Thrill of new skills

THE SMELL OF HOME-MADE chicken soup or the sight of glistening roast lamb can stir up memories of celebrations, holidays or family banter around the dinner table.

But for eight teenage mothers living in a house run by the Red Cross in Sydney, those positive memories of food do not exist. Most of them have experienced poverty, homelessness or mental health problems.

''The girls don't have favourite foods, some of them never had their parents cook for them,'' says Rob Caslick, a charity worker. ''They don't have good food memories that we all take for granted.''

Last September, the mothers in the Red Cross's live-in Young Parents Program did a six-week cooking course with Caslick, founder of the Inside Out Organic Kitchen based at St Canice Church in Elizabeth Bay.

In March, they will begin a second round of classes to learn how to prepare healthy meals for themselves and their children. This time, the emphasis will not only be on teaching them how to grill, fry and boil, but to also develop their joy for food by using other people's favourite home recipes.

''We would love people to send us their good food memories in the form of recipes,'' Caslick says. ''Consider it a gift from one family to another.''

Celebrity chefs Kylie Kwong and Christine Manfield have offered recipes in answer to the brief: one recipe every young parent should know. Kwong chose a tasty fried rice dish, while Manfield opted for the classic chicken soup.

The Red Cross house, in a location that cannot be disclosed, serves as a refuge and place of learning for teenage mothers. They spend one year learning how to raise their child, handle money and enter the workforce.

Bianca, 19, has lived in the house with her two-year-old daughter for six months.

For most of her life, takeaway meals and junk food staved off her hunger. Until joining the program, she had never cooked a meal.

Since last September's cooking course she has become a whiz in the kitchen. She counts quiches and garlic prawns as her specialties, and makes her daughter's favourite chicken schnitzels with ease.

''I always ate things like fast food,'' Bianca says. ''But now I want to learn how to make seafood salad because my daughter likes to eat seafood.''

The manager of Red Cross's Young Parents Program, Sophie Mackey, says Bianca's experience with food is typical of most teenage mothers coming through the program.

''A lot of them have tasted very few types of food. In their lives they may have never eaten something like a carrot,'' Mackey says. ''They've only ever eaten two or three types of food.''

The cooking lessons allow the mothers to instil good food memories in their children as well as raise them on a nutritious diet.

''We have more than 130 volunteers helping the girls,'' Mackey says. ''It was amazing to see the girls cook for the volunteers to express their gratefulness on the final night of last year's cooking course.''

The girls will use meat donated by Feather and Bone, supplier to Neil Perry's Rockpool restaurants, and fresh vegetables from their own backyard patch.

● Good Food invites readers to send a ''good food memory'' recipe to Rob Caslick through the Inside Out Soup Kitchen Facebook page.

● See redcross.org.au for information on volunteering and to donate.

The story Thrill of new skills first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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