Celebrity Chef Rosemary Shrager visits the veterans' bakery

Veterans in the kitchen

Many people will be attending VE Day memorial activities or celebrations across the country, so we took a look at the steps some homeless veterans are taking to improve their lives today.

At The Beacon scheme for veterans in North Yorkshire, a popular series of cooking courses has been put together. Many of the ex-Services personnel have not had the chance to learn to cook for themselves, and simply building their confidence in the kitchen has proven to be a vital step towards their independence in future.

Good food at low cost

A ‘Cooking on a Budget’ course covered an introduction to food preparation and basic domestic cookery skills, the emphasis being on eating well at low cost. It ran for five weeks, covering how to make soups and stews, pasta and rice, meat on a budget, chicken, and finally bread and baking.

Residents of The Beacon who attended got to comment on what they enjoyed the most, what they enjoyed the least, if they would make the dishes again, anything else they would like to have covered and suggestions for future classes.

Many of the veterans enjoyed making foods they had never tried before, especially the delicious recipes for meatballs and risotto. They were also pleased to get the chance to socialise and chat with one another on top of the new experience of learning the step-by-step processes behind a meal.

Afterwards, attendees said that they now use the techniques and recipes they have learnt when cooking for friends and family. Many are parents and now have increased confidence cooking for their children when they visit, or for their family when they return home.

Following the basics were themed sessions, each attended by four to five residents. These covered specific ingredients or types of cuisine such as Indian, Chinese, or Mexican food.

Participants could dip in and out to follow their interests or supplement what they had already learnt. Again, the emphasis was on value for money and good food on a budget, as well as to get residents to try unfamiliar ingredients and make dishes that were new to them.

The veterans loved learning new things, socialising with one another and trying recipes they hadn’t encountered before. One man commented “I didn’t know how to make pancakes; I felt a sense of achievement and didn’t feel judged.” Others added that their favourite part was, of course, getting to eat. The only real criticism was that the training area doesn’t have much space, limiting the number of people who could attend.

Some of the veterans also commented on the time waiting while food cooks, which was unfamiliar to those who relied heavily on ready meals and fast foods. In the next course staff intend to include information about nutrition and food health to fill in the gaps.

Holding a get-together

Once you have a group of eager cooks, social activities are also planned for festivals, or cultural and sporting events. The aim is to have a food based get-together every six weeks, and to engage as many residents as possible in planning and organising, preparing food, setting up an area to eat in, cleaning, clearing and washing up.

The meals have included a Halloween buffet and quiz, a Remembrance Day dinner, a Christmas Eve Buffet and quiz, a Christmas dinner and a Burns Night supper and quiz. They often draw residents who would not attend a group class because they already know how to cook, or are wary of taking part. Afterwards, they will often ask about coming to sessions or learning to cook one to one.

Therapeutic cooking

Therapeutic, one to one classes are available for residents who have specific needs, or find preparing food therapeutic. Many veterans are anxious, withdrawn or depressed. Support workers decided there was a need for one to one sessions to help those who have mental health needs, no previous experience cooking, or find the hurly burly of group too much.

In these sessions, the pace is directed by the resident and some value the opportunity to chat. Some are able to start with one to ones and graduate to a group, or involvement in social activities. They appreciate having a safe environment in which they can practice new skills without judgement, testing social skills as well as learning to cook.

Finally, residents were given access to a variety of healthy eating and nutrition information at a food health-themed Neighbourhood Services Meeting. Information was on display promoting key messages including eating a varied and balanced diet, including essential fats, and reducing sugar.

Attendees could take part in quizzes to show what they had learnt, including a basic food quiz based on the information displayed, a food identification quiz to help with alternative forms of protein, and an ingredient identification quiz to raise awareness of alternatives to high fat foods.

A health and well being support specialist was available to discuss health issues with all those who attended the meeting. She spoke about the importance of five fruit and veg a day, as well as stress, blood pressure, and the effect of smoking on lung capacity and any other health concerns attendees had.

The healthy eating and therapeutic baking projects are still evolving. Recent feedback from residents showed a need to focus on healthy eating, to support those who are trying to lose weight or making a particular effort to get fit. As a result, the next cookery course will have a ‘Cooking for Health’ theme and include elements of nutrition as well as food preparation.

To help these courses to continue, please donate today.