Teaching Kids the ABC’s (Apples, Beets and Carrots)

We all know that kids are quite often picky eaters. Their perfect world is a reverse food pyramid. Anyone who has argued in favor of veggies over gummy bears would gladly welcome a way to get kids excited about healthy eating. Lucky for city kids and parents, there’s Allergic to Salad, a series of kids’ cooking classes organized by Stacey Ornstein, a writer, and chef whose past collaborators include Mark Bittman and the Food Network.

Since 2006, Ornstein has been teaching cooking classes around the city. She first started working with Spoons Across America, a New York-based organization pioneering nutrition-based education for children. She currently develops curriculum, recipes, and teaches healthy, international cooking classes in NYC public school after-school programs, summer camps, gardens, adult ESOL classes, libraries, the Institute of Culinary Education, and at various “pop-up” locations. Ornstein also continues her partnership with Spoons Across America, now as Director of Programs.

With the positive feedback generated from her classes and with funds from various sources such as the Western Queens Greening Initiative and ioby.org, Ornstein has recently founded Allergic to Salad. Initially started as a blog chronicling her classes and cooking philosophy, this April sees the launch of Allergic to Salad classes. Currently, funds for another series of classes are being raised through the organization ioby.org. This month’s classes show kids ages 2-3 and 4-10 how to make their own pasta lunches from scratch, not with a box but by filling a bag with ingredients and using a fun shaken’ make a technique.

As the NYC borough with a vast wealth of culinary traditions, one might think that Queens kids have healthy home-cooked meals. But, many families can’t make the kind of schedule that involves cooking nutritious meals each night. The unfortunate consequences can lead to health problems including obesity and diabetes. Classic excuses for a neglected kitchen are lack of time, money, or skill. But, Allergic to Salad breaks down those barriers. Using global inspiration to make everything from chocolate beet cakes to Indian kachori celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi, Stacey proves that both kids and adults can get excited about vegetables if they only give them a chance.

Ornstein takes inspiration from her own childhood for her class philosophy. Growing up, she was always cooking up a storm with her family. Dinnertime was a chance to come together and take turns wowing the rest of the table with edible creations. Nothing had to be complex. Supper could be pasta and a colorfully arranged salad. Whether simple or a little more involved mealtime was a platform for creativity in the family.

Memories of gathering around the the table, ready to try whatever your brother, sister, or parents cooked up, turned Ornstein into an adventurer in food flavors. Her exploratory attitude is reflected in the only two rules of the Allergic to Salad kitchen : “try everything” and “you don’t have to like it.” This combination of curiosity and openness characterizes the tone of class. And it works. One minute kids look at beets with disgust, the next minute when the fiercely pink veggies are in chocolate cakes, they’re eating them up. And just like the bright fuchsia hue of those beets, enthusiasm is contagious. When children proudly bring home a recipe, they want the whole family to get involved and try it.

Collaboration is the key to fostering healthy eating habits in families. When parents see that their children want to eat spinach, half the battle is over. Using whole, unprocessed foods and taking part in mealtime, kids begin to understand the origins of the food they eat. Recipes in the Allergic to Salad kitchen use the most local and readily available ingredients possible. They’re geared to be accessible to all budgets and schedules. With many arguments in favor and excuses quashed, what are you waiting for?