Our Athenian 8th graders were in for a delicious treat for the first ever I Can Cook Focus Day! The idea behind this Focus Day was to give our students practical life skills and an understanding of the work and effort that goes into preparing a meal.
Earlier in the week, students were asked to get into groups of three or four and pick two recipes to prepare. The recipes were chosen from a list curated by the faculty and included dishes such as guacamole, chicken nuggets, meatballs, pasta, and lasagna, all from scratch.
The Focus Day began with an enthusiastic field trip to our local Safeway. Students were each given $20 and copies of their recipes, and they had to determine what to buy. Pantry staples, such as spices, flour, and eggs were provided for them to help keep them under budget, but many still struggled with finding the items they needed while staying within their price range. Students made it work by exchanging brand name supplies for store generics as well as by collaborating with other groups to share items they both needed. While the groups did manage to stay on budget, many students were surprised at the price of groceries. One student was particularly scandalized that three avocados would cost more than a third of her group’s budget!
Once we were back on campus, half of the groups were given cooking stations to begin prepping their meals. Lanny Lee, our Middle School art teacher, gave the students a comprehensive safety lesson on how to properly use the burners, knives, and other kitchen essentials, and then the students were given one hour to make their dishes. There was much trial and error involved: one group realized that it helps the cooking process if you turn the burner on, while another learned that subbing out vegetable oil for olive oil will give your chicken nuggets a green tint. A general panic ensued when we gave students a fifteen-minute time warning, but all of them managed to have a plated appetizer and main course by the time the rotation was over.
While half of the students were cooking, the other half were filming them and creating cooking shows. This involved going to each group and filming them cooking, pulling the chefs aside and doing interviews about the cooking process, and having non-chefs weigh in as announcers, hosts, or food critics. The students were given free rein as to what style cooking show they wanted to create, and their products were as varied as the food that was prepared.
At the end of the rotation, each cooking group shared samples of their food with the filming crews, who then rated each group based on appetizer taste, main course taste, and food presentation. We collected all of these scores to determine a “top chef” group for the rotation. We took a break for lunch and then the cooking and filming groups swapped places for the afternoon.
The focus of the day was cooking and filming, but the skills that the students learned and practiced on Friday extended far past cooking a meal or using iMovie. Students had to create and stick to a food budget, using creative solutions if they ran into a problem. They had to work as a team, taking turns being chefs and sous chefs on their dishes, and supporting their team members throughout the cooking process. They had to manage their time effectively, making sure that they weren’t focusing too much of their time on their appetizer at the expense of their main course. And they had to hone their ability to stay on track in the face of distractions, specifically, a horde of their peers filming their every move.
Overall, it was inspiring to see how the 8th graders cooperated and encouraged each other through the process. During the afternoon rotation, many of the videographers were offering tips to the chefs by letting them know what worked for them or what obstacles they ran into while cooking similar recipes. There are few opportunities for the whole grade to spend the entire day together, and it was a great bonding experience for this cohort.