There aren’t many activities that can compete with sharing a home-cooked meal with family, neighbors and friends. That is until you combine it with lessons that put a smile on your child’s face and give you a repertoire of resources and know-how to keep your family healthy.
Cooking Matters is a Solid Ground program offering six-week classes designed to teach healthy habits, mindful shopping, food competence and meal planning – all with a dash of fun.
At the start of one recent class for Brettler Family Place residents, two families queued up outside the community kitchen bathroom to wash their hands while volunteers unpacked ingredients on the chef’s table. After washing their hands, the father and mother of one family automatically grabbed a can of beans and began reading the label and asking questions. This was only their second class, but they were already forming healthy habits.
Describing the healthy lifestyle changes Cooking Matters promotes, Program Supervisor Raquel DeHoyos explained, “It’s like brushing your teeth. You just have to make a habit out of it. Our format is pretty basic. We just want to give everyone the same foundation – some basics and go-tos – if you’re looking to incorporate healthy eating habits.”
Solid Ground partners with Share Our Strength, a national organization working to end childhood hunger, which provides curricula, supplies and staff training for the program – along with tasty recipes. The simple recipes prepared during this class were nutritious, quick and packed a punch of flavor. The families and volunteers unanimously voted the appetizer – a spicy white bean dip served with pita slices – as the new football game snack favorite.
One rule of the class requires each participant to taste everything once to expand food choices and sharpen palates. The families played a blind taste test game with this rule in mind. While the parents were pleasantly surprised by jicama, the kids enjoyed pomegranate and grapefruit the most – sometimes sneaking to the bowls on the back table to grab more. Volunteers provided tips on how to incorporate their favorite items in future meals and suggested alternatives if those ingredients weren’t available.
Cooking Matters is funded through SNAP Ed and an annual fundraiser called Chefs Night Out. Program sponsors, Whole Foods Market and Charlie’s Produce, donate all the food for the program, so families living on a limited budget have at least one fallback meal for the week. The families were given a helping of each selection from the taste game, as well as all the ingredients for the meal they prepared for dinner to experiment with at home. Not only do families get to practice cooking the recipes, but they have the opportunity to share quality time cooking and eating as a family at home.
“It’s so easy for people to connect over food and cooking,” Raquel affirmed. At the end of class, when everyone sat down to eat the meal they had prepared together, there was a sense of shared accomplishment – delight evident on everyone’s smiling faces. The class is a social event as much as a learning opportunity – a chance to escape from the stresses of life.
Raquel recalls a past participant’s gratitude for the stability the class provided in her hectic life. “A mother of two kids experiencing homelessness took who knows how many buses to get to class each week. She said that every other aspect of her life was so discombobulated, and this class was the only thing that kept them together.
“They needed something routine and structured,” Raquel explained, “because they didn’t have that in the rest of their lives. This mother was able to go to class with her children, which was fun and an escape from worries. At the same time she looked forward to having at least one meal at home with her family. And now she can’t keep her youngest away from vegetables. She has to constantly watch him at the farmers market because he is always trying to eat the veggies. That’s a true testament to what this class can do,” Raquel laughed.
In 2013, Cooking Matters served a total of 740 participants in 58 sessions. This year – Cooking Matters’ 20th anniversary – the program is reaching toward a goal of 65 six-week sessions, and expansion statewide through satellite partners.
Raquel believes in the positive influence these classes have on the lives of those living on low or middle incomes. “For me, this program is about much more than cooking. This program can change a person’s life forever. Even if you’re only working with these people for six weeks, they take it with them, and they will continue to cook. They may not take everything, but they will take what works for them.”
Look for the Cooking Matters app available on iTunes and Google Play. If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information, please contact Cooking Matters staff at 206.694.6846 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.