Supporting COTS with New Family Cooking Program

Posted on June 5, 2019

When Tamira Martel, COTS Corporate and Foundations Relationship Manager, began planning for the organization’s new program to involve its families in cooking, she sought out resources for budget-friendly, healthy, tasty meals for children, and found Vermont FEED’s New School Cuisine cookbook. “I liked the section of recipes that featured using in-season fruits and veggies to ensure the ripest and tastiest produce, but also to decrease food costs and support local food systems.” Tamira explains. “I downloaded the cookbook and fell in love.” She reached out to Vermont FEED to learn more, and the collaboration was born.

Educator Kestrel Plump (left) works with COTS staff and volunteers (right).

Kids in the Kitchen brings the families COTS is serving into the temporary shelter’s kitchens to make delicious, affordable, and approachable dishes together. “Exposure to food and cooking is about so much more than health,” Tamira says. Literacy, skill- and confidence-building in the kitchen, and working within a group are all lifelong lessons that come with time spent learning in the kitchen.

Volunteers will host short, hands-on cooking classes for kids and their parents and/or guardians biweekly, and COTS wanted to set up the people in this educator role for success — that’s where Vermont FEED and Shelburne Farms staff stepped in to support! Educators Jorge Yagual and Kestrel Plump facilitated an evening class at COTS teaching volunteers and staff about food safety, cooking with children and adults, reliable sources for recipe and education materials, and how best to keep people engaged when in a teaching role.

“Think of these classes like having friends over to your home for dinner,” Jorge suggested. “Everyone should be engaged, everyone should be comfortable, and everyone should eat some good food.”

Educator Jorge Yagual (left) works with COTS staff and volunteers, including Tamira Martel (right).

Keep EVERYONE (kids and adults) busy

The goals of these classes are to expose families to new foods, increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables, and to practice cooking a tasty, easy-to-prepare recipe.  Equally important is to have families leave the workshops feeling comfortable preparing fresh, healthy recipes at home. The cooking has to be fun, and a big part of that is to keep everyone engaged. Kestrel suggests knowing the recipe from beginning to end, so when one kid is done cutting, you know exactly the next step that needs to be accomplished. No steps left? Make another! Picking herbs to garnish the final dishes, starting in on the dishes, wiping down the table, or writing out a menu for the meal aren’t often part of a formal recipe, but are great ways to keep people involved in meal prep.

And if you’re worried about young kids using kitchen tools — namely knives — consider investing in a couple “Crinkle Cutters.” “Kids really perk up and get excited when you tell them you need them to use a REAL tool,” Kestrel explained. “They WANT to be given an opportunity to take on a challenge.” Crinkle Cutters are designed so kids keep two hands on the handle and away from the blade. You won’t be chiffonading and julienning with these, but you’ll get the chopping done safely!

Black-Eyed Pea and Celery Salad from the USDA’s Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables.

Recipes are open to interpretation

Trying out new recipes can often mean trying out new ingredients or flavors that may not be well-received by everyone you are cooking for. To account for that, Kestrel suggests making the full recipe without the new flavors. Then, divide the whole thing in halves or thirds, and add different amounts of spices or new flavors into one or two of those portions. This will broaden the recipe’s appeal, make it a lot less likely food will go to waste, and is a great way to create variations of one recipe for a group with food allergies (nuts, dairy, gluten, etc.). For Kestrel, it’s also just a great approach to cooking in general. “There is more than one way to cook a recipe the ‘right’ way,” she says. “I try to incorporate pluralism and differing ways of being anywhere I can. Are kids who are exposed to making a recipe in varying ways more likely to be open minded later in life? I don't know, but it is worth a try.”

The class practiced this portioning approach with hot sauce in one of the evening’s recipes, Black-Eyed Pea and Celery Salad, from the USDA’s Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables website. (It was a big hit!)

Shame-free zone

Most crucial to making people comfortable in a learning environment is to not make them feel bad about what they do and don’t already know. “If someone asks about cooking the recipe with a microwave and you’re used to a stovetop, figure it out with them because that might be the only tool they have access to or are comfortable with at home,” Jorge said. “You know what is right for you and why you eat what you eat. This is much different than the messaging we all get from the fad diet culture,” Kestrel adds. Ultimately, practicing a little gratitude for sharing a meal with others is a great place to start when it comes to eating and caring for ourselves.