COOK!: Getting Kids in the Kitchen
By Hadley Turner
In this era of unprecedented rates of childhood overweight and obesity, the importance of children's relationship and involvement with food, cooking, and wellness are paramount. Indeed, children's food and nutrition programs abound, from First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign to TV shows such as Master Chef Junior to school-based kids' vegetable gardening initiatives. One such innovative program getting kids more involved with food is Paulding & Company's COOK! Program, which offers cooking classes for kids in San Francisco's East Bay area (pauldingandco.com/cook).
A Passion for Cooking
Driven by enthusiasm for both the culinary and social delights of cooking, Paulding & Company founder Terry Paulding, a former chef, taught adult cooking classes for years. As time went on, her students became increasingly interested in going beyond traditional cooking classwork to hold events in the kitchen, from cooking parties to office team-building cooking sessions. In 2003, Pixar bought Paulding's kitchen, which created the perfect opportunity for Paulding to fulfill her students' wishes and expand her services. Unable to find a preexisting space that would accommodate large groups of people for both cooking and dining (not to mention her students' requests for her to cater events), Paulding designed and built her own kitchen. In January 2004, Paulding opened the new kitchen, and Paulding & Company was officially established.
In 2006, after cooking her way across the United States and Japan in a period of culinary wanderlust, Paulding's daughter, Tracy Cates, program director of COOK!, joined her mother at the company. Cates and Paulding worked together teaching the adult classes for a few years, until Cates, in early 2009, began receiving phone calls from local parents asking if the kitchen offered classes for children as well. This immediately sparked her interest.
"I went to camp as a kid, and I always thought I would be a camp counselor, which I never did do," Cates says. "As soon as I started getting these phone calls, I thought, 'Hey! That's exactly what we should do.'" While Paulding wasn't sold on teaching children herself, she thought it was a great idea for Cates.
With her mother's blessing, Cates created the first summer of the COOK! Program in 2009 almost entirely by herself. "We had almost 60 kids that summer," she says. "It was something waiting to happen, and it was sparked by a demand."
Though consumer demand was there, Cates explains that her desire to teach children how to cook comes largely from her own (and her mother's) deeply rooted love of sharing food with others. "There's something really magical that happens when people come together and cook together and eat together," she says. "What happens here has layers to it. We bring kids together to learn a valuable life skill and discover their interests and love for food and give them a safe place to come and build confidence in their own abilities."
Harriet Trezevant, chef and teacher with the COOK! Program, sees other benefits for the students as well. "The act of making something your own and working with the ingredients so that you get to see, touch, taste, etc, every single thing that goes into a dish can often transcend a young person's natural inclination to stick with a limited array of familiar food options," she says.
Cates and her fellow chef-teachers offer something for every child; the classes are targeted toward kids aged 8 to 18 who have different cooking experience levels and interests. The classes range in duration from a few days to several weeks, with a diverse repertoire of topics including "Pickles, Preserves, & Fermentation," "Plated Desserts," "Comfort Foods From Around The World," "Improvisational Cooking," and "Knife Skills and Basic Cooking Techniques." All dishes are made from scratch and range from sushi to sweet and savory galettes, and salads with homemade dressings to strawberry shortcake, depending on the class. Children may learn how to use the stove and oven safely, roast a chicken, and mince garlic. According to Cates, about 26 to 30 kids join each class. They're relatively free to experiment and be creative in Paulding & Company's 2,400-square-foot kitchen—of course, with ample supervision and instruction from chefs, interns, and adult volunteers.
Health Through Culinary Education
With regard to healthful eating, Cates says she tends to "fall into the balanced category. There isn't a whole lot of conversation [in the kids' classes] about what healthy eating is." Instead, she explains, "we bring in as many seasonal ingredients and whole foods as we can and pretty much make everything from scratch. We don't use premade sauces or mixes or packaged foods. So I think what happens is the kids get a chance to try things that they might think they don't like, and they try them because they've cooked them."
To illustrate, Cates provides the example of a young girl who was in one of her classes. The girl's mother told Cates that her daughter ate beets for the first time in the class. "She was thanking me and said, 'I've never been able to get her to eat beets.' But I think that's what happens when kids have their hands on something and get to participate in the process of cooking. That's our goal; we make all kinds of things in class, some of which would probably be considered not healthful, but I think there's something to be said for the joy of eating and that that brings a certain level of consciousness and health."
Trezevant agrees, adding that "Healthful eating comes from confident, informed food choices and a willingness to try new things, including those strange-looking greens with the funny bumps on them or those deep purple potatoes or those ruby red stalks that cook up tartly delicious with a little sugar. When children learn to prepare their own food and gain an understanding of basic cooking techniques, they often become more interested in eating fruits and vegetables and fewer prepared or processed foods. And then they get to share it and nourish themselves and their friends and family."
Dietitians may consider counseling clients with obese/overweight children on the importance of getting kids involved in the kitchen. Indulge children's natural curiosity by suggesting they experiment (with supervision, of course) at home or in a children's cooking class with unfamiliar, healthful ingredients. Kids can bring skills and foods learned about in class to the home kitchen, making home cooking with interesting new foods a healthful—and fun—family affair.
A full list of the summer 2016 COOK! Program classes can be found at pauldingandco.com/cook/events.— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today's Dietitian.