How do you foster a community – and a “recipe” for instant veggie bowl

This weekend I didn’t get much cooking or writing done. We had an event to go to and have been busy packing up things to move. Tonight I got home late, starving, and absentmindedly put together a quick meal. I was halfway through it before I remembered I’m supposed to be running a lazy budget food blog.


But first, my musings. I recently had a fascinating conversation with a precocious middle schooler who gave me some advice on supporting a class of seven-year-olds. First off they told me to be funny but firm. They said clapping or ringing a bell was a good way to get the class’ attention. Spend lots of time outside, and give the kids a chance to just do their regular work outside (rather than only using the outdoors as a tool). Make time for one-on-one conversations. If someone is quiet or looks a bit off, check in with them privately. Don’t assume they are fine.

It was reassuring that most of the things they suggested were things I’m either already doing or aspiring to do more of. I was surprised, though, at how many teacher-centred rules they suggested I put in place. Keep the Vivids (permanent markers) off limits, they said. That made me laugh. They voiced that collective punishments don’t work, because they’re not seen as fair, but that collective rewards do. They reckoned that I need to have some kind of rewards system in place, or else kids won’t be motivated to be kind to each other and get stuff done. I was kind of stunned.

One of the things I really love about my school is that we are totally against extrinsic rewards. We don’t do sticker charts or Class Dojo. If my kids are doing things just because of an extrinsic reward they will receive, how will they learn to be intrinsically motivated? How will they learn to support each other because they care, not because of something they might get out of it later? If I teach my kids to be kind in order to get something from me, how can I possibly expect them to keep it up once I’m not around? I found this deeply troubling.

Take, for example, the case of the preschoolers who loved to draw. Psychologists from Stanford and the University of Michigan divided up a group of 3- and 4-year-olds who already liked drawing. They told one group that they would receive a reward for drawing, while the other group was not told this. The children who were told they’d receive a reward subsequently chose to draw on their own accord significantly less often than the ones who were given no reward or a “spontaneous” (surprise) reward.

It’s not only children who display this kind of reaction to rewards, though, subsequent studies have shown a similar effect in all sorts of different populations, many of them grown-ups. In one study smokers who were rewarded for their efforts to quit did better at first but after three months fared worse than those given no rewards and no feedback (Curry et al., 1990). Indeed those given rewards even lied more about the amount they were smoking.

Psychologist Jeremy Dean, PhD, PsyBlog

How do we motivate people, then? My hypothesis is that community building is the most powerful motivator. We take care of each other because we care about each other. We treat each other and our environment with respect because we have earned each other’s respect. We respect ourselves and the space in which we are working and playing. Fostering community within an playful inquiry-based classroom is my teaching as inquiry goal this year. I’m excited to share and read more about the research in this field while learning from my seven-year-olds.

That said, respecting children means listening to them, so I want to take all of this middle schooler’s advice into account, not just the stuff I am already doing! I want to set up a system to make sure that I’m genuinely checking in one-on-one with every kid in my class at least once a week, ideally more often. Through that as well as seeing how the class begins to work as a group (or struggles to), I’ll get a sense of whether I need to ask the group whether we need some kind of collective goal setting program. I can’t see myself getting behind an actual rewards program, because of all the research I’ve read and the experiences I’ve had that show how counterproductive that is if you want to foster intrinsic motivation. However, I can see having some kind of a record of our collective progress as a class, some kind of marker of what we’ve achieved together. Tell me in the comments, if you have a visual marker of progress in your classroom, how is it done?

So onto the food. I was in such a rush that the photo of my bowl came out all blurry, but the food was surprisingly delicious and took exactly one and a half minutes – less time than it took me to write down what I did!

I opened my fridge and freezer and found:

  • A box of cut and frozen carrots
  • The end of a bag of okra
  • A large, fresh tomato that was going soft

I sliced the tomato, knowing it had to be eaten or frozen today if I wanted it not to go rotten (and no food waste is one of my major goals). It was too soft to be enjoyable raw, but I knew it would cook well. I threw in a handful of okra and a few handfuls of carrots. The carrots had been prepped and frozen weeks before when I got 10 kgs (yes you read that right, 22 pounds) of carrots on discount from a farm, and as much as I love carrots, couldn’t quite eat them all fresh before they would have gone off.


People criticise frozen veggies, but I really love freezing my own. Partly, it’s economical and convenient to get a whole bunch at a time when they are cheap and in season, slice them all at once, and freeze them (providing you have the freezer space). You only have to use and wash your cutting board once 😉 Saves heaps of time. Further, they retain more of the nutrients than canned veggies do, and you get none of the sodium or preservatives that are added into canned veggies. Finally, once veggies have been frozen, they cook way more quickly – in less than a minute in the microwave – because of the way the molecular structure breaks down in the freezing process, I believe. And perhaps most importantly, it prevents food waste! 🎉 Can’t go wrong.

To this delightful mixture, I added 2 teaspoons of my favourite extra hot chilli paste 🌶 (you can find yummy ones in the international section of your supermarket or in any Asian grocery store) and a Tbsp of tahini, stirred it up, and microwaved for a minute. Voila 👌 Surprisingly yum! The tahini gives the bowl a nutty, creamy texture and complexity of flavour that is so satisfying. Lao Gan Ma, one of the most popular chilli oils in China, is widely available in the US and NZ, but there will be many others.

I hope little posts like these help take the intimidation out of waste-free or low-waste vegan living. As always, I look forward to reading your responses in the comments or ping-backs. If you give something like this a go and blog about it, I’m happy to link back to you in a future post.✌️

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