Turkey tacos were on the menu for dinner Tuesday night as Jasmine Martinez and Alexia Martinez sat side by side chopping tomatoes.
“Don’t squish the tomato,” Jasmine told her eight-year-old daughter, demonstrating the light grip she had on hers.
Next to the Martinez duo, other mothers and daughters grated cheese and shredded lettuce. At a nearby table children scooped balls of pumpkin raisin breakfast cookie dough onto a cookie sheet, while their mothers worked on frying the ground turkey for the tacos. Another group made homemade granola and scooped out pomegranates in preparation for making yogurt parfaits.
The food was all provided by Cooking Matters for Families, a free six-week course offered at McNary Heights Elementary School through a partnership between Umatilla School District, Umatilla Morrow County Head Start and the Oregon State University Extension.
“My daughter wants to learn how to cook,” Jasmine said. “I’m not going to say no.”
Usually Head Start offers Cooking Matters to parents only, but instructor Mary Lou Gutierrez said when the school district offered to partner with them they decided to try the Cooking Matters for Family course instead so that children could be involved in the process.
“I think involving the child entices them to eat what they were busy making,” Gutierrez said.
She said parents have been surprised at some of the fruits and vegetables their children have been willing to try after having a hand in cooking them. On Tuesday a few children were hesitant to try the pomegranates (one complained the seeds “look like pimples”) but in the end were willing to give it a go.
Tuesday was the last day of the course in Umatilla, but a new round of Cooking Matters for Families will start in Irrigon in January. In addition to the hands-on cooking portion of each class, the course teaches cooking vocabulary, following a recipe, principles of measurement, sanitation, knife safety, nutrition, budgeting and trying new foods.
At the end of each class families are sent home with the day’s recipes and the ingredients to make the dishes again in their own kitchen. They are then asked to report back on how it turned out and what adjustments they made to suit their family’s tastes.
Denise Griffith participated in the course with her daughter Zoe Griffith, 8, because she took the parents-only Cooking Matters class through Head Start a few years ago and wanted to teach Zoe the same principles.
“I walked away with so much knowledge I thought it would be a good idea to take it again,” she said.
Rikkilyn Larsen, nutrition director for Umatilla School District, said the district offered to help pay for the course and provide the space because they have been focused on helping students and their families carry good nutritional practices beyond the school cafeteria into their own homes.
“We’re trying to get more kids to understand why we put what we put on their plates,” she said.
One of those kids there on Tuesday was Mary Castro, 10. She said her favorite dish they had learned how to make was gingerbread pancakes. She said she had been practicing cooking at home with her family.
“It’s fun,” she said.
Mathea Pedersen, 10, said she already knew how to cook some things.
“I can make quesadillas, peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese and with some help I can make cheeseburgers,” she said.
She wanted to learn how to make other things, though, and asked instructor Angie Treadwell of the extension office if she could bring home the recipe for the pumpkin breakfast cookies she was helping make.
“You can,” Treadwell replied.
Mathea said she thought the class was fun because she got to use “cool ingredients” she hadn’t cooked with before.
Gutierrez said using new ingredients was one of the purposes of the course, along with helping parents stretch their food budget, strive for a balanced diet and eat at least one family meal together per week.
“We encourage families to eat from the rainbow, meaning an assortment of fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Contact Jade McDowell at email@example.com or 541-564-4536.