With sugary, salty, addictive junk food everywhere, it's a challenge to persuade kids not to indulge.
Of course, they've heard about eating fruits and vegetables. But in our healthy-cooking class at Lawton Elementary, I tried to appeal to their fifth-grade values: good looks, good grades, athletic prowess.
Eating healthy food gives you more energy, makes you look better, helps your brain work better, makes your body respond better at sports, I told them.
"It's like a car," I said. "It needs good fuel to run well."
To help the students understand, we compared the nutritional information on a bag of gummy worms and a pear, on a bag of yogurt-covered pretzels and a bag of carrots.
Both snack bags looked as if they could be demolished in the course of one TV show, but the label said the pretzels contained five servings at 150 calories each, the gummies had nine at 89 calories each - meaning that if you ate all of each bag, you would have consumed nearly half the 2,000 calories suggested for one day, and none of the good stuff your body needs. In other words, empty, wasted calories.
The kids listened patiently and seemed to get the message, but clearly, habits will not change overnight.
"Do we get to eat them now?" said Aneza Abalo. "I would only eat one or two and save the rest for later," she promised.
"Umm, no," I said. "I brought beautiful strawberries and pears, and you can eat them as soon as you wash them."
Three school district officials who had dropped by to observe were witnesses: The strawberries vanished in seconds; the pears were chomped into, juice running down chins. Who says kids won't eat fresh fruit?
The recipe for our fifth week was penne with tuna, peas, and zucchini. But it could be made with almost any vegetable, I told them, and instead of zucchini, I brought asparagus, which Christian McKinney said was his favorite vegetable, and broccoli, which Nick Rodriguez said was his. I also brought peas, garlic, and a leek, which we had used before, for more options. I asked for a show of hands for which things to include, and they voted - some more enthusiastically than others - to use them all.
"I love it!" I said.
We set a large pot of water to boil on the stove, then washed and attacked the vegetables, beginning with the asparagus.
Just about an inch from the bottom, there's a natural breaking point, I told the kids, and they quickly got the hang of snapping off the woody ends, then breaking the thin spears into three pieces, and, voilà, asparagus was beautifully prepped.
Aneza and Nysirah Hall moved on to the broccoli, cutting the head into bite-size pieces of floret and stem.
Kimberly Luu meticulously pulled the leaves from the fresh parsley and chopped it for the final garnish. Nick make quick work of washing and slicing the leek, while Christian expertly smashed the garlic and sliced it.
"I'm like the young chef [Gordon] Ramsay," Christian said proudly.
"The boys get all the fun jobs!" said Aneza.
"That's because we're better and faster!" said Christian.
"Not true!" cried the girls in chorus.
"Remember," Nick said to Christian, "the reason we even have these classes is because of girls - Miss Maureen and teaching her daughter to cook."
"You will make a good politician one day," I told him. The girls scored the task of zesting the lemon and then squeezing it in the fancy, viselike juicer.
"I want a turn," said Christian.
"Sorry, boys, the girls are doing this job!"
By now, the water was boiling, and it was time to add the pasta. Kim took charge of the timer.
The penne takes about 10 minutes, so the plan was to cook it for five, add the broccoli, cook it for two more, then add the asparagus for three.
In the meantime, we had to sauté the garlic and the leeks. Kim was at her station, attending to her pasta pot and her timer, but someone set the pot holder a little too close to the gas flame, and before we knew it, smoke was curling up in front of her, the pot holder smoldering.
Teacher Mark "Doc" Hawkins quickly grabbed it and dunked it into the sink of dishwater. No damage done. Whew!
Before we started this class, Kim, whose first language is Vietnamese, did not know the word for pot holder. "Now you will never forget!" I told her.
As the pot boiled, we set the table and lined up the prep bowls, ready to go.
"Done!" Kim declared as the timer went off.
But where was the colander? We tried to drain the large pot by holding the lid ajar, but we all feared our dinner was soon going to be gushing into the sink. Thankfully, the colander was located, the pasta and vegetables drained. And just then, we noticed the bag of frozen peas still on the prep table.
No problem, I said. They've defrosted - we'll just run the them under hot water to warm them up.
We placed the pasta and vegetables in two bowls, and the kids took turns adding the final ingredients: sautéed garlic and leeks, tuna, lemon zest and juice, peas, olive oil, and last, parsley.
The final presentation was quite lovely, and the kids were impressed themselves.
How is it? One school official asked the kids.
"Amazing!" said Christian, shoveling it in.
"Really good!" said Nysirah.
They finished and went back for seconds. I was surprised to see that the asparagus was not avoided.
"I learned asparagus is good!" wrote Aneza after class.
I had given each student a bag of all the ingredients for making the dish at home. As Nick packed his in his backpack, he pulled out a bag of Cheetos. I'd like to say he chucked it in the trash. But instead, he ripped it open and started crunching.