Thursday, 19 May 2016

Dig out your wellies: how gardening improves your health

Now that summer's here, more and more people will be grabbing their wellies to head into the great outdoors.

Gardening is great for your health because it gets you outside, moving around and in the fresh air, and brings joy when you watch your plants grow. As a result, gardening has been proven to be very beneficial for your health.

How gardening improves health

Gardening reduces stress, increases alertness and even lowers your risk of developing serious diseases like coronary disease and colon cancer.

Loneliness is very high in modern urban inhabitants and this also has an impact on health. The added social element of gardening, providing the opportunity to meet new friends, is also essential to wellbeing because it improves our resistance to disease.

Finding a garden in London

Gardening is also a low-cost activity that families can enjoy together, or you can attend solo to make new friends. It has pretty much no barriers to entry – apart from actually finding a garden!

It can be tough to find green spaces in the inner city, and most people won’t have a garden of their own – unless they are very rich! However, there are many urban gardening initiatives that welcome people to participate.

Visit for a list of London-based city farms and community gardens that you can visit and get involved!

Where your food comes from

Getting city dwellers outside and interacting with the earth is so important. It’s especially for children to help them understand where there food comes from, because better education leads to increased healthiness.

Obesity and obesity-related diseases are affecting the health of children in London and across the country. Moderate intensity exercise like gardening is the perfect way to tackle this rising problem.

Indoor gardens

If one of the city’s gardening initiatives isn’t for you, perhaps there’s a sunny window ledge in your home crying out for some plants. Growing herbs and spices indoors is very popular right now, or even lettuces and chillies, and this also has many of the benefits of gardening.

Growing and cooking with your own ingredients is fabulous for health and wellbeing, and saves money too! Plants in the home increase happiness and improve the overall environment. Your friends and family may also appreciate being given your homegrown produce for their own cooking.

The Mini Cooking Club runs regular cooking sessions for children aged between 7-11 including a class devoted to gardening and cooking. Head over to our website to find out more and sign up. 

Image: Benjamin Combs, Unsplash

Monday, 10 August 2015

A Space Of Our Own

After several years, the Mini Cooking Club finally has a space it can call home! In collaboration with the London Kitchen Project, aided by a great team from Marks and Spencer’s “Spark Something Good” community initiative, we transformed out new home into a swanky new kitchen, complete with a spacious seating area and outdoor herb garden, in just 16 hours!

 With Cecilia up and ready to take the first delivery scheduled for 7am, it was going to be a long day for all involved. After many hours of hard graft by everyone, the sun went down but the space was finished just in time. 

Spark Something Good

Much of the expertise provided on the day came at the hands of the shop fitting team at M&S. They provided the equipment and skills needed to make the renovations possible in such a limited period.

The campaign’s ambitious goal is to transform 24 community projects in 24 hours. Led by Joanna Lumley and CEO Marc Bolland, they were also giving a helping hand across London to other projects: an unused London rooftop was given a children’s play area, a community farmyard was renovated and a busy soup kitchen given a new dining room and edible garden.

Get Involved

The project brings together M&S customers and employees and allows them to work together to support causes they feel are worthy of help in their local communities. This can be anything from spending time with the elderly, to renovating facilities into something new and much better. If you want to get involved, there is more information here.

Spark Something Good has been developed alongside Neighbourly, which is a social network connecting community projects with businesses that want to help. Without them, and the help of Unity,  we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we did this week.

The MCC would also like to send a huge thank you to the several dozen volunteers who came and went throughout the day. Everyone’s positivity was so uplifting, with many local residents coming over expressing their excitement at the new collaboration.

We’re really excited to be running our first classes for 5-11 year olds on a Saturday, and hope to have some more exciting stuff happening soon.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Cookability: back to food basics for the twenty-first century

‘Knowing what to eat and knowing what’s good for you is a basic human right.’ Michael Davies, Cookability founder.

Michael Davies works for Cookability, a social enterprise which delivers cooking lessons to both 11-16 year old pupils in schools and individuals aged between 18 and 24.
‘I want to teach people how to cook and make good decisions about what to eat,’ says Michael.
Cookability was founded in 2013 to teach healthy cooking and eating skills to young people. They also support UK schools as they prepare to teach healthy cooking in the 2014 National Curriculum.
Cooking over takeaways
‘20-24 year olds: they’re the group I feel most need to learn how to cook because they’re on they’re own, and vulnerable to falling back on takeaway services,’ says Michael. ‘People need to eat, they don’t know how to cook, so they turn to what’s available and affordable, but the empty calories aren’t going to do your body any good.
‘I look to get them engaged using a very direct style, use lots of questions to get them thinking about what they’re doing. I let them play and have fun with what they’re doing, letting them experiment and explore.’
Budding food network
The Mini Cooking Club and Cookability connected through budding Public Food & Health Network brought together by academic Martin Caraher, which aims to unite the charitable organisations individually striving to improve the nation’s health through cooking and nutrition knowledge. This is especially fitting considering Cookability’s ethos.
‘Food and fellowship, food and socialising - it’s a big part of food.’ Oddly enough, a fact people often forget, in a culture of food-on-the-go and microwave meals for one.
Reaching out to schools
Michael’s been working on a project called 'Ingredients for Learning' which encourages supermarkets to donate leftover produce to cooking lessons in school. This overcomes one of the biggest barriers to many children learning how to cook: simple cost.
‘I think there’s a lot of long-term demand for free food at schools to teach kids how to cook.’
In return, Michael uses social media to communicate the message back to the community, raising the profile of the private organisations who are getting involved.
‘Sitting down and eating together, you just can’t beat it.’
Practical nutrition and skills
‘It’s about skills transfer, working with small groups of people, building their confidence with food and cooking, giving them some really practical knowledge about nutrition - e.g. the Eat Well plate which I use all the time to plan my own meals,’ says Michael.
‘Cookability promotes practical nutrition, cooking with real food and using ingredients that your grandparents would have recognised. Ideally avoiding processed ingredients - a back to basics for the twenty-first century.’
The wider picture
Michael has attended a french cooking school and also worked in New York kitchens, bringing an incredibly varied and vibrant background to the south London not-for-profit cooking scene.
In the future, he would like to reach out to older groups of people who may be dealing with isolation and loneliness.
‘Programs like Cookability and the Mini Cooking Club are about giving people a fundamentally positive experience with food, and practical doable steps that they can take forwards to develop their ability as cooks and their interest in food, giving them more choices for living healthier lives.’
Find out more about Cookability. If you’re from an organisation and would be interested in becoming involved in the Public Food & Health Network, please contact

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Are celebrity chefs a good or a bad thing?

There are many ways in modern society to get rich and famous with what seems like relatively little effort – join a band, become a model, TV presenter, or… a celebrity chef! Just recently, there seems to have been a huge spate of kitchen-lovers on the TV, not least due to the vogue for old-fashioned British cuisine.

Mary Berry, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsay are all good examples of chefs riding this trend.

On the one hand, they may inspire people to cook different foods or motivate them to be healthier. People can be exposed to different cultural foods through cooking programmes or cook books, and try something they never would have discovered on their own, like Moroccan food.

Some people might not have been brought up to enjoy cooking, because they may have had parents who were too busy to cook, preferred not to or didn’t know how. Celebrity chefs may provide a much-needed role model to get people to think that, they, too, can do it.

Jamie Oliver spearheaded a health campaign in the UK, promoted in his television show Jamie's School Dinners with the aim of improving school dinners for schoolchildren. A particularly infamous aspect was his call to ban the turkey twizzler. This campaign permanently changed food standard requirements across the UK, influencing government policy, and the show crossed the Atlantic to the to try to improve American eating habits.

On the other hand, overly complicated recipes and exotic ingredients may put off the average person. Too many kitchen appliances, unpronounceable dishes or five-hour long recipes. Watching cooking shows on TV is not quite the same as doing it yourself, and the irony is consuming a greasy take-away whilst sat in front of Ready, Stead, Cook. Trying to copy a celebrity chef can end up in a bit of a mess, too.

Equally, the cult of celebrity means that some people may become celebrity chefs without actually possessing a passion for cooking – or love being famous even more than food. Chefs have been accused of promoting ‘money-saving’ techniques, which come across as hopelessly middle-class and miss their target audience.

It can become a race to be the next big thing, and obscure the fact that the origins of the joy of food comes from eating a delicious, well-prepared meal  - with people you love. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not that expensive to cook with basic, fresh ingredients. A single onion shouldn’t set you back more than 10 pence from the grocer, or a 1k bag of pasta can be less than £1 from big supermarkets.

Be your own celebrity chef, and develop a cooking style all your own.

By Catherine Heath

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Happy animals make a better world!

Meat has always been a large part of our national diet; from the Aussie-inspired ‘barbie’ to the traditional Sunday roast, it is often the focal point of a meal. With this in mind, it is important to think where our meat comes from.

It can be beneficial to think about what we are eating in terms of the benefits food can have on our bodies and our minds. The Mini Cooking Club works to promote healthy lifestyles, but also to teach children and vulnerable adults to engage with what they are eating. When it comes to meat consumption, this means thinking about animal welfare.

Animal welfare is defined by the Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) as the protection of any animal kept by man from unnecessary suffering. They argue that good animal welfare implies both fitness and a sense of well-being and that it should be guided from the following five principals:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort – by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour - by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

It is worth noting that these rules are guidelines only, and it is not statutory for farmers in the UK to follow them. They define ‘ideal states rather than standards for acceptable welfare’. And, whilst they do suggest a framework for baseline animal welfare in this country, it could be that these principles are not adhered to - especially with the growth of industrial farming.

With the population set to reach over 9 billion by 2050, it is tempting to see large scale, industrial farming as the inevitable - and, indeed, the only option for the future. Industrial or intensive farming of animals is a large-scale operation, and often one where animals are kept indoors, with space being utilised to maximise output and profit. Industrial farming is not yet common in the UK, although some dairy and poultry farmers do already use this method.

Many people argue that industrial farming is a necessity as high standards of animal welfare would put the price of meat up to such an extent that it would become unaffordable for a large proportion of society. However, whilst higher-welfare meat may be expensive, it offers us an alternative to the problematic intensive farming industry. If we look at the evidence, it becomes clear that there is a heavy environmental and social burden associated with intensive farming and low animal welfare.

With the population growing rapidly, we cannot continue to eat meat at its current rate. According to Compassion in World Farming, one third of the world’s cereal crop goes to feeding farm animals. The land used for growing, as well as the crops themselves, could be used for human needs in some of the poorer parts of the world. When eating meat from overseas, it is important to take into account ethical implications such as these.

Farms that have a high level of animal welfare are more environmentally friendly. There is less toxic run off and pollutants added to soil and local water supplies. Polluting local water supplies can have a negative impact on the environment, making rivers and lakes less biologically diverse by affecting animal and plant populations. Heavy runoffs of nutrients from intensive farms can also cause toxic outbreaks in local water sources, such as algae blooms in rivers. These deplete the oxygen supply of the water, and cause environmentally ‘dead zones’.

With all these negative effects, on both environment and health, it may be that intensive farming should receive serious consideration before it is allowed to become standard global practice.

By Emma Jones
Image: num_skyman

Friday, 11 July 2014

Summer cooking tips!

By Debbie Valentine

For a lot of us (especially the men), cooking in the summer means only one thing: the barbeque. Whilst there is always a time and a place for a barbeque, summer is a great time to get into the kitchen and cook up some exciting, healthy and delicious food that you can hopefully enjoy al fresco.

It’s perfectly understandable that no-one wants to spend a lot of time slaving over a hot stove when the sun’s out, so it’s a great excuse to make some tasty summer food.

The staple of summer eating is often a big salad, but it doesn’t have to be a big bowl of lettuce leaves! As well as the tomatoes, cucumber and radishes that might go into your seasonal salad there’s all sorts you can add. New potatoes are in the shops in the summer and they’re equally good hot with dinner or cold in a potato salad. Why not add some chicken and some cous-cous for a Moroccan inspired salad? Different cheeses can really spruce up a salad – Feta is great with tomatoes, and parmesan gives a kick to chicken. Experiment with a big bowl and make it a family dinner. Don’t forget the croutons!

There are all kinds of fantastic veggies in season over the summer, so it’s really easy to get your 5-a-day. Beans, peas, broccoli, aubergine and courgette are all thriving in the sunshine. If the sun’s out, it’s a great opportunity to try some easy one-pot dishes you can pop in the oven and leave. Chicken and fish dishes lend themselves well to this, add in a colourful variety of veg and you’ve got a delicious dinner. Pasta dishes are always an easy family favourite, but don’t forget you can also have them cold in the summer. Make them with a lighter sauce – maybe add some sundried tomatoes, or courgettes for a twist on an old favourite.

My favourite course – pudding – can really come into its own in the summer. There is so much delicious fruit in season and available cheaply at markets and supermarkets. Strawberries and raspberries are my favourite, equally delicious served with cream (add some meringue to make an Eton Mess) or in something more adventurous. Plums, currants and blueberries are all in season over the summer as well. If you venture out of the city you can even visit a pick-your-own farm and make sure you get the best of the crop!

Finally, if you do decide the crack out the barbeque, don’t forget to make sure all your meat is cooked properly (you can cheat by starting meat off in the oven and just finishing them on the barbeque!). With a cold drink, a tasty salad and lashings of ketchup, what a great way to enjoy the British summer.

Enjoy the sunshine!

Image: piedmonte peppers, by Lydia Gerratt

Monday, 23 June 2014

Nettle pasta recipe by volunteer Annie

It's Summer Recipe month at the Mini Cooking Club! We've got an unusual recipe for nettle pasta to share with you by our cooking volunteer, Annie! Read on.

Being half Italian, I believe I’ve got a keen appreciation for all things food-related, especially when it comes to pasta. I remember my nonna and nonno spending hours together in the kitchen when I was growing up, painstakingly making pasta dough, rolling it through the machine, laying it over the little ravioli trays and filling each square with a delicious spoonful of meaty goodness.

These ravioli (we called them agnolotti) would then be stacked up in our freezer for months to come, ready to be whipped out and cooked up in about five minutes flat. Absolutely scrumptious with a bit of melted butter and some parmesan cheese.

Many years later I’ve managed to acquire a pasta-making machine of my own. Determined not to let it gather dust in my cupboard, I invited my gourmet friend over to help me make stinging nettle and ricotta cheese ravioli the other day.

Sounds a bit dodgy I know, but bear with me because the results are worth it. First step, picking the stinging nettles. We donned a pair of marigolds each and set out to our local park, which is thankfully a haven for the pesky weeds.

Attracting a few weird looks from the local dog-walkers, we stashed a big bunch of nettles safely in a bag and headed for home. After washing the nettles carefully (kept the marigolds on for this) we blanched them in boiling water (they lose their sting from the hot water) before draining and squeezing out the excess water. Then bunged them in the Magimix with 250gm of plain flour and 2 lightly beaten eggs and whizzed it all up together to form the dough.

Before you leave pasta dough to stand, you need to give it a good kneading on a lightly floured surface. This is tricky because if you over-knead it or put too much flour into the mixture, it will become heavy and lumpen and brittle. If you don’t knead it enough or there’s not enough flour then it remains sticky and wet and ends up more on your hands than anywhere else. It’s a bit of a test and learn process really, aiming to get the dough smooth and supple without over-doing it.

While the dough was resting (set it aside for an hour in cling film) we made the filling by whizzing together 700gm of ricotta cheese (surprisingly hard to find), 80gm of parmesan, 2 egg yolks and a pinch of ground nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Then came the fun bit, rolling the pasta. Obviously having watched my grandparents do it umpteen times, I thought we had this in the bag. It’s actually not as easy as they made it look. We ended up with loads of holes in the dough and had to re-run it through the machine a good few times before it started to really smooth out in a satisfyingly elastic way that stretched really well over the mould.

Then it was a simple matter of dolloping in the cheese mixture, a bit of eggwash round the edges to make the top layer of pasta stick and then pressed that into place. The little green ravioli popped out of the mould straight into a waiting pan of boiling salted water and then two minutes later hey presto...

Coated with melted butter, a few leaves of chopped up sage and a good handful of freshly grated parmesan, this was gratifyingly one of the most delicious meals I’ve eaten for a long time!

By Annie Bruzzone