Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cooking Matters...A Great Program!

I grew up in a home where food was always in abundance. My parents were both Holocaust survivors who often spoke about the time in their lives when food was at a premium--when a crust of bread, or a spoonful of soup was more valuable than gold. When people would, and sometimes did, do unthinkable things, just to get something to eat. So, to my parents, a well-stocked pantry and fridge meant success and comfort...and most of all, it was symbolic of their survival. They’re greatest joy was to feed people, and it was incumbent upon anyone who walked into our kitchen to have something--a snack, a fruit, and often the ultimate, a meal. My mother could not fathom how, in such a great land as America, people were starving. She knew firsthand what it felt like to be hungry and never wanted others to experience that feeling. And she passed that desire on to me.

Children who are poorly nourished suffer up to 160 days of illness each year.

I first became acquainted with Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit bent on ending childhood hunger in America, when I was a pastry chef. The organization works closely with the culinary industry, and relies heavily on its generosity and expertise. Through fundraisers such as Great American Bake Sale, and Dine Out For No Kid Hungry, it raises money to fund their programs and feed hungry Americans. Their goal is quite simple, but unfortunately in these sad financial times, it can often seem quite herculean: “to connect children with the nutritious food they need to lead healthy, active lives." 1 out of 5 children in this country go to bed is unthinkable!

50% of Cooking Matters teens are eating more vegetables.
  1. Through SOS, I became affiliated with a program called Cooking Matters. I taught nutrition classes to students in Los Angeles for many years through a grant program, and Cooking Matters sounded very similar. It too is a nutrition education program, but it’s so much more, as it connects chefs and dietitians with entire families who are at risk of hunger. You see, the problem is not that there is a lack of food: "There is plenty of nutritious food in America and there are effective programs in place to help feed hungry children. But too many families are not connected to these programs." The professionals teach cooking skills, food safety, food budgeting, and resource management, with the intent of empowering these people with the confidence to go home and make healthy, affordable meals for their families. One of the guiding principles of the program is that food is to be enjoyed, and even those who are living with very low incomes deserve to enjoy their food as well. Encouraging these families to prepare meals at home also encourages them to eat more healthfully and together as a family. The ritual of the family meal has been proven to be a social activity that has a direct impact on the well-being of children.
  2. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years.

Cooking Matters For Kids is another portion of the program. It doesn't deal so much with the cost and budgeting aspects of is more nutrition-based, and for six weeks this past summer, it was my program of choice. I, and my fabulous team: the program coordinator, Kate, dietitian, Cara, and assistant, Michele, taught a group of 13 students, from 3rd grade through 5th. The classes were themed (Healthy Snacks, Healthy Breakfast Options, Whole Grain Goodness, etc.), and divided into sessions--nutrition, cooking, and eating, and by the time these kids were through, they had a really strong sense of what was and was not healthy eating. We discussed knife skills and life skills. They learned cooking basics: cutting, chopping, measuring, as well as how to read labels, work together in groups, and even a little food science. The lessons were jam-packed with information. They definitely went home with both their heads and tummies full. It was a great time!

Cooking Matters has grown to serve more than 17,000 families each year.
At the end of the six-week period, the students graduated and were given diplomas, recipe books, and chef’s toques. Aside from having a positive impact on the kids, this was such a rewarding program for me. It was really encouraging to see them getting excited about cooking and figuring out which foods were healthier than others. Childhood hunger, childhood obesity, and healthful eating are true passions of mine, and I believe the only way to better the eating habits of the people of this country is to start with its children. Youngsters and teens who are mindful of nutrition become healthy adults, who then have healthy children. And so the cycle continues. If you'd like to help or volunteer for one of these programs, go 

 Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults.

Here’s an example of one of the dishes the students prepared. Turkey Tacos, loaded with lots of veggies, was definitely one of their favorites. We used low-fat cheese and whole-grain tortillas, which made it a really healthy meal.

  • 1/4 cup shredded zucchini
  • 1/4 cup shredded carrots
  • 1/4 cup diced bell peppers
  • 1/4 cup diced onions
  • 1 pound lean ground turkey
  • 1-15 1/2 ounce can pinto beans
  • 1 cup no salt added tomato juice
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces low fat cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 head of romaine lettuce
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 8 whole wheat tortillas

Directions: Drain and rinse pinto beans well, using colander.

Coat a large saute pan with non-stick cooking spray, over medium heat saute zucchini, carrots, bell pepper and onion until tender. Add turkey meat to vegetable mixture, cook until browned.

Add pinto beans, tomato juice, tomato paste and all seasonings into saute pan. Stir well.

Grate cheddar cheese, set aside. Rinse lettuce and shred; set aside. Rinse tomatoes and dice; set aside. 
Reduce heat to medium and cooking until thickened, about 20 minutes.Assemble tacos with tortilla, ground turkey mixture, cheddar cheese, and lettuce, and top with diced tomatoes.


  1. Love this essay. We give to SOS because it's impact on the world is amazing.

  2. It is such a great program. I don't think people realize just how much good information kids absorb through these classes. Thanks for helping it continue!