When students first arrive on a Bold Earth program, one of the first questions they ask is what’s for dinner? For picky eaters and worldly gourmets alike, this is key information to know in order to feel secure and comfortable on a brand new adventure. Whether they’re backpacking through the volcanic valleys of Iceland or cruising down the Colorado River in a raft team, our students can always count on a nutritious and plentiful meal at the end of a long day. And the best part about it? Students are the ones deciding what to put on the table.
Why we choose to cook
Kids are at the heart of the cooking experience on Bold Earth trips. Some find themselves chopping carrots pulled from the earth that morning at a farm to table cooking class near Chiang Mai. Others close out the day stirring noodles on a two-burner camp stove in the Yosemite Valley under the watchful gaze of granite faces. Wherever they are in the world, our students can count on being involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of their meals.
There’s a reason that both our domestic and international trips have such an emphasis on cooking and sharing food together. The creation of a meal, from its inception as a student’s daydream on a long van ride to its delivery in steaming bowls to a group of excited teens, is a process we celebrate. By taking turns to cook for each other, our students take on the empowering responsibility of nourishing themselves and their community.
“Kids are one-hundred percent involved in the process, from grocery shopping, to cooking, to cleaning up afterward. Many haven’t had the chance to cook for themselves,” says Chris Fletcher, a trip leader with eight seasons of experience. “I love the creativity they express with their meals. A lot of them say ‘I can’t wait to cook when I get home!’”
Sitting down in a circle where we can all see each other’s faces, we begin one of our most important trip rituals. The personal dishes are passed around, the sporks are pulled from pockets and dusted off in preparation. Stories are shared and laughter is sure to follow. Mealtimes are family times. This is a part of the day when we can finally take our packs off and catch up with each other on what the day has held. No matter if we’re hunkered down in the rain under tarp shelters, on the banks of a river-carved gorge, or sitting on floor pillows in an international hostel, our meal times are always a space of shared gathering and intentional relaxation.
Creating a learning environment
Bold Earth students come from all different backgrounds and comfort levels in the kitchen. Some have been learning how to cook from a young age and step up as natural leaders. These kids make incredible peer mentors and help share their know-how with the group. Many haven’t yet had the chance to practice their skills in the kitchen. Cooking for a group of twelve might feel daunting at first, but no one undertakes this task alone. Cook crew, the rotating duty of meal planning and preparations, is organized as a team where students work together to combine their resources and knowledge.
What happens when something goes wrong? Trip leaders are always present to supervise the sharp and hot aspects of cooking, as well as give tips on how to manage portions so that everyone has enough to eat, but the real culinary feats are undertaken by students working together, learning by trial and error. Cook crew is often where the most hilarity ensues. The duty of cook crew, as intimidating as it may seem at the start of the trip, quickly becomes many students’ highlight of the day due to the special kind of bonding that happens in a laughter-filled kitchen. Just take four teens, add one cup of mis-adventure and a sprinkle of good humor. It’s a recipe for a good time.
The skills practiced in cook crews are impactful on our students’ lives long after a Bold Earth summer has come to a close. An article from the Journal of Nutritional and Educational Behavior highlights how guiding kids through planning their own low cost, high nutrition meals using basic ingredients leads to stronger advocacy for their own health in the future, as well as a self motivated desire for skill mastery (Thonney & Bisogni, 2006). By giving students real responsibility for feeding themselves and others, the outcome of their effort has a tangible impact on their experience.
Balancing creativity and responsibility in the kitchen
When putting together a meal plan, students are encouraged to cook what they are most excited to eat, as long as it follows the basic nutritional and portioning guidelines. Whether it’s a mid-trip dish that reminds them of comforts from home or a newly learned international cuisine extravaganza using local ingredients, students are coached through the process of deciding what will meet the needs of the other kids as well as their own. Dietary restrictions are always accommodated and the cook crew eats last, making sure the food they deliver is enough for all. The freedom to experiment and try new things is accompanied by the accountability to the group, allowing for a balance of creativity and repertoire building during recipe selection.
Cooking is central to a Bold Earth trip not only because of the importance of providing sustenance to our students, but also because of the community it builds among our campers. On the path towards personal growth and self-sufficiency, empowering students to cook their own meals paves the way, one grain of rice at a time. Wherever our students are coming from, they always have a place at our table.