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Cooking with Kids: An Iron Chef and Garden Activity

Updated on August 13, 2012

Few people out there will likely have the same opportunity I did to see how an Iron Chef competition goes down when you have 31 kids ages 6 to 14, on a sustainable farm, with two working kitchens, and five superpower teachers.

In my summer of teaching at The FARM Institute, Iron Chef in the Garden was a precious afternoon activity in which the kids used teamwork and creativity to highlight the fruits of the farm. The activity focused the kids on the land: what food do I have available to me that's growing right now? Anything fresh and available suddenly became a precious asset. Instead of making a shopping list, the kids made harvest lists: we want cucumbers, so we'll go out and pick them. Oh, and let's drop by and see if the hens just laid any eggs.

Schools or summer camps with gardens can use an Iron Chef activity to get kids focused on what's seasonal and local, and make the farm-to-fork connection more tangible than ever.

(I was told by a more TV savvy colleague that this is actually more akin to the show 'Chopped'. Unfortunately I liked the name 'Iron Chef' too much to revise the activity name.)

After the preliminary drum roll, kids were split into five groups of about six children. Age groups were mixed, giving the space for older kids to take on leadership roles.

Iron Chef in the Garden was presented:

"You are all talented chefs working in teams to make the most creative and scrumptious dish possible in two hours. You will be presented with a list of available ingredients, and also a culinary challenge for including certain things in your dish."

Having fresh eggs available for the kids to collect was a huge boon to our Iron Chef in the Garden activity!
Having fresh eggs available for the kids to collect was a huge boon to our Iron Chef in the Garden activity! | Source

The Culinary Challenges

In our Iron Chef in the Garden activity, the five groups were each given a separate culinary challenge. A representative from each team came forth to pull out of a hat one of these cooking stipulations: "Your dish must include..."

1) Eggs cooked two different ways

2) Three herbs from the garden

3) Four vegetables from the garden

4) Three wild edibles

5) Flowers

Hand out lists of the kitchen ingredients available to the kids.
Hand out lists of the kitchen ingredients available to the kids. | Source

Iron Chef Creative Brainstorming

Next we gave the kids and their teacher a list of the ingredients available to them. At The FARM Institute we have a vegetable garden and several hen houses where the kids could collect fresh eggs for their dishes! In addition they were encouraged to use any wild edibles they may have learned about.

Before even setting foot in the kitchen, it was encouraged that each team pow-wow and brainstorm recipes. Reading through the list of ingredients helped spark some creative ideas! "How about chocolate squash-flower pancakes??"

The display!
The display! | Source

The Resulting Dishes!

Time's up everyone! Make sure your dishes are cleaned, put away, and bring your Iron Chef entry to the display table.

It was amazing to see what the kids concocted!

  1. For the eggs cooked two ways group: A tortilla egg sandwich, garnished with fresh summer squash and tomato sauce made from tomatoes and onions in the garden. The eggs were collected from the hen house just hours before going in the frying pan and the pot to be scrambled and hard boiled. The hard boiled egg was peeled and placed in the center of the tortilla sandwich where the kids had cut an artistic "egg-holding hole."
  2. Flowers group: this became a useful time to teach the kids what flowers in the vegetable garden and fields are edible. The answer: squash and zucchini flowers, chicory, nasturtiums, and purple clover. In the end the group decided to focus on squash flowers. They then learned to only harvest the male flowers, which do not turn into a squash fruit while the female ones do. You can tell which flowers are male because they are only supported by a stem, whereas the female flowers (on the same squash plant) always are attached to a growing squash.
  3. The wild edibles group found wild garlic, purslane (a common weed), and a stray batch of kale growing wildly. This they turned into a colorful frittata and side salad.
  4. The three herbs group utilized the peanut butter in the pantry and made a stellar thai peanut wrap with sage, basil, and parsley from the garden.
  5. Finally, the four vegetables group made a great pasta veggie salad, complete with cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, and squash from the garden!

Teachers stood by while the kids presented their dishes and explained how they met their challenge. Much ooohing and ahhing accompanied.

Kids present their dish as teachers look on.
Kids present their dish as teachers look on. | Source

The Judging: Everyone Wins!

This is where the teachers really had fun hamming it up! Our Director, Sidney, was the head judge. Unlike me, it sounded as though Sidney had watched Iron Chef, as he pulled out culinary terms like "plating," "delectability," and "zingy-ness."

In the end each plate got an award:

Best Display

The Breakfast I Want to Eat Every Day

Most Delicious Sauce

Most Ingredients Used

Most Likely to be on a French Menu

Having impartial judges who possess the right culinary vocabulary for assessment purposes is key.
Having impartial judges who possess the right culinary vocabulary for assessment purposes is key. | Source

Eat and Enjoy your Iron Chef in the Garden Dishes

With awards done, there was only one thing left to do: hand out forks to the kids and let them circulate, trying a sample of each! Perhaps this was the most rewarding part of the day, seeing kids eagerly line up for a taste of their friends' dishes and gobble down zucchini and cucumber.


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    • Tara McNerney profile imageAUTHOR

      Tara McNerney 

      6 years ago from Washington, DC

      I do hope you all get the chance to participate in such a fun activity at some point. Simone, that was the part that totally amazed me: all of the dishes ended up being something I actually really wanted to eat! Haha.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Tara, what a great idea. I'll bet the kids loved this. And the adults got to reap the rewards. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      I've done an Iron Chef-style activity before, but the dishes did not turn out so lovely! This is very cool.

    • alissaroberts profile image

      Alissa Roberts 

      6 years ago from Normandy, TN

      Such an awesome idea for kids! Heck I would love to do this if someone let me loose on their farm to come up with some creative dishes :) I hope this hub inspires other parents/teachers to do this kind of activity with their kids/students! Great job Tara - voted up!

    • cardelean profile image


      6 years ago from Michigan

      What a fun activity! I love all of those cooking shows. :) What a great way to teach children the connection between the food that is on their plates, the source that it comes from.


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