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Glazed salmon and veggies: Good enough to Instagram

These high school students had a hard time believing they could make a salmon dinner for six for under $20.

(L-R) Dashaun Dunmeyer, Essence Battle, Malachi Campbell and Olivia Rivera take photos of their glazed salmon with steamed broccoli and carrots meal.
(L-R) Dashaun Dunmeyer, Essence Battle, Malachi Campbell and Olivia Rivera take photos of their glazed salmon with steamed broccoli and carrots meal.Read moreDavid Swanson

This is the latest in a series of stories about My Daughter's Kitchen, a program teaching low-income students the basics of healthy cooking.

The message is sinking in. Over the last five years that I've been teaching kids to cook, I've seen more and more students who understand what comprises a healthy diet and what does not.

I see fewer children who won't eat vegetables or fish, or who are afraid to try something new.

There are more kids who understand the importance of eating fresh produce and lean proteins, and of avoiding fast food. And many who make the connection between a good diet and good health. But, like so many of us, for a variety of reasons, kids don't always manage to eat the way they know they should.

Take Malachi Campbell, 18, a student in the cooking class I'm teaching at Cristo Rey High School this fall.

For breakfast that morning, he bought a bag of soft pretzels on his way to school. "I know it's not great," he said.

For lunch, he had more pretzels, because he missed his chance to eat the school lunch.

His meals were not a rejection of healthier options, but simply an expedient way to fill his belly.

Empty-calorie, grab-and-go foods are too often the easiest choice in American life, where the tradition of cooking and sitting down to eat has been replaced by grabbing something on the run, ordering takeout, or even buying from a vending machine.

And it's not just the convenience that wins out. It is the price.

Where can you find a hot meal that is cheaper than two McDonald's cheeseburgers and fries for $3.70? There are an increasing number of healthier take-out options, but not necessarily in the low income neighborhoods where these classes are taught and few, if any, that can compete at that price.

Yet it is entirely possible to have a nutritious meal on a budget — if  you cook it yourself.

That is the concept behind the My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program, which was inspired by the easy, healthy, inexpensive recipes I taught my own daughter when she started living on her own. Since it began with one school in 2013, it has expanded to 40 classes in urban schools throughout the region.

Our lesson last week focused on the importance of including fish in your diet, since it is high in protein, low in fat, and good for your brain.

These kids didn't need convincing; they were all on board for the glazed salmon recipe we were making and serving with steamed carrots and broccoli.

But they needed convincing that it could be made for six people for under $20.

"Really, even with salmon?" asked Dashaun Dunmeyer, 18.

The salmon was the most expensive part of the meal at $14 for a pound and a half. Which presented another lesson: that the meat or fish portion of your dinner need not be largest serving on your plate.

Salmon is a rich and creamy fish, and we were serving it with a butter-soy-and-brown-sugar glaze that also intensified its richness. So you don't need a huge portion.

Malachi eagerly volunteered for the job of cutting up the fish — "My parents cook a lot, so I know my way around." He was only unsure of how to divide the filet into six portions.

I acknowledged these portions may not satisfy the appetites of growing teenagers, especially young athletes, burning all those calories with intense training. But in that case, as it was with my kids growing up, I would add rice or another inexpensive side like pasta to fill out the meal.

We worked on the proper way to hold a knife, to make a claw with the hand that is not holding the knife to protect fingertips from being nicked. But in this case, we also learned the importance of working with a sharp blade, and sharpening your knives regularly, as these knives had clearly not been sharpened in a while. A sharp knife makes for much easier chopping.

Our lessons were somewhat limited by the shouts of the cheerleaders practicing their routines just outside the kitchen in the gym: "Shake it up! Really get tough!" came through loud and clear as the girls screamed and stamped their feet to keep the rhythm. "You can't get enough of that… What? C-R Stuff."

All I can say is that the Cristo Rey teams are well served by the lungs on this squad.

In addition, the girls soccer team was celebrating the end of their season and had a lasagna in the oven to celebrate, so the coach was in and out.

It was wonderful to see not only that there were so many after-school activities available, but that these cooking students had no problem staying on task, setting their cellphone timers for how long things had to marinate, cook, and be basted, intermittently.

When everything was cooked, we assembled the glazed salmon and steamed vegetables on the table, but before we sat down to eat, all the kids grabbed their phones to chronicle their meal on Snapchat and Instagram. Essence Battle, 18, and Malachi also texted photos home.

And while we were sharing the meal, the responses started coming in.

"My grandmom just asked me to make that for dinner for her," said Essence. "I didn't even know she liked salmon," she said, proud, but surprised.

And then Malachi received a text: "My mother just texted: 'That looks delicious!' " he said. "I told her it sure was!"