Teaching Teens & Tweens

As I prepare for my pro-bono teaching gig at East Side (St Paul) Boys & Girls Club tomorrow, I feel like I’ll be stepping into an episode of reality TV.

The Challenge (insert dramatic chords): show a group of tweens & teens how to make healthful food in 50 min from start to finish, with no knives. Cram a little nutrition info in there too. And I’m one of the lucky guest chefs in that the Boys & Girls Club has an actual kitchen and is giving us free rein.

Tracy and kids at North End Teen Center

Tracy and tweens at St Paul’s then-newly opened North End Teen Center in 2011.

This is all being organized by Free Arts Minnesota, an arts non-profit for which I used to volunteer, and whose mission is “Art Heals”. Free Arts coordinates teams of adult mentors to lead weekly arts & crafts sessions w/ disadvantaged children at 40-some facilities in the metro. In a push to emphasize health, it has created a new Healthy Minds and Bodies program and pulled in guest chefs to each lead a series of 3 cooking sessions with these teams. So, instead of painting or collaging, we’re going to make food. The audience and parameters, however, are very dissimilar to the adult cooking classes I’m teaching thru community education in the next 2 weeks (schedule in previous post; more details coming next post).

Fortunately, I’ve taught several classes to tweens & teens before, including St Paul’s North End Teen Center (see 2011 post) and at Plymouth Middle School, but in those cases, we could use knives. Fresh vegetables, even potatoes, require knives.

There are, of course, lots of fairly easy sweet treats that we could make, that are highly appealing to kids and don’t need knives. S’mores, designer popcorn balls, etc. Yet more sweet treats is not our goal. And, there are lots of quick & interesting “healthful” recipes, the kind that I teach to adults all the time. But, these are kids in an urban after-school program. They’re probably not going to run home and make quinoa salad. 

These are not adults who have access to cars & money to shop for ingredients or who have gadgets like blenders, and, neither are they necessarily motivated to take time & effort to make real food. We don’t know what their home situations are. In fact, some may not have regular access to food at home, let alone regular meals  — this is the definition of Food Insecurity.

Source: linda5900 from Photobucket.com.

A recent news report this summer stated that 9.5% of households in Minnesota experience Food Insecurity. That’s 1 in 10 households and 1 in 8 children (source Second Harvest Heartland).  Approx 375,000 MN children depend on the National School Lunch and Breakfast program for free/reduce-priced daily meals (as provided for in the Federal Nutrition Bill). In the summer when there’s no school, 80% of these kids go hungry. The MN Dept of Education’s “Summer Food Service Program” admirably tries to address this gap.  During my back-to-school-year studying Dietetic Technology, I spent a month with co-sponsor Second Harvest Heartland, knocking on doors, leaving flyers and talking up folks in North & South Mpls neighborhoods where 4 pilot programs were being launched. These 4 offered free lunches to both adults and kids — traditional programs offered lunch only to the kids and made the adult chaperones wait outside. Guess which one worked better for the whole family?   Either way, hopefully both the traditional and the new projects continue to grow and serve more hungry folks.

I want to teach these kids — any kids, anybody really — to cook real food they can make easily at home, by themselves or with family, that they like and can be proud of, that use cheap & easily purchased ingredients, and, that happen to be healthful.  

Readers of this blog know that these are the 4 key factors in my entire approach to cooking, ie my mission. Anybody can make nice food with gourmet ingredients and lots of time. And that’s great — when you do, celebrate it, and invite me over!

But, the people who would most benefit from learning healthful ways of eating do not surf Epicurious.com or read “Martha Stewart Living”. They do not peruse blogs about gluten-free and vegan foods. And, it’s not just the lowest-income bracket. The ‘middle’ could also learn a few new things. 8.3% Americans (26 million) are affected by diabetes. Diagnosed cases shot from 1.5 million in 1958 to 18.8 million in 2010; another 7 million are as yet undiagnosed. More stats. 

OK, so I have my work cut out for me.  Back to my 3 cooking sessions at the Boys & Girls Club. 

Given the time constraints and these goals, my game plan is to use mostly plain ie unadulterated packaged foods and teach them to combine and customize. These are mainstream foods that most tweens & teens are familiar with and hopefully already like to eat. I’m channeling Sarah Lee and Readers Digest, I guess. I’ll save the quinoa for next week’s adult classes.

For teens & kids in general, the key is not too many steps = quick pay-off. I’ll divide the kids & mentors into teams and assign them different dishes or tasks.

Session #1:  Custom-flavored cream cheeses like pineapple & cilantro, salsa, cranberry, and herb. We’ll use ziplocs and pipe it into celery & hollowed out cukes a la “ants on a log”, and, make roll-up wraps and possibly quesadillas either in the microwave or on stove-top. Tweens into cuteness can make pinwheels.

Session #2:  Easy Eggs and Tunafish Salad. High-protein snacks and meals that a 10-yr old can make. Hopefully, some of the older teens have knife privileges so I can show them how to dice celery, apples & onion.

Session #3: Graduation Dinner of 2 quick stews and rice. 1) Chicken w/ Mixed Veg and 2) Beans & Greens. The only ingredient to chop is onion & garlic; we’ll use frozen veggies and canned beans and broths.

My goal: happy proud kids.

As mentioned above, a year or so ago, I taught a couple cooking classes at St Paul’s North End Teen Center to tweens & teens. (See posts from mid-2011).We had 2 hours and knives, however, which enabled us to make from scratch such dishes as bean & veg salad, hummus, pico de gallo, chili, and nut-balls. The group was great and very willing; some older teens were excellent choppers. Actually, I didn’t have enough tasks for all the kids to be occupied the whole time. So that requires more strategizing in future.

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