Nick Smurthwaite visits one of Age UK's Kitchen Kings projects to find out how Age UK is helping older men to learn how to cook.
As we get older, diet becomes more important, not only from a health point of view, but also because we have more time to enjoy the preparation, presentation and consumption of food.
But not everyone is Jamie Oliver or Delia Smith. Some of us need a bit of help with our culinary skills, especially if you’re a man who's been lucky enough to have had meals put in front of you for most of your adult life.
Kitchen Kings is an Age UK project sponsored by the City Bridge Trust in London, aimed at helping older men to prepare and cook wholesome food.
Kitchen Kings is proving extremely popular with its participants, serving the dual purpose of a skills-based class and a lunch club: they get to eat the food they've prepared during the morning!
When I visited the class recently the men were making Spanish omelettes, followed by bread and butter pudding. Volunteer instructor Jo Davis, a retired nurse, talked them through the various processes, such as slicing onions and layering the bread for the pudding, while the 6 men went about their tasks with determination and focus.
The atmosphere was relaxed and jokey. 'What’s the best thing you’ve made?' I asked one of them, expecting him to say cottage pie or soda bread. 'Friends,' he replied without missing a beat.
Men-only cookery courses are causing a stir at Age UK Hillingdon.
Salt is not the only seasoning...
'It’s no good lecturing older people,' says Age UK Healthy Living Project Co-ordinator Helen Gibson, who set up the class in Hillingdon.
'Instead we try to encourage them to try new things and learn in other ways such as doing quizzes and taste challenges. For instance, we found that a lot of our men thought salt was the only seasoning, so we’ve been trying to introduce them to various herbs.'
In fact, Helen intends to plant a herb garden in the grounds of Townfield Community Centre, where the class is held, so that her Kitchen Kings can incorporate fresh herbs into their dishes.
'We’ve had gentlemen coming to Kitchen Kings who couldn’t even boil an egg!' Helen jokes.
Time to bin those ready meals
Each member of the class has a different reason for wanting to learn to cook and eat more healthily, but a common motivation most participants share is trying to get out of the dreaded Ready Meal Syndrome.
'All my meals were pre-cooked,' said 63-year-old divorcee Jasper Grey, who suffered a stroke and a brain haemorrhage in 2005 and has not been able to work since.
'I love pasta, but whenever I tried to cook it at home it always came out like a rock, all stuck together. But now I can cook it properly, thanks to what I’ve learnt in the class. After I became ill I was advised to start eating more healthily and this has certainly helped.'
One of Jasper’s new-found friends, 80-year-old Richard English, looked after his wife for several years before she died in 2009, mostly buying ready meals from the supermarket.
'I decided I didn’t want to become dependent on others to provide my meals, so I’d better learn to cook. I’m hoping to put what I’m learning here into practice at home.'
From eating McDonalds to hosting a dinner party
Enrolling in a new skills course in your 70s and 80s takes a lot of chutzpah, and Helen Gibson doesn’t underestimate the nervousness of her rookie cooks.
'A lot of the men who have to come to these classes appear to lack confidence in social areas,' Helen comments. 'I think many men become depressed when they retire because quite often their social life has been focused around work. Taking that initial decision to enrol in a class is the hardest step for them.
'What I try to emphasise is that Kitchen Kings is not just for men who are on their own. Even if you don’t need these skills now, there might come a time in the future when you will.
'If somebody’s wife goes into hospital or becomes debilitated in some way, he will have to fend for himself, or possibly do all the catering and shopping for both of them.'
'The best thing for me was hearing about one of our chaps who lived in a sheltered housing flat and used to go to eat at Macdonalds every day, after a few sessions with Kitchen Kings, he got all his neighbours together in the communal dining room and cooked them a meal.'