Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why We Have to Be Cooking With Our Kids in The Classroom

Marion Nestle recently posted a story on her blog about Walmart promising to support healthy food by doing things like marking the packaging with labels, and making healthier foods less expensive than junk foods. It's worth the read. And I think it's good that big business is involved in the discussion and possible solutions.

At the end of the piece she wrote: "I’ll say it again: a better-for-you processed food is not necessarily a good choice."

Which reminded me of something happening in Edie's school. New York State's Eat Well/Play Hard program comes to her class every few weeks to talk about eating better, learning about vegetables, and playing rather than watching TV. The program is about teaching parents, as well as, kids.

The program is designed for schools where 50% or more of the kids are eligible for free or reduced fee lunches. To give you an idea, our school in East Harlem doesn't even have reduced price lunches. Everyone is eligible, which goes to show you the level of social and economic diversity inside the building.

But the program has pissed me off right from the start.

It was the little things at first. They sent home recipes for people to try. To inspire them to cook at home. Simple home-cooking stuff, that doesn't have any salt in it. No salt. Their Lentil Spaghetti Sauce was nothing but lentils cooked in a jar of store-bought sauce. No herbs. Just blandness. The Quick and Tasty Onion Soup was seasoned with onion powder. There's a good chance if anyone cooked these recipes, and had to eat this for a meal, they might never try home-cooking again.

And the forms we had to fill out. One question said this: How confident are you that you can offer fat free or low fat milk to your child? They are very big on convincing parents that milk is the big offender in obesity. David scribbled into the margins this answer, "Fat free products are unhealthy and unnatural. We refuse to provide them to children whose brain growth requires saturated fats."

I was mortified, but okay. I wasn't going to argue with his logic. Overall, we felt the program was probably lacking funding, they were doing their best...what could it hurt? I mean, I'm doing real cooking with the kids. They know what it means to make food from scratch. It'll balance out. That's what I thought. Until last week...

That's when I saw a man setting up a snack table in the cafeteria for the kids at dismissal. A man from Eat Well/Play Hard. He was putting out little bowls. Another mom pulled me over to see what was going on. He told us that he was putting out snacks that would show kids that they can eat healthy. Great. Love that.

Know what he put into the bowls? Cheerios and Ritz crackers.

I have nothing against these two products and my kids have eaten both, obviously. But this is tax-supported state program trying to make a point about educating kids and adults about what's healthy, and what they are saying - the message they are sending - is that processed food is a healthy snack.

Kids and parents already get that message everyday, everywhere they turn, particularly poor families. That's why Walmart's decision to bring down the price of healthier food is a step in the right direction - a step - and confirmation that this is the real problem.

But here's what we can't have: the government pushing processed food as a healthy snack or meal for our kids. It isn't. It is cheaper. It is filling. But it is not healthy. And don't talk to me about budgets and constraints, because the state should be able to do what a single mother on welfare can do. They should be able to make something healthy and tasty even if it's all from commodity foods. That is what's facing real families with food scarcity issues. So, when the state cops out, when they tell you ritz crackers are a healthy snack, when they make it okay to run to the store and buy white, processed carbs and hand them to your kid and feel like you are doing a good thing, well, that is a misuse of tax dollars and of imagination.

It has to become cool, sexy, fun to cook from scratch. It has to become economically viable. It has to feel accessible, not something yuppies do in their McMansions. We have to push recipes that people can do and win at them, without a cupboard full of spices and condiments that cost $50 before you even start the meal.

We have to not make food a lesson, one that is painful and difficult, by making kids do plays about vegetables and memorize facts on zucchini. We have to not wait for the government to get it right. We have to be cooking for and with our kids. We have to be in the classroom, (and in our kitchens at home), with our pots and pans and our bouquet of herbs and all the cutting and the dangerous knives and the death-defying peanut oil bubbling in the wok. We have to use salt and butter and cream and lard and all kinds of cheese. We need to take measures into our own hands. We cannot wait for Chefs Move to Schools. We must be our own advocates.

It's not sexy setting up a cooking station for a bunch of four year olds, and watching them hurl flour at each other, nor is easy to tote all the ingredients to the school, pay for all the supplies, engage in multi-step cooking projects with kids who don't have the emotional maturity to sit still for longer than 10 seconds and believe me, no one is giving out awards or cooking show contracts or even respect for doing it.

But the benefits are huge. And they are about food, but mostly the bigger stuff, that creating food begets relationships, friendships - you can really bond with a kid when your latkes get burned to a crisp or your pork dumpling, your masterpiece, caves in on itself, and you have to bolster each other and try again. You learn patience waiting for that ever-loving water to boil. You learn that food doesn't have to be perfect or camera-ready to be meaningful. You learn that cooking is unexpected, anything can happen, so it appeals to kids seeking comfort and kids seeking danger. There are lots of lessons here, but the big message we should be sending is that cooking is cool and do-able and we have to do that by being there. Not just once, but over and over again.

In Lucy's class the kids are working through a Jim Lahey book. They make a bread or dough every day. Not just once or twice as a special project, but as a matter of practice. For Lucy, baking bread is a quotidian act, something as easy and as common place as toothbrushing. It is a part of her now. She likes it, but it's not special. It's her way. That is real change.

If we can do that, create that kind of change, we will not need Eat Well/Play Hard and it's Ritz crackers.

xo YM

Additional Note added 1/22/11: Today Edie came home and told me she cooked in her class (with the Eat Well/Play Hard people) and tried and ate peppers. Her friend said it was peppermint, but Edie assured me they were peppers. So, I think the program inside the class is working to get kids to try veg. This is good news. This doesn't completely negate the cheerios situation in the cafeteria, but it makes me feel better.



Mardi Michels said...

Kim what an awesome post. I am literally slack jawed at that EatWellPlay Hard program - think of all the great things we could do with the money that costs.

I couldn't agree more about the benefits of cooking with kids and teaching them life skills from an early age. I am in no way qualified to teach cooking but the last year (I am taking a break this term, PhD classes and yearbook "oblige") working with my Petits Chefs, that hour of my week was the most satisfying and enjoyable.

I LOVE watching kids learn simple skills and I have loved hearing the stories about how they have been inspired to bake and cook at home. Not having kids myself, I do feel I owe it to my students to impart some knowledge but it's become more than that - the more I do it the more I think this should be an actual part of a curriculum. No, it's not always cool and sexy but by golly it's rewarding.

If only I could teach cooking all day everyday. To kids. In French. Think there's a market for that?

Joy (The Herbed Kitchen) said...

I agree. It is a good step but if it just stops at Cheerios and Ritz crackers then the children really are not learning anything. After i dropped my daughter off at school I looked at the litter carelessly blown across the ground and i realized that Miss N always has a litterless lunch. It was at that point, I realized why: I make her lunch everyday with whole foods that do not come in a package.

The rhetoric around what makes for healthy cheap food over healthy expensive food, i.e. fruits and vegetables has always boggled my mind. My husband and I are on an extraordinarily tight budget and it's one of the reasons why we cook, it's absolutely cheaper for us to buy a 10 kg bag of flour and a bottle of yeast to make pizza and a myriad of other recipes than it is to buy a frozen pizza. These meals, these packaged salt-laden meals only provide one meal that is not that healthy and yet it is touted as being the least expensive option.

Cooking skills stick with children. I still remember standing at the stove with my older brother after he returned from Italy, a hanful of flour clutched in my little hand as he taught me to make a cream sauce from scratch. I was perhaps 8 years old. That was the beginning.

Kids can learn to cook and they should. I remember my MIL not taking kindly to my critique of the school breakfast program that offered little options for children with dietary restrictions or fresh fruit. I understand budget restrictions but I also know that if you don't care to teach children how to eat well we'll be paying to take of their ailing bodies for the rest of their lives.

SaintTigerlily said...

Sigh. Yes. I mean....yes.

I read this, I totally agree with everything you're saying, and it just brings me right back to my usual thoughts about East Harlem.

I know it is likely the same in any poor area (Jamie Oliver showed us that) but I'm just so sad for these people, who walk into the same super market as me, avoid the perimeter like the plague (the perimeter: where all the meat, dairy and vegetables live, you know, the REAL food) and end up behind or in front of me at check out with soda, Lunchables. and Entenmanns (which, by the way, is ALWAYS on sale) (Lunchables! It would be easier and cheaper to buy cold cuts, crackers and tupperware!).

I don't know Kim. I applaud what you are doing. Just thinking about it makes me tired. It is David and Goliath for sure. But if anyone can do it, you can.

Bon courage!

Podchef said...

I could not agree more with this post. In fact, I wrote such a long comment, Blogger wouldn't let me post it. I guess I'll have to write it up for my blog....

the yummy mummy said...

For anyone interested,this is PodChef's awesome rant/comment.

There's something about this topic that pisses off food people. And rightly so.

Cheryl Arkison said...


We got a note from the preschool the other day reminding us parents to bring healthy snacks. To save the cookies for special occasions. Tell me, how are my homemade whole wheat oatmeal cookies (yes, with chocolate chips) less healthy than crackers and cheese strings?

Melissa Graham said...

Cheryl, Teacher judgment about snacks that's just plain wrong makes me crazy. At our son's school, one of my friends sent a bag of air popped popcorn with a dusting of cheese. The teacher sent a note home stating that popcorn is a "sometimes" food. Huh? But packaged, processed are not.

Melissa Graham said...


I absolutely agree. To me this is crazy, the program that you describe gets state funding and my little non-profit, which teaches in 15 schools like yours in Chicago, making recipes like Tangerine-Mint Salad, Red Lentil Hummus, and Black Bean Quesadillas, struggles to find grant funding. We don't do many multi-step recipes. Instead, we make several within a curriculum, showing parents and kids that fresh, whole foods can be nutritious, delicious and easy to prepare.

Ritz crackers, harumph. Great post.

Oh, and did you get a response on David's fat-free comment (which I wholly agree with).

Grace @eatdinner said...

Great post. Yes, we need to teach kids to cook, and to teach parents to cook, with real recipes not "fake" easy quick recipes or always processed foods. Parents get so many conflicting messages, or God forbid, actually believe the "better-for-you" claims on snack foods.

Michelle (What's Cooking with Kids) said...

Amen, sistah. This is a fantastic post and it makes me so sad that this program believes that the highlight in a child's nutrition education is Ritz crackers. That is NOT as good as it gets. And after working with kids in the kitchen for over 7 years, I can't agree more that it isn't sexy. Or neat. But it is amazing to watch kids eat foods that they didn't know existed before, or thought were gross, just because they were green. True, our little chefs pick their noses. But beyond the entertainment they provide us, we provide them an education that lasts a lifetime. Keep it up. And all of your fans will do the same.

Sharon said...

L so loved this I printed it off for my son in law who is a 4th grade teacher in Los Angeles. As you can imagine with a wife that is a fomer chef and a MIL that has been cooking since she was 9, he knows home cooked and hand made. School rules and regs prevent cooking classes. WHAT? Yes, we have gotten so litigeous that every government agency is afraid to move for fear of a lawsuit...
We need to encourage all parents to cook with their children, and dare I say it, even a "semi-home made" meal is better than fast food.

Unknown said...

Unbelievable, yet all too common. No one knows crap about food -- thanks massive corporate marketing budgets! Forget broccoli, Ritz are healthy!"


Krista said...

My son's 1st grade class has a monthly stone soup ritual. I love it, I love that we can all contribute to the pot and that the kids sit down and eat it together. Ritz and cheerios have nothing on family style, kid made, vegetable soup.

Anonymous said...

The elementary school at which I teach has been incredibly lucky on two fronts. The first is that a certified nutritionist visits our class for 40 minutes every Tuesday. The kids learn how to read labels, try new foods, talk about food, cook, and practice putting meals together. This is completely free to us and paid for by the local university.

The second huge thing that has happened this year is our snack program. I was horrified in years past to see that with the contract with a new food service company came some incredibly unhealthy breakfasts and lunches. French toast sticks, waffle sticks, breakfast pizza. Disgusting. They also provided a snack for the kids everyday. Packaged pretzels, cinnamon crackers, and goldfish. Once a week the kids got string cheese. This year has seen much improvement. The breakfasts are much better - whole wheat english muffins with egg, cold cereals, etc. The packaged snacks are still there, but they send down a bag of fresh fruit or vegetables every single day. So far this year we have tried persimmons, kiwi berries, carrots of all different colors with the stems attached, kumquats, grape tomatoes, sugar snap peas, red pears, mandarin oranges - the list goes on and on. My kids are always excited to see what the snack is for the day. And the best part is they send so much that many of my kids clamor to take the extras home. It's not perfect, but it's a start. And I'm glad someone finally paid attention and gave my kids exactly what they needed - exposure to something different from what they're used to, and something that is so incredibly good for them.

Nurse License Protection said...

This is an awesome post! Cooking with our kids and teaching them is really necessary to improve their skills.

dp said...

You have put my thoughts into words so perfectly! I don't want my son growing up not knowing that peas grow on vines, in pods or that pizza doesn't have to be purchased from the joint down the street. Plus, it's my personal mission to raise a male who knows how to cook from the first day he leaves my home.

Recently, my son's school has started selling cookies on Friday afternoon. I was not happy about this at all, but I'm the minority. Sigh.

Amy F. said...


This post could not have come at a better time. I've been thinking about this topic so much recently.

My boyfriend and I moved to NYC a few months ago and as it goes when you're in NYC (especially still settling in) we've been scraping pennies ever since. The one thing I decided we would not sacrifice, however, is good, healthy food. Now, does this mean we have to cook at home 99% of the time to stay within our budget, of course. I am proud to say, however, we have made it work.

We scope out the weekly circulars, we make multiple trips to the farmers markets, and we do this all on foot to make it even healthier. It can be done. My boyfriend comments weekly "I can't believe how cheap we eat here." And he's right, we can make $100 worth of groceries last weeks!

My point is, it can be done. One can eat healthy, flavorful food, inexpensively. All we need is someone to use the funds you've mentioned, in a wise way, to teach this to others. I hope it happens.

And again, thanks for bringing light to such an important topic. Especially in light of all the recent (but not shocking) fast food news. (

Gina said...

Wow. Unbelievable. And this is part of our education can they claim that they're teaching our children? Such a sad state of affairs. And all too common.

I wake up each morning believing that we can make healthy, home cooked meals achievable, affordable, and yes, sexy! If enough of us around the web and in our communities take up this charge, we'll get there in time!

Nmaha said...

I've really learn't a lot from cooking with my daughter. It's so
Erving we both look forward to the whole week. Thank you for this amazing gift.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - I've been thinking about this a lot since reading about Michelle Obama's alliance with Walmart. Preceded by the Food Safety Bill and the free pass given to GMO alfalfa which puts your organic meat & dairy at risk.

Sadly, the guy with the Ritz and Cheerios probably thinks he's doing Good work. It's scary how little Americans know about food and marketing...

Barbara | VinoLuciStyle said...

I read this post and over and over the same thoughts went through my head. I don't get it.

Maybe we're putting the pressure in the wrong place. Maybe we need to better educate the parents of those kids and not expect the schools to.

One reader said it's LESS expensive to buy your own products and make a lunch than to buy Lunchables so why are parents buying them?

And let me assure you, I'm not on any high horse. I was there. I was the single mom struggling to survive for too many years. And one way we survived was keeping our food expenses in check.

Buying in bulk, making meals from scratch, using grains and veggies often in lieu of meat...that was my daily strategy. My kids took their lunch which was most often a sandwich and a piece of fruit. They lamented often that we didn't have snacks, ie chips, ice cream and candy like the other kids but I seldom did that. Mostly because they devoured that stuff, I won't lie!

But they helped with meals, learned to cook and weren't always happy about that but you know what? College changed everything.

My two daughters were, without exaggeration, the only girls on their floor who knew how to prepare a meal. To say they were popular was an understatement and I do believe they could have raffled off tickets to seats in the car on trips many of those kids craved a home cooked meal and many commented on how it was something they never really had at home. I have taught a lot of young women how to make a pot of spaghetti or even something as how to grill a burger and they are hungry for that knowledge. Often it's from a different economic spectrum; parents who were too wealthy and most meals were eaten via delivery or restaurants...that's as scary for me!

How do we school parents on practices that include healthier choices, taking the advertisers and schools out of the equation since they so often make choices we don't agree with? As difficult is schooling parents who can afford the right choices but substitute the ease of spending in lieu of preparing and teaching their kids how to prepare their own meals.

I can't say I had a great altruistic reason for teaching my kids to cook; it was more out of necessity but I know if I could do's attainable and I'm passionate about empowering others.