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Cooking Matters

Last week I finally had a chance to volunteer with Cooking Matters, a program developed by the Good Shepherd Food Bank. It’s designed to help teach people how to make healthier food choices and especially how to do it on a budget. Some of the classes are for adults, some are for teens, and some, like the one I volunteered with, are for kids. The class was held at a local Boys & Girls Club, composed of three boys and five girls. Going into it, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I was impressed. Many times, I feel like adults don’t give kids enough credit for being not only willing to eat healthy foods but to choose them given the opportunity. For instance, last week we talked about what some good choices are if you’re going out to eat, especially at a fast food place. Some of the things they suggested were:

  • lots of veggies on pizza

  • getting a salad

  • drinking water or milk instead of soda

  • ordering a regular hamburger instead of a super-sized cheeseburger

When asked what they had the last time they went out to eat, one boy said he had chosen a chicken salad. They understand that whole grains are better because they have more fiber, and we talked about the fact that you want to be careful of saturated fat because of your heart. Then came the cooking! Each class has a demonstration of some recipes, and the kids are sent home with a bag of ingredients to make one of the dishes for their families. We made:

  • Mac & cheese with whole wheat pasta, some cheddar cheese, low fat milk, and low fat cottage cheese. No one balked at the whole wheat pasta, or complained about the taste (at least that I heard). This was also the recipe they got to take home.

  • Chicken fingers, which were just chicken tenders dipped in egg, then flour, then breadcrumbs, before cooking at 400 degrees for about 12 minutes. They came out great, and probably healthier than store-bought.

  • Mozzarella sticks, very similar to the chicken preparation except skipping the flour. The sticks got a bit amorphous during baking (also at 400 for 8 minutes), but the kids liked them anyway, along with the tomato sauce for dipping.

What most impressed me was how willing and in fact eager the kids were to do the cooking. I was working with the group doing mozzarella sticks. Everyone wanted to break an egg, or beat it, and one boy demonstrated perfect technique for whisking an egg with a fork. They loved getting hands-on by dipping the mozzarella in the egg, then rolling it in the breadcrumbs. They were good about taking turns, and even with helping clean up when asked. I was pleased by this because such early habits are a huge help in developing a life-long interest in cooking and healthy eating. I know that many kids get to college without having any idea of how to do anything beyond make toast or maybe scrambled eggs. Part of the problem, I think, is that too often we don’t encourage our kids enough, or may deliberately keep them out of the process. As one of the girls told me, she likes to cook, but, “My grandmother doesn’t let me in the kitchen.” “Why is that?” I asked. “I think she’s afraid I’ll burn down the house or something.” In my experience growing up, I was largely limited in the kitchen for a time because of the potential mess. And I won’t argue that kids are likely messier than adults might be. I will also confess that I’ve felt the same way at times, or gotten too easily upset with someone (kid or adult) doing something the “wrong way” – i.e., differently than how I do it. But working with these kids reminded me that it’s okay and actually good to get them involved. If they’re messy, encourage them to help clean up. If they’re doing something differently, just watch at first and see if it will come out okay, and offer help or suggestions only when necessary. Who knows – maybe you’ll learn something. Like the fact that cooking should be fun! And I did have fun. I just relaxed and went with it and enjoyed the kids. Now I hope to remember some of that in my own kitchen. I am also grateful for the reminder that kids will learn and listen and get excited about cooking and food if you treat them with respect and intelligence. I can hardly think of a better overall lesson, and I am so impressed with the program for highlighting that. Because, truly, cooking matters.

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