Seeing the pure joy and excitement on the faces of the kids arriving for after-school cooking class never gets old.

“What are we making this week?” says Maggie Willis, 10, a fifth grader who bounds into the small prep kitchen at Blessed Trinity Catholic in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. She and her classmates line up at either side of the prep counter and start unpacking the groceries to see what they are working with: mushrooms, peppers, onions, tomatoes, ground turkey, and taco shells.

“Tacos!” one student shouts. There were also ingredients to make jelly-filled muffins for dessert.

I’m visiting one of the 21 schools in Philadelphia, Camden, and Chester where students have been meeting after school once a week since October, learning to make simple, healthy dinners on a budget, as part of My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking program. The program was inspired by lessons I taught my own daughter.

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 P.J. Whelihan’s, P.J.Clarke’s, Stephen Starr, CLR Design, and other financial donors for making the program possible.


To donate: Contributions may be sent to My Daughter’s Kitchen, 249 Rhoads Ave., Haddonfield, NJ 08033.

Like most of the volunteers who lead these classes, Jim Zaccario, director of development for Blessed Trinity, is not new to the game; he’s been running the program there for the past five years, this year with the help of the new Spanish teacher, Tim O’Shea. “Every kid that has ever participated in the program has loved it,” he says.

Jim Zaccario serves up the tacos the group just made during the My Daughter's Kitchen class at Blessed Trinity Catholic School.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Jim Zaccario serves up the tacos the group just made during the My Daughter's Kitchen class at Blessed Trinity Catholic School.

As the group works through the preparation, the lessons begin and keep coming: Not only is 10-year-old Yandiel Marin polishing his knife skills as he chops an onion and blinks back tears. He is learning perseverance in the face of adversity. “Just chop through it, man,” says Zaccario, an avid home cook. “You’ll be better for it.”

Bailey Carr, 10, is jubilant for the chance to make dessert, which happens only twice in the eight-week session, with the lesson that sweets don’t have to be served every night, but are great on special occasions. She is celebrating the day. “It’s muffin time, it’s muffin time!” she sings out as she and her classmate Ariella Kerrin, 10, mix the ingredients.

When the whisk is stuck in the ingredients and does not stir easily, it’s time for another on-the-spot lesson: “Check the recipe, did you forget something?” says O’Shea.

“Oh yeah, three-quarters of a cup of milk,” says Bailey.

Ariella Kerrin (far right) mixes up the batter for the desert during the My Daughter's Kitchen class.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Ariella Kerrin (far right) mixes up the batter for the desert during the My Daughter's Kitchen class.

When asked what lessons they had learned in the class, these two came up with a few gems.

“I learned how to tuck my fingers so I don’t chop them off,” said Ariella.

“I learned that healthy stuff can still taste good,” said Bailey, who said she never liked tuna until she tasted the open-faced tuna melts they made a few weeks earlier. “Without the mayo, it tasted good,” she said. “I was glad I tried it.”

Always rewarding is how much progress is made over the course of the eight weeks with students who mostly arrive with little kitchen experience. By the end, the students are reading the recipe, choosing jobs, working together, referring back to the recipe, and staying on task until the job is done.

Maureen Fitzgerald teaches Yandiel Marin how to cut an avocado during the My Daughter's Kitchen class at Blessed Trinity Catholic School. This recipe is made with turkey and adds a bunch of vegetables: onions, peppers, mushrooms as well as tomatoes and avocados, which are technically fruits.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Maureen Fitzgerald teaches Yandiel Marin how to cut an avocado during the My Daughter's Kitchen class at Blessed Trinity Catholic School. This recipe is made with turkey and adds a bunch of vegetables: onions, peppers, mushrooms as well as tomatoes and avocados, which are technically fruits.

Isabella Fitzgerald, 11, and Irene Haro, 11, take on the tacos, sautéing the meat and vegetables and then moving onto the assembly with ease, Isabella filling each shell with the turkey and vegetable mixture, and Irene topping them with the mushrooms and cheese.

Zaccario is always impressed with the students’ willingness to try new things. None of his students had tasted salmon and none was eager to try it last semester. But when they prepared it with spinach and cream sauce, he says, “They all came back for seconds. I was shocked!”

Teachers at other schools report similar converts, but they also report benefits beyond cooking. “These classes change lives,” said Nicole Molino, a teacher at Bayard Taylor school in North Philadelphia who has been involved in the program for five years. “For students that are new to the school, the cooking class gives them a community,” she said, “a place where they can belong.” She also thinks the cooking classes foster confidence, teamwork, and creativity. “The kids work together and see there are multiple ways to solve a problem. And all are correct. That is real-world learning.” Molino said the program has become the most coveted at the school.

It’s so popular at Blessed Trinity, the kids compete for a spot by writing an essay and sitting for an interview, Zaccario said.

Isabella Fitzgerald spoons the ground turkey mixture into the tacos during the My Daughter's Kitchen class at Blessed Trinity Catholic School.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Isabella Fitzgerald spoons the ground turkey mixture into the tacos during the My Daughter's Kitchen class at Blessed Trinity Catholic School.

Back in the kitchen there, another lesson emerges as Maggie opens the fridge and asks if they can serve the soda left over from a weekend event at their dinner. How much sugar is in that can of soda, she is asked. She checks the label and reports 40 grams. Or about 10 teaspoons of sugar, which is almost twice the recommended guideline for children for one day. “Wow, that’s a lot of sugar,” she says, actually amazed. She concluded on her own that she couldn’t serve it in a healthy cooking class.

In the end, the mushroom and turkey tacos were well-received, even proclaimed to be better than Taco Bell. But I did notice that a lot of mushrooms were picked out of the tacos and left on the plate. Many children said they would like to make them at home — probably without the mushrooms.

And that is the most rewarding part of the program, when the children bring the lessons home and share what they have learned with their families. “The other day I had one family tell me they are still making the Greek turkey burgers from three years ago,” Zaccario said.

It also happened last week at the home of Yandiel Marin. “He made his first dinner for us the other night, spaghetti and sausage,” said his father, Nelson Marin. “He is really into it. We went to the supermarket, he had his recipe, and we got all the ingredients,” he said. They came home and Yandiel made the whole dinner himself, boiling the pasta, cooking the sausage, making the sauce. “I was very proud of him,” his father said. “It was really good!”

“I was proud, too,” said Yandiel, beaming with the satisfaction of an accomplished cook.

Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at mydaughterskitchen@gmail.com.

The completed turkey and mushroom tacos.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
The completed turkey and mushroom tacos.

Turkey & Mushroom Tacos


Makes 6 servings


1 teaspoon olive oil

16 ounces mushrooms, sliced

1 pound ground turkey

1 medium onion, peeled and diced

1 green pepper, top and inner membrane removed, diced

2 teaspoons chili powder

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

One 15-ounce can petite diced tomatoes, drained and liquid reserved

12 hard corn taco shells, corn

6 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated

1 avocado, peeled, pit removed and sliced


Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the mushrooms and cook until they brown and release their juices, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat.


Meanwhile, heat a second skillet over medium heat and add the ground turkey and diced onions. Stir, breaking up the meat with the back of a wooden spoon. Add the diced peppers. Add the chili powder, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Stir until the meat is brown and is no longer pink.


Add the drained diced tomatoes and cook until all the vegetables are tender and tomatoes have cooked down, about 15 minutes. Add reserved liquid from tomatoes if a soupier mixture is desired.


Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. When the sauce is thickened and vegetables are soft, turn off the heat. Spoon some of the mixture into each shell, top with the mushrooms and grated cheese.


Place the filled tacos on a baking sheet and heat in the oven for about 8 minutes, until heated through and the cheese is melted. Remove from the oven. Top with sliced avocado and serve.


Per serving : 522 calories, 31 g fat, 97 mg cholesterol, 575 mg sodium, 968 mg potassium, 37 g carbohydrates, 7 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar, 32 g protein