I was ready for one of the biggest battles in cooking class: convincing 10-year-olds to eat fish.

I had my sales pitch ready: The nutrients are so good for the brain and the heart, and when baked with bread crumbs and lemon zest, this cod is better tasting and better for you than a McDonald’s fish sandwich.

I was prepared for the pushback I often got when fish was on the menu at after-school cooking classes. But when I asked the kids at James Lowell Elementary School in North Philadelphia how many of them liked fish — every hand shot up. When I asked about cod, they were still all in.

“I’m not sure I’ve had cod,” Daniel Hilbert, 10, admitted. “But I like all fish.” As we unwrapped the hunk of cod that needed to be sliced into fillets, I got “oohs” and “ahhs,” and from one student: “Wow, it looks like a giant lobster tail.”

“We are in business!” I told them.

We are halfway through eight weeks of cooking classes, with 21 schools in Philadelphia, Camden, and Chester participating in the spring session of My Daughter’s Kitchen, a program inspired by lessons I taught my own daughter. Some 50 volunteers, most of them Inquirer readers, are teaching children to make healthy, affordable meals and then sitting down to eat with them.

Many of the volunteers saw the same reaction: The kids at Lewis Elkin and Community Partnership schools in North Philadelphia were open to eating fish. And kids at Wiggins Elementary in Camden actually proclaimed themselves “fish fans,” said teacher Edith Bobb.

Malaan McCrea, left, sprinkles fresh chopped parsley on the cod, while Miracle Brown presses the breadcrumbs into the fish during the My Daughter's Kitchen after-school cooking class at James Lowell Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Malaan McCrea, left, sprinkles fresh chopped parsley on the cod, while Miracle Brown presses the breadcrumbs into the fish during the My Daughter's Kitchen after-school cooking class at James Lowell Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

It’s so encouraging to see glimmers of change among students in these classes that we have been teaching for the past seven years, with so many more children open to fruit, vegetables, and fish. In 2013, when this program began, it was not unusual to meet children who would refuse to eat vegetables, and some who had never seen a grape tomato, an avocado, or a fresh strawberry. Many were reluctant to try something new.

While some volunteers and I have seen this anecdotally, a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, based on surveys of 38,000 kids, confirmed that the diets of American children are improving, with more whole grains, whole fruits, dairy, and protein from seafood and plants.

Nutrition lessons, financed by the federal government, and taught locally by organizations like the Food Trust, have kids trying foods like quinoa and beets in their classrooms. With so many Americans battling heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, the children often have someone in their families trying to change their diets to improve their health. And then there are the cooking shows like Chopped Junior and Master Chef Junior that introduce kids to foods they are eager to try.

That is not to say that junk food has disappeared or that each healthy meal we make is accepted and adored. Some kids at Philadelphia Montessori Charter School in West Philadelphia were not excited about the fish recipe. And at La Salle Academy in Kensington, Nivea Muhammad-Edwards “declared right off the bat that she didn’t like fish,” said volunteer Maureen Barrett. But Nivea’s resistance wavered once she started making a bread crumb topping.

Miracle Brown, left, zests a lemon, and Shamar Ross watches as culinary student Aidan Dalton demonstrates how to mince a shallot, at the My Daughter's Kitchen after-school cooking class at James Lowell Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Miracle Brown, left, zests a lemon, and Shamar Ross watches as culinary student Aidan Dalton demonstrates how to mince a shallot, at the My Daughter's Kitchen after-school cooking class at James Lowell Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

Indeed, what we often see, regardless of what we cook, is when kids help prepare the food, they’re much more interested in eating it. We saw that play out in our first three classes this spring, with some students already making the recipes they learned with their families: dutch baby pancakes with yogurt, strawberries, and banana; grilled cheese with tomatoes and basil; and pasta with zucchini, tomatoes, and ricotta.

What we also see, week after week, is the excitement these kids bring to the kitchen: “This is turning out to look like a cooking show,” said an excited Miracle Brown, 10, while we were working through our first recipe at Lowell.

The preparation for the cod this week was quite simple: After it is sliced into fillets, it is topped with a mix of bread crumbs, lemon zest, chopped parsley, and melted butter. The lessons were in the zesting, chopping, measuring, and melting, and as usual, everyone wanted to do everything.

Megan Kelly, a teacher at Lowell, invited her son, Aidan Dalton, 19, a culinary student home on spring break from Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I. to join us. Wearing his white chef jacket and using his own set of knives, he demonstrated how to mince a shallot and to chop fresh parsley.

“Wow, we have a real chef today,” said Malaan McCrea, 10. A quick learner, she watched, and was soon rocking her knife, chopping that parsley like a pro, at quite an impressive speed.

Our side dish was green beans and clementines tossed with a dressing of minced shallots and lemon juice. As her classmates were snapping the beans, Malaan looked up and said, “That just sounds so satisfying.” Our resident chef demonstrated how to “supreme” a clementine, a way to remove the skin, pith, membranes, and seeds, and to separate its segments. And then everyone got to try this new knife skill. Miraculously, no fingers were cut. Only one clementine was lost in battle.

Across all 21 classes, the reviews of the green beans were mixed. “These are way, way, way better than regular green beans,” said Lyric Benton, 10, asking for seconds. Others preferred them plain or how their mom made them, or not at all.

But the cod proved almost universally popular, with students saying they liked the crispy topping and the contrast against the soft texture of the fish. Even the reluctant fish eaters at Philadelphia Montessori and fish hater Nivea were won over. The proof was in the empty plates.

It’s a challenge to come up with recipes that are healthy, affordable, and easy to make. It’s even harder to have the kids prepare the meal and actually like it. But when it works, when I see empty plates and smiling faces, and think of the bellies of 120 children filled with roasted cod and green beans, my heart is full.

Plus, the kids are teaching me. I’m learning the “Renegade” dance moves from TikTok as we wash the dishes.

Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at mydaughterskitchen.com. Read previous stories and reports from other schools at inquirer.com/mydaughterskitchen.

My Daughter’s Kitchen

The mission: To teach schoolchildren to cook healthy, easy meals on a budget.

The reach: Some 50 volunteers are teaching at 21 schools in Philadelphia, Camden, and Chester.

The partners: Many thanks to Holman Enterprises, P.J. Whelihan’s, P.J. Clarke’s, Stephen Starr, CLR Design, and other individual donors for making the program possible.

Roasted Cod with Lemon Parsley Crumbs

Makes 6 servings

1 cup panko bread crumbs

3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (or 1 tablespoon dried parsley)

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 1⁄2 pounds cod (or haddock or flounder) cut into six filets (If the fresh fish is too pricey, plan ahead and buy frozen and thaw in the fridge for a day or two)

1 lemon, zested and cut into wedges for serving

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 425°F

In a medium bowl, combine the panko, butter, parsley, and lemon zest. Add a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper and stir to evenly distribute the ingredients.

Arrange the cod fillets on a baking sheet and season all over with salt and pepper. Divide the bread crumb topping among the fillets, pressing lightly so it sticks to the fish.

Roast for about 10 to 12 minutes or until the bread crumbs are browned and the fish is mostly opaque. This depends on the thickness of the fillets; cut into a piece to check. Serve immediately.

Tips:

1. If you get thinner tail pieces of cod, you might want to fold them over to double the thickness so they don’t cook too quickly and dry out.

2. An easy way to zest a lemon, especially if you don’t own a zester: Use a vegetable peeler to remove the lemon peel, being careful to avoid the pith. Then mince the peels into zest.

Per Serving: 210 calories, 7 grams fat, 28 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 410 mg sodium, 80 mg cholesterol, no dietary fiber

— From Molly Stevens, Fine Cooking

Green Beans with Shallots and Clementines

Makes 6 servings

1 shallot, peeled and finely diced

1 lemon, juiced

1 1/2 pounds green beans, trimmed; longer beans snapped in half

1⁄4 cup olive oil

Two clementines, sectioned or supremed

1⁄4 teaspoon salt, plus more for salted water

1. Peel and chop the shallot. Put it in a small bowl, and just cover it with the lemon juice. Start with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, but add enough to cover the chopped shallots completely. Macerate for 10 to 20 minutes.

2. Put on a pot of salted water to boil. When it comes to a boil, add the green beans and boil for about five minutes, until the beans are tender but not soft. Drain.

3. Meanwhile, section or supreme the clementines. (To supreme, cut off the top and the bottom. Place one flat side of the fruit on the cutting surface, and cut off the peel and pith in strips, starting at the top, and following the shape of the fruit. Then open up the clementine and slice to separate the sections.)

4. Once the shallot has macerated, whisk in the olive oil and salt.

5. Toss the green beans with the sliced clementines. Drizzle with the shallot dressing, toss and let sit to absorb the flavor until ready to serve.

Per serving: 117 calories, 9 g fat, no cholesterol, 104 mg sodium, 10 g carbohydrates, 4 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar, 3 g protein