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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 68 SEPTEMBER 2004 / BACK
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elements of care

The sacrosanct kitchen

John Lampen with F.G.Lennhoff

Many people look back on the kitchen of their childhood home with special feeling. They remember the important, sometimes mystifying, things that went on there: the chance to watch, to help and to enjoy the scrapings of the mixing bowl. They remember how it became the focus of excitement on special occasions like birthdays, parties and visits from other branches of the family. They remember it as the place where their mother was most often to be found, reassuringly busy.

There is a particular fascination for many in the process of cooking. It combines craftmanship and skill with the possibility of achieving good results even as a beginner. The creative process does not take a long time, results appear soon, and they are equally quickly appreciated and enjoyed. There is the further satisfaction that one is doing those around one a valuable and necessary service, supplying a basic need.

Among disturbed and deprived children there is often great anxiety about food. Unable to feel sure that the next meal will be provided, many of them hide food like dogs do, so as to feel there is something saved for them. Others, when food is provided, have to seize it and take a few bites before they discover whether they actually want it or not. Very often the rest is left uneaten. The comforting feeling of a full stomach gives some sort of security; so they eat enormous helpings of bread and potato and are indifferent to more nourishing food such as meat and other vegetables. New foods are naturally very suspect to them, or even new ways of cooking familiar ones.

Such children are drawn to the kitchen to find out whether their needs going to be met. What do they find there? In some places a firm “Keep out; we’re too busy to have you in here." This is very understandable from the organisational point of view, but it is a pity and it may well make the children react with suspicion and hostility to what they are given to eat. Insecure youngsters cannot easily come to terms either with the highly mechanised kitchens seen in some institutions. What they miss is the sense that the food is being prepared personally for them as a sign of concern and interest.

Instead what now happens to their food appears as the symbol in miniature of what has happened to their whole lives; what used to be personal and related to them in the home (with all its faults), is now administered in a mechanical and impersonal way. If we wish our residential work with the child to offer a possibility of new relationships and renewed personal growth, we must be sensitive to the impression our setting gives the newcomer in points concerning his needs and welfare. There is a place for specialized kitchen equipment, particularly to shorten the otherwise endless jobs such as potato peeling and washing-up. But the children like to feel that the main preparation of their food is in the hands of someone who comes to prepare it because she likes them and wants to. They want to come in and lift the lid of every saucepan without a scolding. Many places will confirm that the children's opinion of the food offered them was based just as much on the personality of different cooks as on their skill.

In some places it happens that the cook lives out, and that one of the housemothers has to prepare the breakfast. This may be an unwelcome beginning to a long day, and she may feel that her proper place should be with her children as they get up and tidy their bedrooms. But it is sometimes a valuable and comforting experience for her children to know that she has prepared their food, as their mother would. If she does not have to do this, it would be valuable for her to take her group into the kitchen at some time when a meal is not being prepared, to make biscuits, or jam (with fruit they have picked themselves), or something else for themselves. Boys enjoy such activities just as much as girls.

If one has the opportunity to plan a new kitchen from the beginning, it might well be modelled an the old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen, a room big enough to be comfortable in, with room for a number of people to eat a meal together, served direct from the big oven. A solid fuel cooker has the advantage of providing a permanent source of warmth, very reassuring to deprived children, who will try to cluster around it all the time! In a room of this character there will be space for three or four children to offer to help, and to be given something to do. Others may look in to see what is going on, and still without too much overcrowding.

At times of course the kitchen will have too many people in it, and the children's urge to sample the food may reach beyond reasonable limits. Then there is no harm in the cook putting her foot down and declaring that she wants no-one in her kitchen for a day or two; in fact it will be a good experience far the children, provided that they also know her as someone who is generally able to find them a little piece of food to nibble, and who takes great trouble to make them good meals.

Cooking for a larger group of children does pose problems; a balance between the children's preference for sugar and starchy foods, and the needs of a good diet; between their conservatism and the commonsense of learning to like new dishes; between their need far a secure routine, and the dullness of always knowing exactly what each meal will bring. Food is nearly always a sensitive area in residential places, and though it is not an area where the children can share much of the responsibility, yet the more they feel that they do have a say and a share in it, the better. Their views and suggestions should be taken seriously and their help welcomed, even if it means a little extra clearing up later. It is especially valuable if they feel their help provides something special “We could have chips for everybody with our tea today, if you don’t mind peeling and cutting the potatoes for us."

The kitchen has a special part to play on special occasions, parties, birthdays and the like. When there is a lot of preparation, and several children are helping, it helps to focus their excitement and keep it from getting out of hand. A certain Children's Home, when it is a child's birthday, allows him to make his own birthday cake. This is great fun for him when he goes round giving away pieces of the cake he has achieved.

This feature: F. G. Lennhoff, J. C. Lampen(1968)The Sacrosanct Kitchen. Learning to Live: A Sketchbook of Residential Work with Children. B8-9. Shotton Hall

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