Education, education, education…

Vegetarian chef Penny Harris talks about an innovative new idea where she takes the best of vegetarian cookery into a local school to teach parents and their children how easy and delicious it can be.

Education, education, education…

Interview by: Sara Niven

'This chicken didn't need to have died for my dinner.' That simple statement caused lapsed vegetarian Penny Harris to seriously rethink the way she fed her family. Seventeen years later, the former restaurant manager now teaches vegetarian cooking to other parents; the majority are not vegetarians themselves but have learned that cooking without meat can be a healthier, tastier and more economic option.

'I gave up meat in my twenties when I was running a vegetarian restaurant,' recalls Penny, 52. 'But by the time I left to go travelling and then start a family, meat had returned to the menu. My eldest daughter Sophie was just four at the time, but what she said was completely valid. The chicken didn't need to have died for her and I realised it didn't need to have died for me either.'

As a result, Penny returned to a vegetarian diet and has brought up both two daughters and a son this way. The culinary skills honed from almost a decade in the restaurant business and her travelling experience have stood her in good stead for her career now, which includes combining managing an alternative health clinic with her own vegetarian cookery business, Honest to Goodness. She holds classes at the clinic as well as organising cooking and food-tasting holidays in Tuscany. Her latest venue is teaching at a school near her home in Wimborne, Dorset.

'The school had been offered funding from the local authority to run a project that would fulfill certain criteria – nutrition, a sense of community and confidence-building being among them,' she explains. 'One of the governors had attended my classes and decided they would like me to come in 
to teach parents.'

During her weekly visits, Penny demonstrates how to cook a two-course meal, which can include anything from a vegan sweetcorn curry or millet burgers to fruity desserts and chocolate brownies. She prepares the food in advance as well, so the group can tuck in while watching the demonstration, and also encourages a discussion on the nutritional content of the dishes and healthy eating generally.

'I was apprehensive at first because I worried people might not like my food and someone commented that as non-vegetarians the group would probably not be receptive, but in fact completely the opposite has happened. People talk about buying ingredients like tofu and millet that they would never have touched before and now all the group use Quorn mince instead of mince meat. The loveliest thing is hearing my classes have improved the interaction between parents and their children. One of my parents is a single dad who attends because he wants to do the best for his six-year-old daughter and they now regularly go food shopping and prepare meals together.'

Penny says she doesn't attempt to convert meat-eaters, simply to prove that vegetarian food can be delicious and easy to make, so they are aware of their options.

She also views attitude when preparing food as almost as important as what goes into a dish: 'Just as you can often sense a bad atmosphere even though nothing is said, I feel that food prepared in a stressful situation or environment is not as beneficial as a meal prepared calmly, which is what I try to do. I enjoy the fact that people eat food I have prepared in the classes as well as learning how to make it. Being cooked for makes people feel nurtured and that is a novelty in itself for most parents!'

• Details of Penny's classes can be found by visiting www.alchemy-healthclinic.com

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