There's no one who loves chopping mushrooms more than a preschooler. It's like heaven on earth."

Elton, a journalist, is also the author of "Locavore: From Farmers' Fields to Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat."

"I'm obsessed with all the quirky and wonderful and weird things about food and I wanted to transmit all the information to kids, so I covered everything from taste education like all the flavours you taste, how you taste different flavours in your mouth, the five foundations of taste — salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami — and to stuff that I was just learning when I was researching my adult book, 'Consumed.'

"Like why is Mexican food spicier than French cuisine, like that kind of really interesting stuff based on research that people are doing in universities, but I tell it to kids in a way that they can understand and get hooked and find it fascinating too."

The study she cites is by researchers at Cornell University who conclude the closer you get to the equator, the spicier the food becomes. It's because certain spices like turmeric stop bacteria from growing in warm temperatures and help keep people from getting sick from organisms in their food.

In the book, illustrated by Jeff Kulak, she explains how to read a recipe, measure liquid and dry ingredients, be organized in the kitchen, including tools and safety, and clean up. She discusses food around the world and the science behind why ingredients change when exposed to heat or cold.

"Kids can do things that are beyond our expectations. ... My six-year-old and my nine-year-old make dinner. I'm there supervising, but they can rise to the challenge and so can other kids."

It's a win-win situation, the 38-year-old notes. Kids obtain a life skill. "But also, there's some self-interest there because we all have that after-work panic of 'what am I going to make for dinner and how am I going to get it on the table in time?'

"Well, I now have someone to wash and spin the salad, another kid to make the salad dressing. I don't need to worry about that. I can do something else, so it helps me too."

Elton loved to cook as a kid and learned mostly from observing her parents and grandparents but says her research has shown fewer adults now cook from scratch.

"This sort of knowledge chain has been broken and most of us buy prepared foods a good portion of the time or we'll open a jar of pasta sauce rather than making pasta sauce from scratch. And why is that happening? Well, there's a whole host of reasons. Two parents working out of the house. That's part of the reason. It's a lot harder to cook from scratch, not impossible but harder.

"And secondly we've been advertised that for decades now. We've been told that cooking is too hard, it's too much work, don't bother with it. We can do the cooking for you and you can buy our prepared foods. I think that's really the crux of the issue."

But that doesn't stop people from seizing the opportunity to learn and make sure kids can cook in the future, she adds.

In "Starting from Scratch," she includes a section called "Fast Food, Homestyle!" in which she challenges readers to see how quickly they can make a healthy homemade dinner and whether they can beat the time it takes for food to be ordered and delivered. Then calculate how much money has been saved.

Elton also added a section on shopping. As soon as kids are able, they can learn to read labels and understand supermarket pricing. Many retailers give the cost of items per 100 grams.

You might think it's cheaper to buy a big jar, "but if you look at that little ticket sometimes it's shockingly cheaper to buy the smaller jar and then you think, 'Will I ever use that big jar before it goes bad?' We can get suckered into buying too much when we won't ever actually use a kilo of mayonnaise."

She acknowledges there are times it's OK to buy in bulk. Elton purchases huge bags of oats because she makes granola. But she opts for small jars of mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise, which suits the needs of her family.

"I always try to tell my kids and all my family members that you don't need to fill up your grocery cart with lots of food. In fact, if you know how to cook you can make what you have stretch really far."

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