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‘Just chop through it, man,’ and other life lessons Philly students learn in the kitchen

Turkey and mushroom tacos go over well — though maybe would be better sans mushrooms.

Ariella Kerrin (left) and Irene Haro goof around as Bailey Carr (right) looks on while the group was finishing the dessert during the My Daughter's Kitchen class at Blessed Trinity Catholic School, 3033 Levick St. in the Mayfair section of Phila. on November 22, 2019.
Ariella Kerrin (left) and Irene Haro goof around as Bailey Carr (right) looks on while the group was finishing the dessert during the My Daughter's Kitchen class at Blessed Trinity Catholic School, 3033 Levick St. in the Mayfair section of Phila. on November 22, 2019.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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