Let’s Move!: Helping Kids Get Cookin’ in the American South

SHEILA CRYE (originally pub August 2011)

photo credit: S.Carter

Who were your first cooking teachers?  Lots of home cooks, including me, learned at a young age from a parent or other adult family member.  Some of our most glorious childhood memories recall times when we filled the house with fine aromas and helped put dinner on the table.

Sadly, the South is in danger of losing its culinary heritage, because parents who do not have time to cook or who do not like to cook cannot pass on skills to the next generation.  It’s like the knowledge of a foreign language:  If we don’t use it, we will lose it.  Life will go on, but like a lost language, the region will be the poorer for the loss of southern home cooking.

Why allow cooking to become reduced to television entertainment instead of the real thing?  Don’t let this happen!  Your heirloom recipes are an edible legacy that you can pass on not only to your children but also to your family of friends.   Here are some easy methods to try:

  • Let your children help you make dinner.  Do they know the deliciousness of pot likker greens and cornbread baked in the family’s cast iron skillet?
  • Allow the children to decide what southern specialties they want to learn to prepare at a cooking party play date.
  • Plan an heirloom recipe contest with your extended family, faith-based community, neighborhood or school.
  • Direct an after-school cooking club.
  • Help your child’s school coordinate with Chefs Move to Schools.

How Let’s Move! can help

Chefs Move to Schools is an initiative of the Let’s Move! campaign designed to give culinary professionals an opportunity to assist school nutrition staff, students and teachers in a variety of ways.  Parents, if you know how to cook and like to work with young people, browse the section for chefs on the Let’s Move! website and if your local school doesn’t already have a volunteer chef, persuade the school principal to sign up to be matched.   You do not need to be a restaurant chef to be a team member in organizing and producing activities.   You can assist your school’s volunteer chef and coordinate event planning with the school staff.

Fun activities could include:

  • cafeteria or classroom tasting parties to introduce new spices, herbs, grains, fruits and vegetables
  • interactive cooking demonstrations
  • planting a garden
  • inviting a farmer to come to school

Need help?  Look for easy-to-follow directions to implement these ideas soon on the Southern Food and Beverage Museum website.

Want an in-depth look? Read on…

Although many Americans already knew about the childhood obesity epidemic and were addressing the problem before last year, the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign has greatly increased the nation’s awareness of a big problem.

Childhood obesity was not common in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  The past thirty years brought together a boiling pot of influences that amount to a public health disaster, including, to name a few:

  • the unintended consequences of full employment
  • the rapid rise in the number of snack food varieties
  • the Internet

Although childhood and adult obesity is a national crisis, the southern states are more severely affected than the rest.  Preserving the South’s culinary heritage, and adapting to changing times with nutrient-rich foods is one way to give a legacy of health to our children that they, in turn, can later pass on to their own children.

Working parents

When both parents work, who has time to cook?  In the evening after work the family is hungry, and the easiest solution is to pick up something ready to be quickly reheated in the microwave.  Forty-nine cents of every family food dollar is spent on foods prepared outside the home.  When meals regularly come from quick-service (fast food) restaurants, families tend to prefer a high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt diet through the force of habit.  Children and young people who develop a narrow range of food preferences endanger their future health and wellbeing.  Nobody wants to put their children at risk for diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, but without mindful meal planning, it can happen in the most loving of families.

In the afternoon after school, unsupervised children and young people are unlikely to participate in 60 minutes of physical activity a day.  They are more likely to snack while spending hours in front of the television and computer or video games.  Risky youth health behavior statistics powerfully persuade funders of after-school programs.  These programs keep young people safe and to allow them to develop in a positive environment.

Convenience foods

Last year Mrs. Obama asked three things of the Grocery Manufacturers Association members:

  • reformulate products to make them healthier
  • price healthy foods lower than high calorie/low nutrient items
  • spend advertising dollars on healthy products

She asked a lot.

The prepared food industry takes a stand for freedom of choice.  Every supermarket offers thousands of choices.  Ten billion advertising dollars every year aim to inform children and youth why they or you, their parents, should purchase all types of food and beverages.  The marketing clearly pays off.  Why would the food industry do otherwise, when it has made enormous profits on empty calories that are cheap to produce?

The real problem

Page through power point slides from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention showing changes in adult obesity rates from 1990 to 2009, and the picture becomes darker and darker, especially in the U.S. South.   Fat children are predisposed to become fat adults, when activity levels slow down and girth tends to spread even more.

If obesity were merely a matter of larger clothing sizes and self image, it would be a minor inconvenience.  However, obese people have a significantly increased risk of death from all causes, when matched with healthy-weight individuals.   The increased risk varies by cause of death, but most is due to heart and circulation causes.  Sadly, the obese die more frequently at every age, compared to those who are a healthy weight.

Prevention is easier than cure

In the southern states, as in the rest of the nation, youth cooking teachers today substitute for cooking instructors who in past generations used to be family members.  My own Maryland after-school cooking programs work to prevent childhood obesity by giving young people good reasons to make healthy food choices—because it is fun to cook, and they like the taste.  When youth become empowered with cooking skills and practice with tasty, healthy recipes, they are more likely to try unfamiliar healthy foods, especially when they learn to trust their cooking teacher.

Youth cannot learn cooking during the school day, since it is no longer a part the middle school curriculum in many southern states.  Older middle schools have gutted unused Home Economics kitchens to make way for computer science labs.

After-school cooking programs

How could learning healthy home cooking skills promote positive youth development in after-school programs?  Cooking is a subject of great depth and richness, not only as a life skill or creative art, but also as a support to the school-day curriculum.  For example, sixth and seventh grade students learn about the nutrients, dietary guidelines, food safety and weight management as part of health classes.  In after-school cooking programs youth learn basic techniques like preparing a soup stock, stir fry or frittata, and they also are exposed to healthy raw ingredients that may be completely new and different from past experience.

Hunger, the best sauce

The poet Miguel de Cervantes observed, “The best sauce in the world is hunger,” meaning in this case that young people are drawn to cooking, because they like to eat tasty food.

Young people also like to work with kitchen tools.  Both adventurous and picky eaters become engaged with the process of cooking:

  • how to safely hold the chef’s knife when prepping vegetables
  • how to dice, slice, and mince
  • how to work safely on the cook top
  • how to transfer dishes in and out of a hot oven

Youth are curious about how the raw ingredients transform through chemistry into finished dishes.  Competence is a concept they understand.  By middle school young people have developed the fine motor skills and the attention span to achieve competence in cooking.  With competence comes confidence, a powerful motivator to try more and more learning challenges.

Take action

We live better now than in the old days.  Labor-saving appliances mean that nobody is chained to the stove anymore.  Thanks to the Food Network, there are plenty of male chef role models for boys to follow, when they become curious about cooking.  If we don’t have time to garden, there is reasonably-priced fresh, frozen or canned produce at most grocery stores.

What we can’t afford to do is to shop and eat thoughtlessly, semi-consciously, whenever the mood strikes.  Finding a variety of ways to engage our children and the children of our communities in learning to cook can be a fun activity with great health benefits now and in the years to come.


Sheila Crye is a Principal at Young Chefs, Inc.  A graduate of Columbia University, she spent 14 years in registered nursing and 12 years in youth culinary education.  She spent 2 years as chair and co-chair of the Kids in the Kitchen professional interest section of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.


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