Allison Hofstedt knows that what she dishes out at the dinner table affects her family's health at least as much as time spent at the doctor's office.

But experimenting with fresh ingredients and different spices can be time-consuming and expensive — not to mention fruitless if her three kids won't eat the results.

"I didn't have a lot of confidence in my cooking," she said.

Now the Hofstedts, of St. Paul, make up one of more than 220 families that have received a series of healthy make-at-home meal kits from East Side Table, a nonprofit of 13 community organizations convened by Fairview Health Services.

East Side Table's mission is to improve community health on St. Paul's East Side, one meal at a time. It's sponsoring meals at nonprofits and schools, hosting free cooking demonstrations and distributing hundreds of meal kits — 6,100 so far. Sign-up for another round of kits starts in August.

The Fairview Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the health system, has invested more than $1.5 million into the East Side Health and Well-being Collaborative, which includes East Side Table. Other funders includes the Bush Foundation, the St. Paul Foundation and Ramsey County.

John Swanholm, president of the Fairview Foundation, said that finding innovative health care approaches through such partnerships "is one way that we are addressing the social determinants of health, the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age."

"As much as 90 percent of what makes us healthy happens outside the walls of a clinic," said Terese Hill, coordinator for East Side Table.

That growing understanding has fueled East Side Table's work. Obesity is poised to eclipse smoking as the No. 1 cause of cancer, according to a recent Washington Post report.

After 60 years of steep declines, cardiovascular and heart disease death rates have plateaued in recent years, according to the Wall Street Journal. Doctors and researchers trace that back to rising obesity.

East Side Table holds that the environment — including easy access to fresh food, fresh air and parks — affects overall health. But a lot of people come to the table with only basic cooking skills, Hill said.

"The barriers are around time, motivation and expense," she said. "They are looking for new energy around cooking habits and meal plans."

Adding flair and flavor

Hill, who studied food culture and communications in Italy, said the meals they're fixing include lean proteins and whole grains. They incorporate warm and bright flavors from around the globe, including spice mixes from North Africa, Latin America and Europe.

"It's a great way to boost the flavor but not add calories or fat," she said.

It's also a means of embracing the diversity of St. Paul's East Side and reaching all demographics from children to seniors.

East Side Table hosted a meal at East Side Elders and it was a huge success, said Janet Golden, executive director for the senior citizen nonprofit. Community meals are more meaningful than a take-home meal kit for seniors, who often live alone, she said. The meals often also introduce seniors to new foods and flavors.

"To have an organization come in and serve really good, healthy food to our seniors is just wonderful," Golden said.

On the other end of the spectrum, East Side Table has sponsored cultural night dinners at Dayton's Bluff Elementary School.

The meal kits, created by Local Crate, a subscription-based meal kit company, are full of fresh ingredients and fresh inspiration, said Hofstedt, who works for a nonprofit.

"I love the fresh herbs," she said. "Now I am not afraid to get fresh herbs because I know how to use them."

Last week, Hofstedt prepared a meal kit of Cuban-style beef picadillo for her three children, her 2-year-old granddaughter and a family friend. The kids lingered in the kitchen waiting for her to finish making dinner, sampling some olives included in the meal kit as garnish. The aroma from the beef and beans spiced with garlic, cilantro and cumin filled the home, and cooked carrot slices added color.

When Hofstedt served the food, her 10-year-old son Darweshi dug in. Mom waited for the verdict.

"It's good," Darweshi said between chews, "I will tell you that."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804