Cooking Our Way to Children’s Heart
Fourteen years ago, I became a chef. I cooked for the Navy— full-grown, high-energy-consuming adults. Now, I prepare meals for young primary school kids. Truth be told, it is easier cooking for the Navy of four hundred working adults than for a class of thirty children. Young children tend to be picky eaters, candy-lovers and— if they could, they would be— advocates on the Board of Vegetable Boycotters.
Cooking for Morning Star has taught me resilience, humility and creative problem-solving. Following the guidelines of Singapore’s Health Promotion Board, the children at our centres are supposed to eat a healthy mix of one-quarter brown rice and three-quarters white, two teaspoons of veggies, and at least three slices of fruit, such as apples and watermelon, every day. I adhere to strict rules against sugar and mayonnaise in my kitchen as well.
Needless to say, it is a challenge following these rules and preparing delicious food that the children will enjoy. But over the years, I have learned several “tricks” to incorporate fibre into the children’s diets for better-balanced meals: blending cabbage into pasta sauce, and pairing the unlikely pumpkin with fish in porridge, among others. Every week, the kids wolf down two all-veggie meals without even realising it. When the children finish all their food, wiping up every last bit of their meal: that, to me, is a sign of success. But success does not come easy.
One day, I had dropped by one of the centres to check on the kids, when I noticed a boy tugging on his grandma’s arm, pulling her away. I heard him say, “Granny, bring me out for lunch today. I don’t want to eat that porridge.” I was stunned. I went silent. It was like a stab to the heart. It did not feel good at all. Hard work and care had been poured into making that porridge. I had spent hours racking my brain over how to make it nutritious yet palatable for the kids; and this boy, oblivious to the effort and attention behind preparing a deceptively simple dish, did not even want to try it. Nothing could make a chef feel worse than a scrunched nose and a distasteful glare. I went away dejected that day.
However, just as a soup spoon has its ups and downs, visiting the kids also brings me joy. I was deeply touched when I went to our Bedok North centre one day. We had taken nasi lemak off their menu because it was time-consuming and expensive to prepare. I did not think that any of the kids would notice the absence of an unassuming meal, but they surprised me that day. They told me that they missed our nasi lemak and wanted to have it again. I was moved to tears. I felt appreciated. It was heartwarming chicken soup for the soul.
Cooking for the children has been a fulfilling journey. The struggle has taught me to persevere and to innovate even within the finest constraints. I am ever grateful to our centre facilitators, who also play an important role in encouraging our kids to eat their greens. Their patience in putting up with outright defiance and testing tantrums is worthy of admiration. Thus, with an eager, supportive team by my side, I am blessed by this opportunity to change children’s lives for the better, beginning from the kitchen.