“Isn’t it so exciting?” said Giselle Ankrah, 10, a sixth grader at Robert B. Pollock School in Northeast Philadelphia, as she and her classmates began an after-school cooking class. “We watch all these cooking shows, but we never actually get to cook. Now we’re really doing it!”
“OMG, I just smelled the veggies,” said fellow cooking student, Khalih Perry, 11, taking in the scent of onions and peppers sautéing on the stove. “They smelled so good and I don’t even like veggies.”
There are so many moments of joy when teaching schoolchildren how to cook with fresh ingredients. And we saw that over and over again during the fall semester of My Daughter’s Kitchen healthy cooking program, in which more than 100 children in 21 urban schools in Philadelphia, Camden, and Chester were taught basic cooking and nutrition over eight weeks by some 50 volunteers, most of them Inquirer readers.
Now in its sixth year, the mission of the program, based on lessons I taught my own daughter, is to encourage children to cook healthy, easy-to-prepare, affordable dinners for themselves and their families, with an eye toward using less salt, fat, sugar, and processed ingredients.
With the rising popularity of prepared foods, cooking, like so many traditions, has faded from the lives of many American families. But given the opportunity, students in these classes, starting from the age of 10, are so eager to learn to cook: “I can’t wait to chop, chop, and chop!” said Joshua Mathew, a fifth grader at Watson Comly Elementary in the Northeast, before one class.
And so happy to sit down and share the meal: “I like eating together like we do,” said Darius Berge, 10, at Bayard Taylor School in North Philadelphia, as he and his classmates were sharing a meal they prepared.
The meals are not fancy: We made dishes such as chicken tortilla soup, tuna melts, roast chicken, and sweet potato fries this semester, but each recipe was decidedly more exciting — and challenging — than heating up a can of soup or microwaving mac and cheese.
These classes demystify the process and techniques of cooking from scratch. Students at La Salle Academy in Kensington were surprised by how easy it was to make homemade tomato sauce for spaghetti with turkey sausage. “They were amazed how fresh and delicious it tasted with just a few ingredients,” said volunteer Maureen Barrett.
That spaghetti — made with onions, garlic, crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, thyme, and basil — was an all-time favorite for the kids at Philadelphia Montessori Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia, who were confident they could make it themselves at home.
And indeed, that pasta dish was the meal chosen by the students at Pollock and many other schools for their last class, when they cooked dinner for family and friends. The other meals chosen for the dinner party class were turkey and mushroom tacos and buttermilk roast chicken with sweet potato fries.
Over the course of several weeks, these kids build real skills. They become comfortable with and gain respect for sharp knives and hot stoves, but they also develop a sense of their palates along the way.
“Where is the kosher salt?” asked Enrique Georges-Roth, 11, after tasting the simmering tomato sauce at Pollock. “We need a flavor booster.”
Students at Community Partnership School in North Philadelphia were surprised how much flavor the mushrooms, peppers, and onions added to the turkey tacos. They chose to include both soft and hard-shell tortillas, and added a recipe from an earlier week — homemade guacamole and chips — as a perfect accompaniment.
CPS student Joseph Hale III even got his dad to try the guacamole, which he doesn’t usually eat, echoing a lesson the students learned: be willing to try something new, which is always more appealing when you make it yourself or when it is homemade for you.
Nequava Matthews said her son Khalil, who had once wanted only chicken nuggets, has become much more adventurous in his eating and much more active in the kitchen since taking the class, even with cleanup. And he is even suggesting ingredients, she said. “The other day he’s asking me to add cilantro,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’”
Over the years the students have made many requests for things they would like to make, but none more frequent than for cakes, cupcakes, doughnuts, and desserts. This semester’s dessert recipe for jelly “doughnut” muffins is not quite like real doughnuts, but a healthier version that kids can make at home. (One family liked them so much, they made them for Thanksgiving!)
What I love seeing, and what is illustrated at the last meal, is how much cooking and eating together binds family and friends. Older brothers and sisters came back for the final party at Bayard Taylor, younger siblings pitched in at Pollock to help prepare, and at William H. Loesche and other schools, children in lower grades are already asking to sign up for the class.
Hearing parents extol the cooking skills of their kids is the ultimate joy.
“Enrique is cooking so much more and we encourage it,” said his dad Michael Oxley. “I like to cook, but my style is more the working man’s meal. And I have to tell you, I have been schooled. I was schooled right at the supermarket, with him asking for goat cheese for the ratatouille. I was like, ‘Goat cheese? Is that with the regular cheese?’ He cooked ratatouille and spaghetti and sausage. And we were blown away. And I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, the prep, the cooking, the serving. It was such a wonderful thing.”