Even though the party didn't start till 5 p.m., Christian McKinney's grandmother and younger brother were waiting in the lobby of Lawton Elementary School at 3.
"Do you want to help in the kitchen?" I asked Brandon, 9.
"Me? he said with incredulous delight. "Mom-mom, Mom-mom, I get to help cook!" he cried, literally jumping up and down.
'Do you know what processed food is?" I asked the fifth graders at Henry Lawton Elementary, where I've been teaching cooking classes.
I had just seen Fed Up, the heartbreaking documentary on America's addiction to processed food, and I felt compelled to talk about it.
"It's fake food," said Nick Rodriguez.
Makes 6 servings
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2½ pounds) tender removed, cut into thirds
The first one to burst through the door for after-school cooking class at Lawton Elementary - as usual - is Christian McKinney, this week sporting a fresh mohawkish buzz-cut.
He wastes no time: he glances at the recipe, sizes up the ingredients on the stainless steel prep table, and starts right in, peeling, then chopping the garlic. If I didn't insist that he save some jobs for the others, he might get through most of the work before they even arrive.
"Nick is so excited for the fish curry today," he said. "What kind of fish are we cooking?"
Ratatouille was on the menu for our after-school cooking class, and the fifth-grade cooks were eager to try the dish they knew about because of the eponymous Disney film - especially since the movie version of this vegetable stew was so good it melted the heart of the evil food critic, reminding him of his mother's home cooking.
Indeed, ratatouille is a staple of French home cooking; it is served in school cafeterias and is a dish French children love.
But they may not have loved it the first time they tried it, I told the Lawton elementary students. As I learned in the book French Kids Eat Everything, French parents know that taste buds take time to develop. If children don't like a dish, parents encourage them to keep tasting until they learn to appreciate it.
We were cooking at noon because of early dismissal for teacher report-card conferences, and some students were opening their report cards for the first time.
"I got an A in violin!" exclaimed Kimberly Luu - which set off a round of bragging about how many A's each received that lasted until I could get the geniuses to focus on cooking.
Before starting our spring cooking classes, I had asked several local chefs for simple, nutritious recipes that included fresh produce, could be prepared in about an hour, cost less than $20 for six servings, and contained about 20 grams of protein and no more than 500 calories per serving.