This is the latest in a series of stories about My Daughter’s Kitchen, a program teaching low-income students the basics of healthy cooking.
The breakfast offerings at Cristo Rey, a Catholic high school in North Philadelphia, are not much different from what you’d find at a budget hotel.
A large pan of hot scrambled eggs, packaged banana muffins, orange juice, two kinds of cereal in single-serving boxes, cartons of milk.
Some students filled their plates with eggs. Others picked up the Cinnamon Apple Cheerios and milk. A few stashed banana muffins into their backpacks.
But many didn’t eat.
“That won’t happen. It’s not possible,” said Essence Battle, 18, a senior, when asked about getting up early to eat breakfast at her school. She savors every last possible minute under her covers.
I stopped by for breakfast one morning before returning to teach a cooking class that afternoon. It is one of 40 classes that began last week at schools across the region as part of the My Daughter’s Kitchen program. Its mission is to teach kids how to cook a healthy meal on a budget but also to encourage good eating habits along the way.
The first class was a breakfast recipe with a lesson on the importance of starting the day with a good meal, as many studies have shown that a healthy breakfast improves student performance in academics and behavior.
We were making mini-frittatas that were baked for 25 minutes, and that was after prepping the ingredients.
But if these kids would not eat the hot scrambled eggs that were already prepared and free at their school, how was I ever going to persuade them to take the time to buy ingredients and make their own?
According to the School Nutrition Association, more than 90,000 schools nationwide serve hot breakfast to more than 14 million students each day. More than 11 million of those meals are free, subsidized by the federal government.
Typical school breakfast menus include a variety of choices, with popular items like French toast sticks and waffles with syrup, and also what I would consider better choices, like yogurt parfaits with fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, and cereal with milk.
Persuading kids to eat a breakfast that will give them the best start on their day, however, remains the challenge.
One young girl I spoke to at Cristo Rey bought a doughnut on the way to school rather than eat the free offerings there.
It kind of broke my heart.
But then I thought back to my own high school years, and, truth be told, I didn’t eat breakfast, either. I got a cup of coffee with cream and sugar out of a vending machine at my high school and then had a late-morning snack of Nip Chee crackers and orange drink. My husband, who ran cross-country, remembers stopping at the corner store and buying Hostess cupcakes and a Coke for breakfast after morning practice and before heading into school.
So it’s not that I don’t understand the appeal of junk food. When I returned to school for cooking class that afternoon, I didn’t even try to argue that doughnuts and cupcakes and processed foods don’t taste good. But I did try to convince the students that skipping breakfast or eating junk is not going to give them the best start to their day. And then we brainstormed about the best ways to work a healthy breakfast into their routine.
They could make a batch of the frittatas on the weekend and eat them during the week. Or they could simplify and just scramble two eggs before school. Or even simplify more and hard-boil a dozen eggs in advance and have one or two each morning.
At $1.69 for a carton of one dozen, there are few better nutritional bargains.
As we proceeded with the frittata recipe, I also tried to get them to enjoy the process: the aroma of the onions sauteing, the fun of cracking the eggs, the wonder of a pan of spinach wilting down to almost nothing.
We filled the muffin tins with the mixture and popped them in the oven. While they were baking, we made some tea with a bunch of fresh mint leaves. And I tried to explain my love of cooking.
“There is so much more to cooking than simply filling your belly,” I said. “It is about taking care of yourself and your family.”
As we covered one of the cafeteria tables with a tablecloth and set the table, they selected white ceramic plates rather than the blue plastic ones they use at lunch every day. And as we ate our first meal together, the students were impressed with their own results.
“Really good,” said Deshaun Dunmeyer, 18.
“I would make these again,” said Essence — the same one who wouldn’t get up early for school breakfast.
As a senior, Deshaun is feeling the college-application pressure. One reason he took the class was to learn how to eat healthier. “I don’t want to end up with the freshman 15 or obese,” he said.
But he already recognizes the other benefits. “Cooking makes me just feel free and calm,” he wrote in his journal.
Essence said she connects with her mother when they cook together and thought she could connect with her classmates in cooking class.
I didn’t need to sell the frittatas; the kids had seconds and thirds and took the rest home. I did sing the praises of the tea, extolling the soothing benefits of fresh-brewed mint.
But I was pushing my luck.
“C’mon,” Essence said. “It just tastes like hot water.”