During my first year of service, I saw that frequent lessons on fruits, vegetables, and the importance of a healthy diet can powerfully change childrens’ eating habits. However, sometimes I worried that the effect of the lessons was limited by whether or not they would share their new preferences with their parents, and then whether or not their parents had the interest or resources to incorporate these changes at home.
I returned for my second year with a renewed passion to encourage students and their families to eat healthier. When an opportunity to host family cooking nights with The Kids Cook Monday was announced, I leapt at the chance.
I serve in Chico, CA, where I teach garden-enhanced nutrition education at Citrus Avenue Elementary School. The school has a free and reduced meal rate of nearly 90%, so it is not insignificant to host an event for families who may or may not have access to healthy and fresh food at home. Moreover, a tale that plays out across the US is familiar here too: Chico is in the heart of California’s North Valley, skirted on all sides by plentiful agriculture, yet despite this richness, students do not know where their food comes from or how their food is grown.
The Kids Cook Monday (KCM) project is based on research which shows that healthy habits are more likely to stick on a Monday. A survey showed 77% of people (out of 2,000 participants) agreed that starting off the week eating healthily helped them continue the habit for the rest of the week. Another study in partnership with The Kids Cook Monday, a part of the Mondays Campaigns, showed that Google searches of health-related information, like stopping smoking and searches for a doctor, peak on a Monday. Diana Rice, RD, from KCM, states that this “tells us that Monday is the day that people have health on the brain and our goal is to hit people with the health information and resources they need on the day they’re thinking about it.”
Additionally, children in families who regularly eat dinner together are far less likely to be obese, are more likely to have better grades, lower stress, and decreased rates of high-risk behaviors. The Kids Cook Monday website provides family-friendly recipes which are inexpensive, easy to cook on a weeknight, mostly meat free, and encourage families to cook a healthy meal together each week.
In preparation for our first cooking night, the garden class picked the last of the summer squash from our garden, and made flower arrangements for the tables, thanks to the kind donation of flowers from a local nursery. We used the multipurpose room and set up the tables with prep cooking stations, including cutting boards, knives, ingredients, and recipes.
Five families attended, and together we cooked a recipe from KCM, the Cheesy Zucchini Black Bean Skillet. As a group, families followed the steps, chopped the vegetables, mixed in the beans, rice, cheese, and seasonings, and put the dish in the oven to bake. While it was baking, we used some of the family-friendly KCM dinner conversation starters such as, “if you had a superpower, what would it be?” Feedback from families was that they really enjoyed the conversation starters and loved the idea of cooking together on a Monday!
One of the greatest triumphs was the immense support and wonderful community partnerships that made the night a huge success. I had volunteers and donations from 10 local agencies that provided support in the form of food, gift cards, cooking equipment, and most of all, time and energy!
I also secured enough food through donations that together with the budget, we sent each family home with a bag of groceries and a copy of the recipe to make it easy for them to replicate the meal at home. Groceries and resources were generously provided by the Community Action Agency of Butte County, and gift cards were donated from Safeway. A local farm, Grub CSA, donated the bell peppers which we gleaned directly from the farm.
We could not have done it without support from volunteers from Chico State and a local non-profit, Grub Ed, who helped with all set-up and clean-up. The whole night was made possible by support from Chico Area Recreation and Park District and Chico Unified School District’s (CUSD) Nutrition Services. The Nutrition Specialist, Crystal O’Rear, made tons of awesome things happen, all on a voluntary basis, such as opening the school kitchen, organizing the pre-cooking of the rice at the central kitchen, and donating the use of CUSD dishes and silverware, which made it more homey feeling than eating on paper plates with plastic forks. It was awesome to have so much community support; I was really bowled over by it!
The best part: the event really got families to cook together. Several weeks later, I was Christmas shopping on a weekend and happened to bump into a student’s mother. She asked if we were going to do another event and said that their family had cooked the recipe together a few times at home since that night!
For further information on how you and your school can get involved and host your own event, check out the The Kids Cook Monday website. Additionally, here are a couple tips and lessons learned to take into consideration if you’re interested in running a similar event:
- Give yourself plenty of time to plan the event
- Partner, partner, partner! Reach out to the community: e.g. non-profits, college students, the PTA, Rotary clubs, etc.
- Give reminders to the parents a day before; I used fliers as a reminder but a quick call or text message might be more successful
- Let the night janitor know about the event ahead of time so it’s not a complete surprise to him or her on the night!