School nutrition program gives hands-on approach
By Bethany A. Monk
For Norma Lisenko, a Benicia mother of three, cooking doesn’t have to be “a lost art.”
In fact, Lisenko is so passionate about nutrition, she’s twice applied for, and received, grants from Kaiser Permanente Hospital to help her share her knowledge with hundreds of students in the Benicia Unified School District. Via the Healthy Cooking with Kids program, Lisenko holds six-week cooking courses at each of the four district elementary schools.
The classes are held after school on Fridays, the schools’ minimum day. After six weeks at one school, Lisenko heads to the next to hold the same program. In the class, students prepare a meal, learn about various foods and how to eat healthy — and at the end they get to enjoy a feast together.
It is Lisenko’s second year doing the after-school program, and its popularity keeps growing.
“It’s a good program,” Matthew Turner Principal Barbara Sanders said. “I think they learn a lot about what makes a balanced meal. They love it. A lot of kids come by and want to do it again.”
Thirty students from kindergarten to fifth grade participate in each six-week session. They may only take one six-week session so that other children may participate, Lisenko said.
At the end of last year’s six-week course, Lisenko asked parents to fill out a survey to help her add flavor to this year’s curriculum. She wanted to know what parents and students learned in the course, as well as ways she could help parents model healthy eating habits.
A lot of the parents, she said, hadn’t realized how children are often more likely to eat their meal or try new things when they are a part of the cooking process. Lisenko said when kids are involved in the cooking process they are less apt to be afraid to try foods that are different.
“Explore your food,” she tells them. “You might be surprised.”
Lisenko substitutes the term “selective eater” for “picky eater.” She said the class is designed to encourage selective eaters to be more adventurous with food. And it also falls in line with First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity, Lisenko said, referencing the “Let’s Move” program. Obama promotes making healthier choices, Lisenko said.
“Instead of juice, give kids water. Instead of chips, give them fruit,” she said. “We’re so far from where we need to be,” parents need to take “baby steps.”
Lisenko said a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich eaten with the family around the dinner table is much better than going through the drive-through at a fast food restaurant. She said she empathizes with how busy parents are, but added that sitting down to enjoy a meal as a family will make a big difference.
Lisenko said she remembers when she first began incorporating her children in the cooking process. Now they look forward to it.
“Once (children) see the significance of (food preparation), they enjoy it more.”
It also helps them become more appreciative of how hard parents work to cook a meal, she said. She teaches students how to be polite at the dinner table.
“I tell them, ‘When (parents or guardians) serve a meal to you and you complain, it hurts their feelings.’” She tells them to “be polite. Respect the food.”
Another positive is that the Healthy Cooking with Kids curriculum introduces children to foods from all over the world, Lisenko said. The students also get a geography lesson.
And of course, after they cook the meal, they get to eat it.
Lisenko recently started this year’s first six-week session at Matthew Turner Elementary School. She is currently looking for parent volunteers who would like to give food demonstrations in Benicia classrooms.
And it helps if they are culinarily adventurous, too.
For more information on the Healthy Cooking with Kids program, or to learn about volunteer opportunities, visit www.healthycookingwithkids.net or contact Norma Lisenko at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-5572.