Teens at Cloquet Middle School on Wednesday, June 26, watched intently as Linda Erdahl kneaded pizza dough at a cooking station in one of the school’s classrooms.
Erdahl is a cooking instructor for the University of Minnesota Extension and the kids are from Cloquet’s REACH Mentoring Program. REACH connects youth and adults for mentoring programs in Carlton County.
Ehrdahl is teaching a six-week “Cooking Matters for Teens” course for kids ages 12-18 that teaches the skills to safely prepare meals and snacks for their family. Her partner in the class, nutritionist Elizabeth McLaughlin, teaches the class the core components of a healthy well-balanced mean and making nutritious choices in their diets.
Once the kids mix up their own dough for the pizzas, Erdahl demonstrates how to safely chop onions and peppers for the meal.
“Go nice and slow,” she said. “We don’t need to go fast like those chefs on TV.
The class, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, teaches students how to safely prepare a variety of meals, including turkey tacos, stir fry and pizza with a whole-grain crust. It also teaches them how to ensure chicken or other meat is cooked to an appropriate temperature before it is served.
REACH purchases the groceries for the class, which also has a goal of showing the kids how to make a meal for four people for around $10. Many of the students are from families with financial difficulties. To receive USDA funding, at least 50% of the class must meet income qualifications.
REACH Executive Director Dakota Koski, however, estimated that closer to 85% of the class meets the requirements — like qualifying for free or reduced lunch at school. After each class, the students get the recipe and enough groceries to make the meal again at home for their families.
The class culminates with a “cook-off” where groups of four or five kids will pick a meal from home they want to prepare and then revise the recipe to include healthier ingredients.
Sawyer Latvala, 12, said he signed up for the class because he wanted to be able to step in and help out when his mom isn’t feeling well or she’s away from home. In fact, he’s already tried his new skills out at home.
“Mom asked me to make a stir fry,” he said. “She said it was pretty good, too.”
Kenzie Bassett, 18, had done some cooking before, but still found a benefit to spending her Wednesdays in a classroom.
“I’ve cooked before with my grandma,” she said. “But it’s fun to see everyone else learn and to learn how to make healthy recipes.”
Koski said the cooking class helps kids form positive relationships with adults in the class and ensure they can cook a healthy meal even when adults aren’t around.
“It’s set up to be healthy cooking and healthy meals,” Koski said. “More and more, we’re seeing that kids — not only in our program, but in general — don’t sit down at the dining room table with their family for meals. They’re heating up leftovers and eating in their bedroom or popping something in the microwave ...
"With this class, it’s teaching them how to properly cut foods, how to cook chicken properly, how not to cross-contaminate — things they might not know yet," he said.
This is the first year REACH — which has a mission of connecting youth and adults for mentoring throughout Carlton County — has done a cooking class. Koski thinks it has gone well, but he hopes next summer it can have more one-on-one mentorship between students and their parents or other adults.
“We might also add a class where it’s either the parent or guardian and a kid or a mentor and mentee in our program and where they’ll get to cook together,” Koski said. “That can also help build that relationship between mentor and mentee cooking and doing a project together.
"But also, if a parent and their kid come in, they’re able to have one day a week that they set aside that they are able to have their one-to-one time together maybe with no siblings around and they get to kind of share this experience together," he said.