Culinary Artists: Fun with Food

Dec 13, 2021
Artworks of food for children. Icecream, fruit, wheat, gingerbread, apple.

Culinary Art is food art - preparing and presenting it in creative ways. Many of us enjoy watching MasterChef and other food-related programs on TV, or searching for video clips to learn more about presenting food. Could fun with food presentation, using art, encourage a better understanding and appreciation of healthy eating, and ultimately a healthier planet? 

We think about food all the time! Have we got enough? Have others got enough? What are we eating? Why? How healthy is it for us? How do we know…? In the Australian Curriculum, students look at food production, preparation and related technologies within the Technologies learning area: specifically under Design and Technologies. 

Younger students and food

Exploring how food is selected and prepared for healthy eating is the focus at this level. Helping them to classify foods in the five healthy food groups - vegetables, fruit, grain foods, dairy and protein - can be an activity where they analyse the contents of their lunch box, considering also what they tend to have to eat before coming to school, after school and for their evening meal. Shopping for food with parents (or on an excursion with teachers) is an opportunity to learn more about the ingredients and nutritional value by looking at the labels on packaging, comparing different options. (See the list at the end for suggested Artventure artworks that could follow this)

As a teacher, discussing what children eat can get tricky. Young children are not usually the ones who decide what it is they are provided with to eat. They also may have a tendency to decide NOT to eat what it is they are given! All sorts of issues come into play here. The care-giver’s access to healthy food; their knowledge and appreciation of what are the better options; the reactions of children to food they are presented with; cultural and religious influences; allergies and intolerances…

In a school setting, it can be difficult to help ensure students are getting the best range of foods during this time. Finding the balance between providing time when children are expected to eat their snacks and lunch and then valuable time also playing and having a break from structured learning. But making this time to sit and eat together and consider what we are eating is both educational and healthy (mentally and physically). This is relevant whether in the classroom, a school refectory, or homeschooling.

The location of the learning also doesn’t matter when it comes to growing food. Many schools have food gardens, veggie patches. This is a good hands-on way to learn where food comes from, how to care for the plants and how to prepare freshly picked food. 

Then there are the school canteens - not all of them offer a wide range of healthy options. How do you encourage children/parents to select items which limit salty, sugary and fatty foods if this is what is on offer? It can come down to a shift in culture - which takes time. This will start with the care-givers or parents taking the initiative to try to improve things.

A creative challenge - Birthday Buffet 

This can be a sugar-fest! Children and parents alike can fall into the trap of thinking there must be pastries, deep-fried foods, processed meats, cakes, cookies, lollies… Enter the Culinary Artist! Engage the children in helping choose ingredients AND in fancy ways to present them. 

How many unprocessed foods can you use to build the buffet? Vegetables and fruit are the easiest options. If these dominate the menu, then some processed foods (lower in salts, sugar and fats) can be added: perhaps spaghetti/pasta or bread shapes.

The birthday cake is central! My creative daughter uses a watermelon cut in half and then the number is carved out. The channels are then filled with blueberries. Reasonably simple and very effective.

Here are some other possibilities - could even be a party or classroom activity!

  • Veggie dip cups with hummus in the bottom and sticks of celery, carrot, cucumber and capsicum poking up. If I buy a take-away coffee, I try to get cups that are ‘industrially compostable’ (not for the backyard compost but can be included in the kerbside green waste bin). They can be quite colourful. Collect enough for a party!
  • Fruitie Fellas made with skewers and toothpicks. Grape for a head, strawberry for a hat, pineapple for a dress or pants, rockmelon for legs or arms…
  • Animals made with pieces of fruit: a tortoise made with a slice of kiwi for the shell and grape sections for legs and another for the head. 
  • Food critter platters are a layout on a plate with, say, cucumber eyes, carrot nose, apple or cheese eyebrows, tomato mouth, spaghetti hair or even broccoli…
  • A stand-up taco shell filled with meat and/or veggies: add cut cherry tomatoes as wheels sitting alongside, cucumber round as a steering wheel, then a stick of carrot with a cheese head for the driver.

Older children and Food

Considering the process, production, and distribution of healthy foods involves students investigating food technologies. Comparing methods used in modern and traditional societies can bring an awareness of innovations such as techniques for preserving food and packaging solutions. However, not all these innovations are sustainable. We need to be thinking about the health of the planet as well as our own health. What is sustainable production as well as sustainable consumption? 

The Sustainable Food Trust is an organisation in the UK working globally to raise awareness by considering and promoting more sustainable food and farming systems. Their website has some interesting articles and points for debate and discussion. Issues like the use of chemicals in farming, the wellbeing of animals in transport, and how fresh is our food

The impact on environments of introduced species of plants and animals, droughts, bushfires and climate change means many researchers are turning back and reflecting on the foods of First Nations people. What were the native foods, the bush tucker? Should/could some of these be used more now or reintroduced? Parks Australia website has a section on bush food and tools which gives insights to traditional foods, and methods of gathering it, for the First Nations people of Australia, particularly the Anangu men and women from the area near Uluru.

During the Coronavirus Pandemic, with lockdowns and border closures, people have had to think about ‘shelf-life’ of the food they buy and make food choices based on what can be locally sourced. For many, their cooking skills developed or came to the fore. For others, the isolation meant online orders and deliveries. Developing an understanding as to WHY certain foods have a longer shelf-life makes for interesting research.

A creative challenge: The Lockdown Larder

Students identify the types of healthy foods that could provide a balanced diet which can be locally sourced and will last for an extended period of time (say, a month). If possible, analyse the labels for ingredients, nutritional value and expiry dates. Then devise a week’s menu using these products. An additional use of creative and artistic skills, especially if in lockdown or isolation, is to actually produce this menu in a ‘professional, published’ format - like for a restaurant, pictures and all. 

Children can search for recipes to use ingredients that have a long ‘shelf-life’ and engage in some cooking. Next step - how can food that has been prepared be stored to ensure it will last as long as possible? Can left-overs be used in creative ways? Our grandmothers used to cook a roast Sunday night; left-overs would be used for stews or casseroles, with pastas or in sandwiches over the next few days. Students can reflect on how they ensure food is not wasted.

A creative challenge: Chef or Cook? 

By definition a cook is someone who prepares and cooks food, whereas a chef has specific training in cooking and tends to work in a restaurant. Either of them can be culinary artists. Watching how contestants and celebrity chefs present food on TV programs is inspiring and, even with the simplest ingredients, children can have fun trying their own artistic food presentations. 

Getting involved in events like Tasting Australia, Gourmet Weekends, Food and Wine Festivals, cultural festivals and things like monthly markets provide opportunities to get up close to fresh food and delicious dishes and watch as they are prepared.

 Artventure actually has a lesson called ‘Tasting Australia’. There are also art lessons on many foods, with varying levels of difficulty. These all have suggestions for links to the curriculum. Try finding these:

  • apple, pear, banana, strawberry, watermelon, pineapple, grapes
  • wheat, herbs, root vegetables
  • fruit salad, fruit face, healthy food character, sources of food
  • apple farmer, lunch box
  • frozen and melted, ice blocks, icecream
  • cake, cupcake, lollipop
  • tea and scone

Encouraging our young ones to learn about food and how it is grown, collected, produced, preserved, distributed and consumed can help them make educated decisions about choices for themselves but also for a more sustainable food future. Invite them to be culinary artists!

Teacher and Artventure Blogger