As a school nurse, Hope Waller sees students with lots of health problems, including kids with severe diabetes. She knows how important it is for all her high school students at Kensington Health Sciences Academy to eat a healthy diet.

Waller managed to lose weight herself recently and is determined to keep it off and be a role model for her students. One thing that has helped her accomplish both those goals is an after-school cooking class she teaches, helping students make healthy dinners. Waller is one of 65 volunteers at 32 schools throughout the region teaching urban schoolchildren to cook through the My Daughter’s Kitchen program.

“I have learned so much doing this,” Waller said. “I’m more comfortable in the kitchen now. I’ve found I can really make it a part of my life. I’m even entertaining more.”

So many Americans, doctors and nurses included, have gotten out of the habit of cooking, relying instead on processed food, junk food, and takeout, which is often high in fat and salt and sugar, and which has in turn contributed to the rise of diet-related diseases like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

But since she started teaching this class, Waller has become a cooking evangelist — “I think I would work at a restaurant for free, I love cooking and being around food so much,” she said. She credits the cooking program with introducing her to new ingredients and techniques. “I’ve learned about cooking with fresh basil and rosemary, about quinoa and Greek yogurt, even things like using tongs to sauté. I only used them for salads before.”

As she cooks with the students, she passes along lessons on nutrition and cooking.

“It’s really important for me to not feel hungry,” she tells her students. “So I always try to get enough protein, because protein fills you up.” She encourages her charges to read nutrition labels and to avoid empty calories.

As the students read the recipe for this week’s lesson, chicken noodle soup with vegetables, Waller explained the nutritional benefits.

“The chicken is high in protein, and that keeps you full,” she said. “And then you’ve got carrots and celery and peas, with all these vitamins and minerals for so few calories,” she said, waving her hand over all the ingredients she had assembled on the prep table in the school cafeteria. “When you make it fresh, it tastes so much better than canned, which has too much salt, anyway.”

Then there’s the cost. Waller paid about $4 for four chicken thighs, with bones and skin, which are cheaper than boneless and skinless. Her total grocery bill for all the vegetables and other soup ingredients was $13. “So, we have a hearty meal for the whole family for $13!”

Alijay-nae Knight, a food service worker for the Philadelphia School District, is Waller’s teaching partner for the class. Knight is an experienced cook who loves to demonstrate techniques for the students. But Waller urges the students to be hands-on and get comfortable with chopping and mincing.

Dynasty Perez chops garlic under the instruction of food service worker Aljay-nae Knight during My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking class at Kensington Health Sciences Academy.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Dynasty Perez chops garlic under the instruction of food service worker Aljay-nae Knight during My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking class at Kensington Health Sciences Academy.

“You can watch, but you have to do it yourself to get good. You have to practice and keep practicing. There’s no other way to do it.”

As the prep began with mincing garlic and chopping carrots and celery, Waller praised their work. “Your coins look so good,” she said. “And now I know what it means when the recipe says to cut the carrots into coins.”

Waller’s enthusiasm and message seemed to be getting through.

“We’re learning how we can make the same foods with different ingredients that make it more healthy,” said Zena Qoraan, 17. Zena likes the class because, although there aren’t many other Arabic students in the school, she sees similarities between the food they are making and some of the Arabic foods she eats at home, like a chicken soup her family makes with chicken, onions, garlic, spices, and special noodles. “Food connects people,” she said.

Elsa Rosario and Jarolyn Paredes chop vegetables for chicken noodle soup in after school cooking class.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Elsa Rosario and Jarolyn Paredes chop vegetables for chicken noodle soup in after school cooking class.

For Elsa Rosario, 18, and Jarolyn Paredes, 16, making biscuits was something new. “They are not in my heritage,” said Jarolyn. “But I liked learning to make them. They tasted good.”

As the students followed the steps of the recipe to get the soup simmering on the stove, Waller nudged them to keep looking ahead to the next step, and to keep cleaning up along the way. “Then all the work is not left for the end,” she said. When the soup was done, the table was already set, and all the prep dishes washed and put away. And it was time to taste.

At classrooms across the region, the chicken noodle soup got good reviews.

“Oh, this tastes so good," said Laziz Davronof at Loesche Elementary.

“I learned that I love chicken soup,” said a student at Lewis Elkin.

The peas were the least favorite vegetable, described by more than one as “too mushy.” Students brainstormed about what they might add instead: broccoli, green beans, peppers, asparagus.

At Kensington Health Science, students and teachers gave the soup a thumbs-up.

“Another winner,” Waller said as she sat with the students sipping the soup. “I do love sitting down to eat dinner with these kids,” she added. “Though I do feel a little guilty. I didn’t do this nearly enough with my own kids.”

Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at mydaughterskitchen@gmail.com. For stories on previous classes and reports from other schools, go to philly.com/mydaughterskitchen.

The finished chicken noodle soup with vegetables.
Maureen Fitzgerald
The finished chicken noodle soup with vegetables.

Chicken Noodle Soup with Vegetables

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 teaspoon olive oil

4 chicken thighs, with bone and skin, about 2.5 pounds

4 to 6 cups water

4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into coins

4 celery stalks, cut into ½-inch chunks

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

2 bay leaves

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 no-salt chicken bouillon cubes

2 cups uncooked thin egg noodles

12 ounces frozen peas

Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat oil in a large pot. Add the chicken thighs, skin side down to start. Brown slightly for about five minutes on each side. Remove thighs from the pot and let cool slightly.

2. Meanwhile, add 4 cups of water and all the remaining ingredients except the noodles and peas. Heat to boiling; then reduce heat.

3. When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and discard. Return the chicken to the pot. Cover and simmer until chicken is cooked through (to an internal temperature of 165 F), about 30 minutes.

4. During the cooking process, skim fat from the top, if necessary.

5. Once chicken is cooked through, remove chicken from pot and set aside to cool slightly.

6. Add noodles to the broth and cook according to package directions (about 4 minutes).

7. When the chicken is cool enough, remove the meat from the bones. Cut or shred the chicken into bite-size pieces.

8. Once the noodles are cooked, add the chicken back to the soup, along with the peas. Add more water, if needed.

9. Heat through for about five minutes, taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy.

Per serving: 409 calories, 12 grams fat, 145 milligrams cholesterol, 417 milligrams sodium, 22 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams dietary fiber, 5 grams sugar, 42 grams protein