Enriching children's lives with food

August 13, 2009

The curious youth

At the grocery store with his family one day, Derek Polay, an outgoing 11-year-old, noticed that the woman ahead of him in line was purchasing a number of weird foods and was bagging all of them herself. His curiosity piqued, he offered to help bag her groceries, paying close attention to the items she was buying and being sure to comment on the strangeness of them. The woman, pleased to see a boy so polite and so interested in food, introduced herself to Derek and his family as Anne Quinn Corr, an instructor in nutritional sciences at Penn State. She told them about a cooking camp she created a few years ago and coordinated each summer (which was the reason she was buying eccentric groceries). Knowing that Derek would enjoy it, she urged the family to sign him up.

Later that summer, Derek showed up in 7 Henderson Building on the University Park campus of Penn State to learn what it was like to cook like a chef.

A love of food and children

“Having a professor take such an interest in a child who was a stranger warmed my heart,” said Derek’s mother, Cindy Cox, when she recalled the encounter at the grocery store the previous year. She also mentioned that her son, who enrolled in Corr's cooking camp this summer for his second straight year, was “more responsible in the kitchen, more imaginative, and more confident” as a result of the class. Now, he can be found in the kitchen year round, experimenting with new recipes.

The interaction between Corr and Derek symbolizes, in a way, the nature of the Cook Like a Chef program. By involving children in nutrition and cooking, they can be steered toward a more positive developmental path. Cooking provides a creative outlet to children, but many children in the United States don’t have much experience in the kitchen. “This age range is a critical point in their development,” said Corr. “If you can target them, you can really make a difference.”

Corr, who graduated from Penn State with a degree in English and went on to own her own catering business for 25 years, said she’s “fulfilling her life dream” by being in charge of Cook Like a Chef. “This age group is a wonderful time. I can remember being that young, getting fired up and being eager to cook and learn about all kinds of food.”

New foods, new responsibilities

Cook Like a Chef, an outreach program of the College of Health and Human Development, teaches children age 11 to 13 how to cook and gives them the opportunity to experience new foods, with guidance from a seasoned chef. The curriculum is stuffed with lessons designed to last a lifetime. “We don’t dumb down the recipes and we use the same equipment that the Penn State students use,” Corr told parents of the participants.

Giving children adult responsibility, with supervision from Corr and a group of nutrition majors who help out at the camp each summer -- results in a very satisfying, enriching experience for the children.

This summer, the program was offered in three different sessions that provided children the opportunity to learn about different themes of food. The first week focused on healthy eating (drawing upon MyPyramid.gov). The second week, “Ethnic Chef,” took children on a trip around the world and taught them to cook foods from Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and Europe. Week three, “American Chef,” took children on a road trip across the United States and taught them how to cook renowned and not-so-renowned foods from different regions of the country.

Although the focus of each session is different, each starts with an overview of kitchen safety and some basic cooking tips. Children learn everything from how to wash dishes properly and “mise en place” (getting everything ready beforehand) to knife-cutting skills and “healthy choices to curb hunger when it strikes,” said Corr.

Bringing families together

Natalie Field, who attended the “Ethnic Chef” session this summer, was one of the many children who took home an assortment of lessons from the camp.

“Since the program began,” said her father Gary, “she’s started cooking every night: turkey marsala, sesame chicken, manicotti, eggplant parmesan.”

Her mother Laura said Natalie has really expanded her food knowledge and she frequently searches for new recipes online.

The camp also made a significant impact on Emma Kesidis. Before the camp, she said, she never wanted to cook. By the end of the program, she had already planned a full meal to cook for her family, which she planned on doing two days after the camp ended.

“She was organized, she made lists, she chose a main course and a desert. The camp really helped her become a more adventurous eater -- she discovered she liked much more food that she thought she did,” said Emma’s mother.

The program also helps to bring family members who live at a distance from one another. One girl from New Jersey attended two weeks of Cook Like a Chef and ended up staying with her sister who works in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. Dakota, another child in the class, came all the way from South Dakota, staying with her uncle who owned a goat farm in Pennsylvania. Last year, a girl from Costa Rica flew in for the camp, and the same girl attended camp this year. Due to a marriage in the family, the second time she attended, she was able to visit with her step-grandmother, Corr.

The children sign up for the class for many reasons, some asked by their parents, but a number went out of their way to get enrolled: “I like to cook a lot and help my mom. I want to be a chef when I grow up,” said one child. Another said, “my uncle was talking on the phone with my mom and then I was told there was a chef camp and I really wanted to participate.” Others heard about it through family members or friends who’ve been through the program and recommended it, and many kids attend multiple weeks in one year and even multiple years.

A well-rounded learning experience

The program is not just about cooking, though. Children learn valuable nutrition information, such as how to prevent osteoporosis and bone decay by eating the right amount of dairy products each day. They learn about geography and different cultures in the Ethnic Chef session and they learn why different people eat different foods based on cultures or climates of the region. The children also get to blow off some energy -- they’re given the chance to play Nintendo Wii, Dance Dance Revolution, and create crafts such as potholders and origami.

At the end of each session, parents visit the kitchens and have the opportunity to sample a variety of foods their children have made, interact with other children in the class, and talk with Corr. During an awards ceremony, children are recognized in front of the group of parents for the individual talents and interests. Some awards are humorous (“best Wii player”) some are serious (“best sous chef;” “most interested in food”), but all awards are a sign of the close attention Corr pays to each child, in an effort to positively influence their lives.

Scholarships for Cook Like a Chef are available based on financial need, thanks to a collaboration with Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Tracks (directed by Barbara Lohse, associate professor of nutritional sciences), a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Cook Like a Chef has run every summer since 2002 and Corr plans on coordinating the camp again next summer. As one child noted, it was the “best program ever in Penn State.”

For more pictures of Cook Like a Chef, visit Corr's Picasa page at http://picasaweb.google.com/chefcorr. For more details about what went on each day at the camp, read Corr’s blog at http://cookingcamp.blogspot.com/. For registration and other information on the camp, visit Penn State Outreach’s Web site at http://www.outreach.psu.edu/programs/cooking-camp/index.html.

  • Children who attend 'Cook Like a Chef' can learn how to be responsible, creative and confident in the kitchen.

    IMAGE: Anne Quinn Corr

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Last Updated November 18, 2010