Cooking Matters classes teach families to cook with natural ingredients for less expensive and more nutritious family meals.
A new series of cooking classes aims to teach families to look at the kitchen through new eyes.
With outlets across the state, the Cooking Matters program includes hands-on cooking lessons, as well as instruction in reading nutrition labels and stretching family grocery dollars.
The program is a joint effort of the University of Minnesota Extension Service and the national nonprofit Share Our Strength, but it also receives funding from the education arm of the federal SNAP program (formerly food stamps) and ConAgra Foods.
Last Thursday evening, in the kitchen of Sojourner Truth Academy, a north Minneapolis charter school, about a dozen moms, daughters and one intrepid dad learned to make a chock-full-of-veggies pizza, from scratch, with whole, natural ingredients. At $7.05 per 16-inch pizza, they were told, it was a less expensive and more nutritious alternative to frozen pizza and takeout.
The Cooking Matters program has been around nationally for about 16 years, but it didn't start up in Minnesota until November 2009, when a coalition of educators, restaurateurs, and people who work with low-income families decided that there was a need for cooking and nutritional education here, said CeAnn Klug, the program's coordinator through Extension.
"With busier lifestyles and moms and dads mostly working outside of the home ... there's been a movement toward processed food and foods that aren't as healthy, and people are losing those cooking skills," Klug said. "But there's a movement starting to gain momentum, and it's a perfect time to start in some of these classes to help our participants build the confidence they need with their cooking skills."
That first year, classes were concentrated in the core cities. Last year, the program was expanded to 22 sites with about 260 participants. Klug said the organizers are contemplating additional locations, as need arises and volunteers become available. Most participants are referred by human services agencies or community groups, such as the school.
In the class last week, chefs Laurie Hansen of St. Louis Park and Paula Gorski of Plymouth demonstrated the basic techniques the students would need to mix their pizza dough and dice their vegetables.
Erika Davis mixed water, yeast and flour while Richelle Royals and Lorrie Jackson chopped up brilliant mounds of tomato, green pepper, onion and mushrooms.
The three didn't know each other before the class started the previous week, but they all had children at the school, which worked with the Extension Service to bring the program there. When Richelle's son, Davion, wandered in, she popped a slice of turkey pepperoni into his mouth before shooing him back to child care.
During each two-hour class, participants watch the chefs prepare a dish, try it out themselves, learn about the nutritional content from an Extension Service community nutrition educator, taste the outcome and then get a bag of groceries to prepare it again at home.
In a couple of weeks, they'll take a field trip to a grocery store to learn more about comparison shopping and reading labels. They'll also be challenged to gather groceries to feed a family of four for $10 or less per meal.
Each session costs less than $750, with the money going for groceries. In addition to the chefs, much of the work shopping and preparing the classroom is done by volunteers.
Participants report changed habits and increased confidence after the class: 95 percent said they increased their cooking skills, 85 percent said they were eating more whole grains, 78 percent said they were eating more fruit, and 77 percent were eating more vegetables.
That's real progress, Klug said, noting that the Centers for Disease Control found in 2009 that only 31 percent of Minnesotans reported eating fruit twice or more each day and only 26 percent ate vegetables three or more times a day.
The goal is to make family cooks more confident, and to give them tools to increase nutrition and decrease the amount they spend at the grocery store.
"We want you to be the stars in your own kitchens," Hansen said.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409