With a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of herbs, the potato slices — a healthy alternative to french fries — were ready for the oven.
“These are going to be tasty,” said 12-year-old Essynce Thomas, smiling as she slid the pan of potatoes into the oven.
Thomas and other young cooks at Southern University Ag Center’s C.H.E.F. cooking school had whipped up the dish, learning the right techniques for cutting potatoes, measuring oil and getting just the right amount of basil in a measuring spoon.
The C.H.E.F camp, which stands for Creating Healthy Enjoyable Foods, teaches children ages 9 to 14 the basics of nutrition and cooking, just enough to make them feel at ease in the kitchen. During the inaugural camp, the students made pizzas, guacamole, ice cream and quesadillas with minimal assistance from adults while working in the kitchens of Pinkie E. Thrift Hall on the Southern campus.
“A lot of times, parents are at work, kids come home and they want to put a frozen meal in the microwave, or parents get home and take them to McDonald’s,” said Marquetta Anderson, who teaches nutrition at the Ag Center. “This way, kids know how to create healthy, enjoyable foods.”
Learning good habits early is important, said Kiyana Kelly, who also teaches nutrition and was one of the camp’s instructors. In Louisiana, about a third of children and adults are overweight or obese, according to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
Those convenience foods that are easy to pop into the microwave can easily contain a day’s worth of sodium, fat or sugar, Kelly said.
Although the meals at the C.H.E.F. camp were healthy, the recipes weren’t elaborate or overly complex.
“Most of the items, parents already have at home,” Anderson said. “Potatoes? They already have potatoes. Olive oil, some basil, garlic salt — these are simple recipes we are trying to give them.”
The summer classes were small, with only 12 students per week.
Camp started with an explanation of the MyPlate food guidance system, the federal government’s guidelines for a healthy meal that shows what percentages of fruits, vegetables, grains and protein compose a good diet.
“They’re excited,” Kelly said. “They want to be hands-on. A lot of them are not very familiar with the kitchen. The first day, we taught them vocabulary words. We taught them kitchen utensils, safety tips.”
On day one, they made fruit pizza, a snack the students were still talking about on day three.
Before concocting their savory potato slices, an agriculture extension agent taught the students about cooking with herbs and gave them all small mint plants.
“Just to let them know you can incorporate herbs into your recipes instead of salt,” Kelly said. “We try to tell them to use fresh foods instead of canned foods.”
While he already liked to cook, the herbs lesson taught 14-year-old Kameron Bilbrew how to spice up his food.
“I just love to create new foods and new tastes,” Kameron said.
Young Essynce’s mother wanted her to learn the basics of cooking, but the pre-teen said she also learned that good ingredients make a healthy meal. “When you eat healthy things, you don’t have to worry about it being greasy,” she said. “It’s just right.”