Eating healthy is hard enough as it is, but eating healthy while relying on fast food is even harder. Franktown Open Hearts hopes to make the battle a little easier with its culinary courses for young kids.
Franktown is a nonprofit dedicated to teaching life skills to Franklin’s disadvantaged youth. Not only does the organization have provisions for academic tutoring, but the available programs also stretch beyond school as they teach skills — fishing, sewing, wood working, automotive repair, arts and crafts, leadership, spiritual development and cooking — that are immediately applicable to these kids’ lives. The final subject on that list, however, was not introduced until a few years ago.
Margaret Whitesides, who works in the food service industry, was searching for service opportunities for herself and her son three or four years ago when she came across Franktown Open Hearts. Her son was athletic and found an outlet helping with recreational activities, but Whitesides wanted to teach the kids how to cook. So, she started Franktown’s culinary program from scratch, meeting with the kids twice a month as her full-time job allowed and guiding them in myriad culinary skills.
“It varies, so if we’re focusing on chopping, we might make pico de gallo. And then, knowing that we’re going to do that, we might do something easy, like tacos, and we have made our own taco seasoning,” she said.
As Whitesides guides the kids through a recipe, she teaches them everything she knows, from how to use different tools to the differences between similar food products and the nutritional value of their ingredients. She even sometimes sneaks in a little math practice. For instance, she will have the kids calculate how many tablespoons are in a cup.
The program also takes the kids on food-related field trips.
“We took a field trip one summer down to Savory Spice and talked about spices, and the kids loved that,” Whitesides said.
And sometimes, the field trip is literally in a field just in the backyard. Whitesides mentioned that she has taken the kids to the community garden at Christ Community Church, where they meet for their lessons, to talk about how vegetables grow.
The first class of the year was led by volunteer Janice Minucci, who taught the kids how to make three healthier alternatives to junk foods — baked potato wedges instead of french fries, three-ingredient cookies instead of Chips Ahoy and peanut butter apple slices instead of candied apples or other sweet treats — as they ease out of the holiday season.
Minucci said that she hopes these simple treats will show the kids that healthy snacks can still satisfy those sweet and salty cravings and that they can be made with ingredients they most likely already have at home.
“There are really good snacks that you can just eat (made of) fruits and vegetables so that you’re not having to go to a bag of potato chips all the time, and it’s fun,” she said.
Before leading the kids into the kitchen, she talked about the organization’s spiritual emphasis of the month, which was self-control — fitting for just after the holidays — and into the kitchen they went.
As she walked the kids through the recipe for the apple slices, she guided them through the nutrition label of a boxed granola, discussed the benefits of natural peanut butter over the classic Jif with added sugars and explained that drizzling just a bit of chocolate is quite all right once in a while. She also showed the kids how adding a bit of oil to melted chocolate makes it a bit easier to work with.
Meanwhile, Whitesides guided the kids through the potato wedge recipe. She explained the health benefits of olive oil over vegetable oil (“Have you ever heard of omega-3s?”), taught the kids about how oxidation makes some produce turn brown and shared the importance of making every slice even.
Then the whole group moved onto the cookies made of just three ingredients — a ripe banana, instant oats and a few chocolate chips. The kids carried out each task — the math-infused measuring and the fun, banana hand-mashing — ready to taste their finished products.
Several of the kids had been in the cooking program before. Anniyah said her favorite things she’s learned to make are sushi and homemade salad dressing. Avanna said that though she doesn’t want to cook professionally down the road, her brother, who has taken cooking lessons with Franktown, is an aspirational chef.
The volunteers marveled at how the kids often want to cook something to take home to their families. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, the kids have made snack packages to take home, and they even made recipe jars — pancakes in a jar, cookies in a jar and mug cakes — to sell at the organization’s annual fundraiser.
Minucci said that sharing is, to her, a central concept in cooking.
“The best fellowship times are around food,” she said.
And as they finished crafting their recipes, the kids gathered around the baking trays, munching on their cookies and potatoes — which, by the way, Anniyah said were better than french fries — and laughed together.
To learn more about Franktown Open Hearts, visit franktownopenhearts.com.