Kids in the Kitchen05/21/08
Published in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, May 21, 2008
Tricia Dickerson teaches young cooks from Girls Inc.: Wendie, 10, left,; Rose, 8; and Julissa, 9. Dickerson says the classes cultivate healthy habits and ways to save money on food. STAFF PHOTO / THOMAS BENDER
Jim Hendry, lead chef for Apron's Cooking School, remembers his first cooking experience when he was about 12.
"My mom and dad were going out, and it was one of my first nights home without a baby sitter," Hendry remembers. "They put a package of mac and cheese on the counter and said, 'Have fun.'"
Registered nurse and dietitian Jody Lowry doesn't even have any childhood memories of cooking: She wasn't allowed in the kitchen.
That's one reason why Lowry, a member of the America On the Move Partnership, is so devoted as an adult to helping kids better understand food, and the kitchen.
"I'd love for parents to give this to their kids: 'I'm here with you, I believe in you, and together we can do this,'" says Lowry, who taught kids' cooking classes at the Manatee County YMCA last year. "That's an attitude of acceptance. But so many times, I ask parents if they allow their kids to cook, and their answer is, 'No, because they make such a mess.'"
In an era of increases in food costs, childhood obesity and families in which both parents work, cooking classes for kids are more than just a way to while away summer.
Getting kids familiar with the kitchen and preparing food at an early age is healthy and cost-saving. It's also a great way to teach kids life skills such as planning, following directions and following through.
Opportunities for kids to learn about cooking are a little hard to find, but worth the search, say parents whose kids have experienced them. An increasing number of nonprofit organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club and Girls Inc., are providing activities to help kids learn about food preparation and cooking.
Apron's Cooking School, at Publix on University Parkway, is one of five such cooking schools among the grocery chain's 930 stores statewide. Demand for kids' classes is so strong, says media relations manager Shannon Patten, that the University Parkway store has added a third round of summer cooking camps, starting in June. The cooking school also offers kids' and teens' cooking classes throughout its regular daily class schedule.
"Kids love to be involved. Anything they can do by themselves, from cracking an egg to whisking a sauce or dressing, they really want to be involved," says Hendry. "In the adult classes, it's the exact opposite. Ask who wants to do something, and you have to pull people out."
Another difference from adults, Hendry notes, is gender balance. An equal number of boys and girls are enrolling in Apron's classes; Tricia Dickerson, who teaches kids' cooking at The Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium, agrees.
Dickerson is also among an increasing number of cooking instructors reaching out to youngsters through nonprofit groups such as Girls Inc., where she teaches young girls about food preparation, safety and cooking techniques as part of a "microsociety" of pretend businesses. Dickerson and her girls run a patio café and catering business as part of the microsociety.
Dickerson's classes, like all kids' cooking courses, focus on safety first: proper handwashing, safe use of knives, how to read expiration dates and how to perform simple kitchen tasks like cracking eggs and mixing batters. They learn the importance of following recipes from start to finish, and also how to clean up after themselves.
While the old favorites -- macaroni and cheese and brownies -- are still the most popular among her young chefs, Dickerson said she continuously tries to build in suggestions for healthier eating, including growing fresh herbs in a garden at the club and using them to create veggie dips. She also says kids' diets are naturally improved if they learn how to prepare their own food rather than turning to packaged food without knowing about alternatives.
"If they're running out and eating snack foods all the time, what does that do to their overall eating habits as adults?" she said. "It's all about getting back to healthy, and it's also financial. You can learn to cook reasonably priced foods at home instead of eating out."
Susan Morin, founder of the Yummy Stuff Club for healthy childhood nutrition, is also continuously introducing her young students to healthier foods. Morin offers a weekly healthy food course at the Boys and Girls Clubs' Lee Wetherington branch in Sarasota. Because her students are all around 6 to 9 -- too young to be using the stove or oven -- Morin focuses on food preparation and on basic safety.
"Washing our hands is the first golden rule. And we do that while we sing 'Happy Birthday' or say the alphabet. That's how much time it gets."
From there, Morin teaches kids how to choose foods that are better for them, and how to prepare their own healthier snacks. Some of her favorite lessons include "apple baskets," cored apples filled with apple chunks and other fruit; "pepper baskets," cored green peppers that hold carrots, celery, black olives and other veggies; and "polar berries," which are grapes shaken in flavored gelatin mix, then frozen.
But the greatest challenge, by far, that cooking instructors face is getting youngsters to try foods that are new to them. "Kids haven't been exposed to a lot of ingredients, so sometimes they're a little skeptical," Hendry says. "Most of the time it's,
'I don't eat that. I just don't eat that.' And then they always show surprise and amazement when they discover how much they do like it."
Being in a class atmosphere can be the perfect environment to overcome neophobia, or fear of new food, that researchers have found is natural in most children ages 2 to 5, and can stick around a little longer in some children.
"There's some very positive socialization that comes out of this," Morin says. "They encourage each other to try things, to experiment."
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