For many kids, macaroni and cheese is a staple meal. Perhaps it’s their favorite. So why not teach them how to cook the dish themselves, but with a healthy twist?
That’s what The Community Table did on Wednesday, when the Eau Claire nonprofit soup kitchen launched its inaugural Meal in a Jar Youth Nutrition series, “How to Doctor Up Your Favorite Foods With Healthy Options.”
As part of the program, all 292 students at Roosevelt Elementary School assembled their own meal in a jar — an advanced meal preparation jar filled with ingredients for a special healthy macaroni and cheese dish that serves a family of four.
“The goal is really just to engage kids with their own health,” said Michelle Koehn, executive director of The Community Table. “And it went great. It was an awesome day.”
The recipe for the macaroni and cheese dish, which was developed by a registered dietitian, incorporates chicken for protein, as well as tomatoes, beets and spinach.
Koehn said that specific recipe was also chosen because all of the ingredients are typically available at local food pantries and easily accessible for children of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
During the activity, Roosevelt students were given a demonstration of how to cook the dish at home for their families, learning skills such as how to boil water and cook noodles, how to slice vegetables and how to incorporate different kinds of ingredients into a meal.
For the slicing vegetables portion of the activity, Koehn said they wanted to teach kids they can use tools they already know how to use and that are safe. For example, they taught the students to use a pizza cutter to slice the vegetables rather than a knife.
Koehn said The Community Table also hoped to encourage kids to be more experimental and daring with the foods they make. They don’t have to just stick to the usual macaroni and cheese recipe — they can add other healthy, fun ingredients.
“It’s really about how you can be creative and entrepreneurial about the food you make,” Koehn said. “I think that was the part kids really engaged in.”
Above all, Koehn hopes students walk away with heightened nutrition literacy skills. The 30-minute sessions for each grade included a lesson on reading and understanding nutrition labels, as well as the chance to write their own for the meal in a jar they would be taking home.
“If all 292 kids learn how to read a nutrition label and they know what folic acid is or any of the other key nutrients and the importance of eating them, that’s huge,” Koehn said. “I hope they have the confidence to go home with that and be able to make a meal.”
Katie Skutley, a guidance counselor at Roosevelt Elementary School, said she was ecstatic when Koehn approached her about bringing the program to the school and hopes that the experience will start conversations about healthy eating and that it spreads awareness about The Community Table’s services.
“I think it’s nice for our students to be able to connect what they do here to The Community Table, or something in the community that they can access,” Skutley said. “There’s so much they can go home and talk about with Mom and Dad.”