Do you remember the first time you cracked an egg? The first time you mixed ingredients in a bowl or baked something in the oven? The first time you sliced a tomato?
For many, it was with their parents or grandparents as a small child in the kitchen. For others, it was in home economics class. But for the kids assembled at The Dinner Store on Center Street in Brewer this week, those first-time cooking experiences came under the watchful eye of Alison and Stan Small, who opened the business just over a year ago. During February vacation week, The Dinner Store is offering a five-day class called “Kids in the Kitchen: Basics to Build On,” for area students in grades five through eight.
“I really was blown away when some of the kids said they’d never cracked an egg before,” said Alison Small, who on Monday led the morning and afternoon sessions in making soft pretzels from scratch, and constructing miniature herb gardens. “These are 12-, 13-year-old kids, and they’ve gone their whole lives without ever making scrambled eggs. Even I can’t believe how little a lot of kids know about nutrition and cooking.”
According to the American Medical Association, 32 percent of U.S. children are overweight or obese, among the highest in the world. There are multiple factors contributing to the skyrocketing rates of obesity among Americans, but if there is one leading cause, it’s unhealthful diets. The prevalence of processed foods, sugary sodas and misleading information about nutrition content all mean that millions of kids grow up not knowing what makes a healthful diet.
Along with the unfortunate health side effects, cooking food is rapidly becoming a lost art. With ready-made, microwaveable dinners and fast food constantly available, cooking from scratch isn’t always done in the home. The removal of home economics from curriculums means kids don’t learn those skills in school, either. There aren’t homemade cookies in the jar, and Dad doesn’t always have a secret recipe.
“Parents don’t take the time to teach kids about this stuff,” said Alison, who with Stan is a parent to four children. “You think, ‘I’ll get to it eventually,’ and then, all of a sudden, they barely know how to make pasta. We thought a class like this would help teach some of those basic skills, since not everyone is getting it at home. And it’s really important.”
The students will leave class on Friday with a four-person meal to feed their family. They’ll make soft pretzels and apple pie from scratch, homemade ravioli and marinara sauce, homemade bread and a garden salad with from-scratch salad dressing. Meal assembly and prepare-ahead food is the whole purpose of The Dinner Store — making homemade dinners an easier prospect for on-the-go families, for a low cost.
Britney Eberhardt, an eighth-grade student at Bucksport Middle School, saw the value in learning how to cook. She already has a good understanding of healthful food — she’s a vegetarian — but combining yeast, water, flour and a tablespoon of brown sugar in order to make pretzels is something she’s never done before.
“I think learning to cook will make you more successful in life,” said Eberhardt. “If you know how to cook, people will think you’re responsible and smart.”
For Jordan Ayer, a seventh grader at the James F. Doughty School in Bangor, cooking is an entirely foreign concept. Thus far, he has successfully made boxed macaroni and cheese, and that’s it. Monday’s class was his first time watching dough rise. As far as what makes food healthful, he had some vague notions.
“You’re supposed to have protein, and not too much fat or carbs,” said Ayer. “You aren’t supposed to eat, like, candy bars all the time. Deep-fried doughnuts aren’t good for you. I try to eat bananas and stuff every day. I like cereal a lot too.”
Alison and Stan are trying to instill some basic nutrition concepts over the course of the week, along with cooking skills.
“It’s been really interesting, talking to the kids this week, because they have really weird ideas about what makes something healthy,” said Stan Small, who has also worked as a personal trainer. “They think you either eat nothing but vegetables and protein, or you eat nothing but cookies and pizza. You can have a cookie sometimes. Just don’t eat three cookies every day. And try to make them yourself.”
“They tend to believe what the different fad diets tell them,” said Alison. “They think you eat magic food, and suddenly you’re not fat. They think you have to eat diet food to be healthy, when in reality it just couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
The vacation cooking camp is the first class The Dinner Store has offered. Stan Small said that, starting in March, both adult and kids’ cooking classes will be offered on weekends.
“I think both kids and adults can benefit from this,” said Stan. “Making stuff from scratch can be fun, and it’ll almost always turn out better. And even if it doesn’t, you feel kind of proud that you made it yourself. And maybe you’ll try again.”
Fourteen-year-old William S. Cohen School student Elizabeth Lewis, one of the students in the class, admitted that she is a big fan of bacon, and sour cream and onion potato chips. But she also likes fresh vegetables and lean meats, like the pork roast her parents prepare for dinner sometimes. After making some of the recipes in the cooking class, she’s ready to move onto the next level.
“I want to learn how to be a pastry chef,” she said. “But I also like salad.”
For more information on The Dinner Store, including each month’s make-ahead meal menu and future cooking classes, visit www.mainedinnerstore.com, or call 989-2188. All meals offered at The Dinner Store are nutritionally evaluated and rated by the Guiding Stars Licensing Company.
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