Author: Shelby Maidl, Project Coordinator for Growing Sustainably
Eating a nutritious and well-balanced diet is a critical part of youth development, impacting their physical health and their opportunities to be successful in school. Meals that provide a variety of proteins, whole grains, natural sugars, fats, vitamins, and minerals ensure that kids grow strong bones and muscles, reduce the risk of chronic illness, and support their cognitive abilities. CommUniverCity’s partnership with Cooking Matters aims to support these aspects of health with San José elementary school students. We provide weekly classes that empower students with new knowledge about making healthy food choices and new skills for creating their own nutritious snacks and meals.
A key aspect to our Cooking Matters curriculum is MyPlate, the national USDA symbol of a balanced meal that replaced the Food Pyramid in 2011. MyPlate uses the familiar visual of a plate and cup to represent the proportions of each food group we should be eating during a meal. During our first Cooking Matters lesson of the year, we introduced MyPlate and were happy to hear the recognition from the students. They immediately recalled a MyPlate poster that hangs in their cafeteria.
For each Cooking Matters class, we review which food groups are present in our recipe and think about ways to reach the most important part of a balanced meal – 50% of the meal should consist of vegetables and fruits.
A student favorite is the sweet, creamy smoothie. Using plain yogurt, bananas, frozen strawberries, and 100% orange juice we made a snack that was high in protein, calcium, and vitamins and low in added sugar. We even managed to squeeze in a serving of vegetables by adding a secret ingredient – spinach! The students were skeptical at first, but soon realized that the taste of the spinach disappeared while the nutritional impact of the smoothie went up.
We also discussed how to increase the sweetness of the smoothie without adding sugar. Ideas included using riper bananas, adding an extra sweet fruit like cantaloupe, and swapping out milk for the tart orange juice. Students also did an activity to see how much added sugar is in some commonly consumed beverages. They were shocked to see the several teaspoons of pure sugar that are in one can of Coke.
Each week at Cooking Matters, students learn about the different parts of foods and how to use this information when making choices about the foods they eat. They gain hands-on practice in reading a recipe, using a cutting knife safely, measuring ingredients, and doing unit conversions. Their confidence grows and they each want a turn at measuring, spreading, mixing, and serving. While the program empowers youth with knowledge and skills to prepare healthy snacks for themselves, we understand that often kids do not have agency over the food they consume. Families also face barriers to providing the most balanced and nutritious diets for their children. These barriers include cost of food, lack of access or transportation to fresh foods, and gaps in knowledge about nutrition.
|San José school with Cooking Matters program||% of students receiving free meals through the National School Lunch & Breakfast Programs (as of 2013-2014)|
|Horace Mann Elementary||76%|
|Selma Olinder Elementary||93%|
To be eligible for free school meals, a family of four needs to make an annual income of $31,540 or less. As the above chart demonstrates, a majority of the students at schools we work with fall into this category. This means that cost and financial constraints are likely significant barriers families at these schools face to accessing healthy foods. If you or a family you know are struggling to shop healthy on a tight budget, MyPlate again offers valuable resources. On their website you can find tools for planning weekly meals, budget-smart grocery shopping, and nutritious recipes to fit various household sizes and incomes.
Here are some tips you can try this week:
- When choosing between different brands of a product, look at the unit price on the price tag to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
- Choose “whole” foods that come in their most-natural state with the least amount of packaging. Often, foods such as pre-sliced apples in a plastic container will cost more due to the extra processing involved.
- If you are buying canned fruits and vegetables, read the food labels. Opt for choices that have less sodium and sugar.
And here are some affordable recipes you can try out:
- 3-Can Chili – cost per serving $0.38
- Baked Chicken with Vegetables – cost per serving $1.07
- Baked Lentils Casserole – cost per serving $0.68
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