Most children make decisions on food by how much sugar it contains, or the color it is, or the shape it's in. As the makers of packaged food know, there's not usually a lot of nuance in their tastes. But an after-school cooking academy is trying to get kids past the superficial part of their diet and appreciate the subtle elements of their daily sustenance - turning healthy eating into an adventure rather than a chore. ideastream's Lisa Ann Pinkerton reports.
The kitchen at Young Chefs Academy in Strongsville resembles a box of crayons - colorful walls, purple countertops, and every bowl, cup and cooking tool is some kind of neon color. It's clear this place is for kids, and for some, like nine-year-old Keyshan Smith, who loves watching the Food Network, it's a head start to Culinary School.
Keyshan Smith: I wanna be a chef and right now I'm learning, and I think it'll be much quicker since I already know some stuff.
Young Chefs Academy offers students ages three and older monthly memberships to attend cooking classes once a week, where they learn to cook everything from side dishes and desserts to holiday foods. Before embarking on the day's culinary adventure, students don their white chef's aprons and line up in front of a kid-sized sink to wash their hands. The first Young Chefs Academy opened in Waco, Texas, three years ago. It's now spread to 30 franchises across the U.S., with over 90 more in the works. Christa Searles opened the Strongsville chapter this past September.
Christa Searles: The casserole has a ton of ingredients in it so you have a a lot to chopping to do, okay?
Today's focus is on an often misunderstood family of vegetables - squash. Searles starts by showing her chefs in training what acorn and spaghetti squash look like and sharing their nutrition benefits.
Christa Searles: Just by learning about different foods and the food pyramid, I think that allows them some kind of ownership to pick the vegetable for fruit over the cookie.
Searles handles all the oven responsibilities and leaves the chopping, pounding and measuring to the students. To dice, the young chefs use safety scissors and plastic knives with dull blades to chop.
Christa Searles: They learn proper technique and how to hold the piece of food correctly and stuff like that when they're cutting.
Mixed in with the cooking instructions are academic lessons, too, from the science behind what makes dough rise, to measurement conversion and even reading. Students read out loud the day's recipes to the class . But perhaps the biggest lesson of all comes at the end of the day, during the taste test.
Chad Hieb: I don't wanna!
Tow-headed five-year-old Chad Hieb is a skeptical eater, no matter how a vegetable is cooked.
Chad Hieb: Do I have to?
Christa Searles: I just want you to try a little bit.
Chad Hieb: I don't want to!
Christa Searles: It's so good for you.
Searles says this weekly exercise slowly breaks down the food phobias some of her finickiest of students.
Christa Searles: One week we may use a yam, and four weeks later we may use it again. Well, they remember from the last time it was something that they kinda liked a little bit and now its in a new recipe and they just -they are more open about it.
Searles also hopes these classes will bring parents and children closer together. For 7th grader Dylan Straw, it's working.
Dylan Straw: My mom and I didn't have a really good bond before and we spend a lot more time together and have a lot more fun together now.
With today's fast-paced society, busy parents don't always have time to cook. So perhaps whipping up a few mini-chefs will land healthier meals on more Northeast Ohio dinner tables, and more families around them. Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.