Darren Knight, 42, had got used to his mum Christine doing all the cooking. But after her sudden death to cancer in May 2011, when she was just 59, Darren’s diet of junk food, constant snacking and pizzas saw his weight soar and his health suffer.
“She was a great cook – she was once a pub chef,” Darren said.
“I couldn’t cook and after Mum died, I had no motivation to. I just went to pieces.”
The former theatre booking consultant from Hemel Hempstead took part in a special cookery course for bereaved people, which had just started at The Hospice of St Francis, where his mum had been cared for before she died. The course helps to build people’s confidence to prepare and cook meals for themselves and others. It gives people like Darren, who wouldn’t normally talk in a group, the chance to meet and spend time with people who understand what each other are going through, while learning new skills and increasing motivation to cook and eat healthily.
“When I started the course I thought: ‘What am I doing here?!’ I burn water. If I pick up a knife, I cut my finger. But I quickly found out that with a bit of instruction and someone looking over my shoulder, I could do it,” Darren said.
“The social aspect and support for each other was great but one of the biggest things the course has given me is confidence. I’ve changed my name to William to mark a fresh start, I’ve started an accounting course, I’ve taken up sailing and gone on holiday for the first time in years.
“And this year, for the first time in my life, I’m cooking the family Christmas dinner for my grandparents and my uncle. If I can stuff a chicken, I can stuff a turkey. I think Mum would have been proud.”
Cooking with Chris
The six-week course, called ‘Cooking with Chris’, is named after the hospice’s catering manager Chris Took. Every week, Chris and his senior cook Gill Sears will lead eight participants as they come together to prepare a three-course meal, which they then sit down and share.
Working in groups, they then take it in turns to prepare starters, main courses, puddings and something to take home, learning practical cooking skills and picking up tips on buying and preparing fresh ingredients, timing, batch cooking, using leftovers, freezing and cooking for one.
Chris tailors the detail to individual participants’ needs.
“Whatever people want to make – whether it’s a signature dish for a dinner party or a coffee cake for afternoon tea, we’ll do it,” Chris said. “It’s not about regimented learning. It’s about having fun and making a difference.”
A pilot scheme, which ran in March, was so successful that the Berkhamsted-based charity now plans to run two courses a year, including a ground-breaking UK-first course for bereaved teenagers starting in February 2013.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to offer people something therapeutically different, to bring them together socially where the focus is on food and to build their skills and confidence,” Tania Brocklehurst, the hospice’s clinical bereavement coordinator, said.
“After a bereavement, some people don’t want to talk about what has happened. They don’t access our one-to-one counselling or talking support groups and we realized there was a gap – a need for something where people who wouldn’t normally talk in a group can meet and spend time together, whilst learning new skills and increasing motivation to cook and eat healthily.
“Cooking is known to help increase concentration, sensory awareness and self-esteem. It also promotes good nutrition, engages memory, extends social networks and reduces stress – all of which suggest that it’s an excellent holistic aid to the bereavement process.”
On 11 December 2012, participants of the two courses run so far are set to join forces with Chris and the catering team to cook the hospice staff Christmas dinner.