BBC News – If flour + sugar + children = mess, why let them bake

17 August 2010
Last updated at 06:04 ET

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If flour + sugar + children = mess, why let them bake?


By Katy Ashworth
CBeebies’ I Can Cook


Baking is a strange alchemy of butter, sugar, flour and heat. It’s a popular rainy day school holiday activity, but does making biscuits and cupcakes really teach children how to cook?

When I ask my best friend’s seven-year-old daughter Pheroza what she likes best about baking, her reply is short and sweet: “It’s fun!”

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Find out more


  • The Great British Bake-off – for grown-up amateurs – is a six-part series on BBC Two starting Tuesday 17 August, 2000 BST

A simple, yet perfect, answer as to why we should bake. But too few people make the time. They work, they’ve forgotten how, they don’t know what to make or where to start, and, well, then there’s the mess.

Bring it on – we all need to have more fun and we should definitely be a bit more messy. Children have a lot to teach us and Pheroza has hit this nail on the head with this one.

When I was younger I had two baking books, both old and haggard. Yet these recipes kept me entertained for hours.

I loved to bake – especially wearing the apron. I would cook mostly biscuits and cakes which never looked quite like they did in the books but tasted good because I made them all by myself.

My very clean and tidy family were never fond of the horrendous mess I made, but I was always given one rule by my mother: “I don’t mind, Katy, as long as you tidy up afterwards.” With that rule, I knew I could go bananas.

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More than just biscuits to eat


Lesley Ball
Home economist

“Cooking goes to the heart of our understanding of food. A simple cake or biscuit uses everyday ingredients: flour from wheat fields, butter from a cow, eggs from a chicken.

When a child tries a key skill like rubbing in – mixing flour and butter by hand – all manner of emotions come out. It’s soft, squidgy, silky, yucky! Sadly mud pies have had their day, hence the consternation when some touch the ingredients – they’ve been taught it’s dirty.

A recipe’s alchemy is obvious as soon as the first ingredients are in the bowl. Creaming butter and sugar makes a pale golden mixture. Adding self-raising flour instantly produces air bubbles.

Following recipes helps with reading and maths, weights and measures – useful skills in and out of the kitchen.

Baking also helps children develop motor neurone skills, listening and concentration.

And it offers a chance to talk about food provenance and sustainability.

We need cooks for the next generation, ones with old-fashioned, essential skills which can be applied to baking, making and concocting.

But this needs acceptance from adults, the ones who clear up the mess. Children need some guidance, but also need to do it themselves.”

Generally Mum would just leave me to it unless I needed a bit of help here and there. But I always liked making things my own way, making my own discoveries. That was half the fun and I am so grateful I was given that freedom.

I loved learning how to mix and oh, how I loved licking the bowl afterwards. Never will I forget the day I first cooked a meal for my family – fish fingers and peas for my brother and sister, and a very sophisticated stir fry for Mum and Dad.

I felt like a culinary queen, so confident and empowered at only nine years old. I remember feeling so proud of myself and so happy to see other people eating something I had made all by myself (well, with a little guidance from mum). It’s a brilliant feeling to have at such a young age.

They were all so appreciative, seemed to really enjoy the food and encouraged me to do it again. All these positive reactions gave me the confidence to cook for them again and again, and I haven’t stopped since. It’s become almost second nature to cook for others. It helped, of course, that our kitchen was always in full swing and there was always someone to watch and learn from.

Cooking has been around since the beginning of time and it never gets old or goes out of fashion. There are always new things to make and people to cook for, whether it’s your family or friends at school or work. It’s a bit like music – a global language everyone speaks, and open to anyone who wants to have a go.

Those who want to become fluent can aim to bake the best Victoria sponge there ever was – a challenge tried by the grown-up expert amateurs in The Great British Bake-Off.


Relax, or it’s all spilt flour and recriminations

But one of the most wonderful things we can learn from baking is how to experiment, just by taking our creative cooking licence and letting go. There is nothing quite like throwing all sorts of ingredients together and seeing what happens. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – it’s all about learning through discovery. This way we create our own way of doing things, even if it’s not exactly how it should be.

By far the best thing about baking is how it brings people together, to make and to eat. Eating together is an opportunity to discuss what we are doing in our lives, to share what we’re interested in and have a good old laugh.

The children on my CBeebies show I Can Cook always look forward to the “tea party” at the end, when we have a chat and a giggle about what happened when we cooked. We talk about what we might cook next time, who we’ll cook for, and of course celebrate what we have made. By the end of the meal it seems like we’ve all become good friends. It’s amazing what cooking together can do.


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When did cakes become a guilty pleasure? A food historian explains in The Great British Bake-Off

Getting a novice baker into the kitchen, whether it’s a child, a teenager or an adult, is the all important first step.

With children it’s easy. I turn it into a game. Rather than simply snipping spring onions, I suggest we give them a haircut – a funny image that gets across the best way to cut them – or ask “who can be the fastest whizzing machine?” There is always a chorus of “I can!”

These games might not appeal so much to adult – although the competitive element might. But a can-do attitude and accepting that the end result doesn’t have to be perfect give you a headstart to becoming a confident cook.

Then there’s the reaction you get when you turn up at work with a plate of homemade brownies – the home baker is never short of friends.

Send us your comments, using the form below.

My three-year-old daughter loves baking with me in the kitchen. The appeal is part mess, part yummy things in grabable handfuls and part spending time with Daddy. She’ll also happily go and get herbs from the garden, but does occasionally come back with random bits of tree.

Dan, London

I heartily concur but can we please quickly move on from making cakes to savoury items and them meals. I spent time as a cookery teacher and the first 3 years of cookery lessons (ages 11 – 13) consisted of cakes, rock buns, and crumbles. Children, even as young as 5, are quite able to make quiches, pies and casseroles.

Amanda, Nottingham

There’s nothing better than getting home from work to be greeted by my four year old (and his two year old brother) saying “Mummy, mummy, I want to make cakes…” – a plan which has obviously been hatching throughout the day. We drag the dining chairs into the kitchen and let the mayhem commence. Last night was chocolate biscuits. First we “bash” the butter into the sugar, then we “smash” the egg up and then add the “snow” (that’ll be the flour then). A bit of coca powder dusted liberally round the kitchen and we’re away. There’s all the sneaky educational stuff – the measuring of the ingredients, the shapes in the cutters, the timing of the cooking and the learning about food, but it’s more than that. It’s the fun and laughing and mess and togetherness that we enjoy.

Emma Noyce, Gosport

My fiancée is Chinese so I’m lucky enough to have been involved in a few New Year celebrations. As mentioned in this article, such activities bring the whole family together with almost everyone playing a role. With so many dishes being prepared simultaneously, the more hands the better. For dumplings (Jiaozi), one adult will make the dough while another makes the filling; then, a small production line of available children respectively form the dough into small balls, roll them out into thin circles, add a dollop of filling, and wrap the dumpling over. It’s a team effort that works; after the first few moments of concentration the group relax into their task and the banter begins.

Darryl Wilkins, UK

I’m on the governing body of a local infants’ school and they include Open Futures as part of the curriculum, this includes “grow it”, “cook it”, “film it” and “ask it”. I regularly go into school and help with the cooking side of things, it’s great to see 5 year olds having fun making lovely food that they can all try, sometimes using the ingredients they have grown themselves in the school garden. We share our home cooking experiences and also talk about where the ingredients come from and what happens to them in the cooking / baking process, so they don’t just learn how to make food but lots of other things too.

Traisi Angus, Ossett, West Yorkshire

This works well so long as you can afford to spoil or even have to throw away the ingredients and can easily reach the shops or supermarket to replace them. If one is on a very low income, or merely a long way from shops, it is not sensible to take the risk of food being wasted.

Olive Crompton, Hampshire UK

Olive, it is even more important to get the kids in the kitchen if your on a low income – they need to learn how to cook nutritiously and shop on the cheap. Like most my generation, I learned to cook watching my mum and nan, they knew how to cook with nothing. I work with kids from “disadvantaged” backgrounds who have been brought up on chip shop curry and burgers – the greatest trick for one lad is to get him to eat something that isn’t cheese on toast. One of the biggest issues today is fear of dirt. When I let my grandson do the dishes, his dad whinges about the mess. I get quite exasperated – ‘it’s water’ I tell him, it wipes off.

Lol, Scotland

I am concerned that baking has recently been perceived as a middle class pass-time (an image propagated by the likes of Nigella and Sophie Dahl) – something for people with plenty of time and money to spare. The truth is that a good knowledge of baking and cooking from scratch is an essential tool for healthy eating on a low income. If done carefully it actually reduces waste, benefits the environment and encourages healthy eating – what more could you want?

Tom, Liverpool

How can time spent with your children ever be wasted? Flour cost pence, you can use vegetable oil rather than butter or marg and make stuff for a fraction of the cost in the supermarket. Most of the time the cake is, at least, edible – even if it’s rock hard you can mash it up and use it as a trifle base or make Russian slab with it. What’s the worst case scenario? You’ve got to throw it in the bin.

Francesca, Lincs

Cooking with children is great, but we continue to focus through a tired sense of nostalgia, on baking cakes. Cakes are very high in saturated fat and a great love of them should not be encouraged. I sometimes cannot move in work for cakes brought in by colleagues and the excitement that ensues around these fatty snacks is rather hard to fathom.

Tom, Cardiff

We have always tried to cook with our two girls (now 7 and 9) and like many others started with cakes. Now we have Cook Night on Fridays when they cook the whole meal between them (with some help), one taking responsibility for the main course, and the other, dessert. During the week we talk about what to cook, whether we have the ingredients, and what we may need to buy. Friday nights don’t have the pressure of homework or practice and we can delay dinner until Daddy comes home. As a result, they can handle a sharp knife quite well, and are developing an understanding of food and we all benefit from quality family time together.

Rachael Prince, Witney, Oxfordshire

I do a lot of baking and cooking as I see it is only fair to do my share of the cooking for our 4 children – I find baking very relaxing and I am really pleased that my 9 year old son is taking a similar interest – male role models for children (no swearing!) are crucial to the health of our nation unless we want to only be able to warm up frozen pizza and chips.

David Supple, Newport, Shropshire

Yes, it can be very messy! But my children (aged 3 and 2) love to get out the baking things. My daughter can already break eggs successfully and has the makings of a good little pastry cook. Both children love to be in the kitchen with me while I cook and they help out, play with the veggies, stir a pan with supervision, watch yorkshire puds rise in the oven. Licking out the bowl is the best, though – a simple childhood pleasure. The kids love to eat what they’ve made – as well as experiment with colours, textures and flavours. Making cakes and pizza are firm favourites, with a lot of sampling going on along the way. Of course, I am a full-time mum, so I have the “luxury” of time to do this sort of thing regularly. Plus, I cook anyway and want to pass on these skills to my children so that they can learn how to cook for themselves and their families in years to come.

Gillian Glover, Harrogate, England

It’s a shame that cooking with children is not what it used to be. I was taught by my grandmother – we spent endless hours together in the kitchen and I owe my love of cooking to her. It was natural therefore when I had my own daughter to happily bake, cook and make a mess together. She and I now teach my two year old grandson who loves nothing more getting his hands into all kind of goo… and teach him to clear up.

Georgina Green, Peckham, London

I used to do loads of baking when I was a younger, making biscuits, cakes, pizzas etc. I’ve now started to get my nine-year-old step-daughter into baking and she has made various cakes, some good, some bad – she learns from this what works and what doesn’t works. Last night she knocked up a home-made lasagne with a prepared side salad and tonight she is making a layered sponge cake with a cream and strawberry filling for her grannie’s birthday. She loads the dishwasher and wipes the sides down and you wouldn’t know she’s been there. Hopefully, I can train her to do the washing and ironing.

Nigel Canning, Newbury

I have fond memories of cooking when I was a child, and I do a fair bit of baking with my son, who is just 5. He adores it! He’s also helped prepare fruit and so forth for making jam. He also loves helping do dinner every day – chopping vegetables, measuring rice, etc. I think it’s very important he learns that food doesn’t just appear on his plate.

Amanda Jones, London

I agree that kids should be involved in the preparation of food. Last week my seven year old son and I caught some mackerel. Now, he normally doesn’t like fish, but wanted to eat ‘his’ mackerel.

Andrew, Malvern, UK

So many of my English friends seem to think there’s some magic to baking and complain that cakes never come out right. It got to a point where I thought there must be something wrong with English cake recipes since they all failed. There’s no secret to baking. You just follow the instructions and the cakes come out moist and flavourful. All you need is the skill and confidence to know when to start checking if your cake is ready and take it out early or leave it in longer if needed. And you get that confidence very quickly.

Christine, Reading

My four year old daughter and I made such a mess at the weekend making pastry for the first time. We’d gone into the woods to pick blackberries in the morning, which she absolutely loved doing, then I found a recipe online to follow. She was very proud of our success, and couldn’t wait for her mum and sister to come home for the surprise.

Salaam Freeland, London

I grew up the oldest of 4 in the countryside. In the summer we stayed on our own while mum worked. She never baked and we loved homecooked things. Apple crumble was our favourite and I was in charge of cooking while my siblings all had other jobs. My two younger brothers went to our backyard orchard and got the required number of apples which we all peeled, cut and tossed in sugar and cinnamon. My sister placed them in the baking dish under my supervision and the flour, oatmeal, sugar and butter crumble was placed on top in a very thick layer. We’d cook it, and enjoy wonderful hot crumble. Then we worked together at speed to get the dishes done, counters cleaned and kitchen aired so Mum had no idea we’d been cooking – we thought she would kill us. It’s the only time I can remember that we worked together without beating each other senseless, and the only time I remember getting dishes or any cleaning done.

Rachel Marsden, Canterbury

My mother taught me to bake from an early age from the good old Be-Ro book. There are recipes for everything and I still us it today now age 30. It’s become something of a tradition of mine that whenever someone I know gets their first home, I buy them one of these books to get them baking for themselves.

Tina, Durham

It teaches children about science (mixing things together to give different things, the application of heat to transform things and weights and measures and why they are important). It teaches children about production and how things are made. And it teaches them about team work in an easy and indirect way. It also teaches children about the use of implements and cutlery – using knives and scissors is a very important base skill for children to have (I hear some parents gasp but how else do you learn) as is the dangers of matches, fire and heat.

Davers, Glasgow, UK

Some people here have things the wrong way round. You don’t do cooking because it helps you learn weights and measures – you learn weights and measures at school so that you can come home and cook. Weights and measures were invented to make it easier to do things.

Don Cox, Middlesbrough

I have a severely autistic 13 year old son, and he LOVES baking. He’s leant so much, it’s helped his numeracy, sensory phobias and expanded his very limited diet. And it gives his parents one more thing to be proud of about him and we’ve learned a lot more about baking too.

Chris Jones, Nottingham


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