WESTFIELD TOWNSHIP: Carrie Beegle could give Jamie Oliver a run for his money.
As food service director for Cloverleaf Local Schools, she has worked to infuse school menus with healthful choices and tons of vegetables, even if she has to be sneaky about it.
Consider the pasta she serves up in the schools: it’s rarely just plain. Most often it’s spinach or tomato pasta, which means kids are getting a serving of vegetables without even realizing it.
A recent menu at the high school included quinoa and rice pilaf, stir-fried vegetables and boneless skinless chicken breasts, all cooked fresh on site.
So when the school district a few years ago began planning a new elementary school, Beegle had a simple request: Build her a commercial-grade, professional kitchen where lots of healthful cooking from scratch could take place with plenty of room for teaching too.
The district was happy to comply. The $25 million school complex opened in January, with a gleaming, state-of-the-art kitchen. Beegle wasted no time in offering cooking classes to help students and their parents understand the importance of good nutrition.
The “Tot Chefs” cooking class held its first session Thursday, with 11 students, ages 5 to 12, signed up. Each child attends with an adult, and the group included an assortment of moms, dads and grandmas for the six-week session.
Beegle said the idea of teaching kids about nutrition and healthful cooking came to her when she was standing in line at the grocery store, behind a father and his three young children.
She examined their groceries on the checkout conveyor belt — six bags of chips, at least as many cases of pop, frozen dinners, snack cakes. His total was a whopping $215.49. Beegle remembers the amount and the feeling of sadness it gave her when she couldn’t spy any fresh fruit, vegetables or meat in the order.
“It made me very sad and I wanted to run up to him and hug his little ones and tell him what he was putting in their little bodies,” she recalled. But on the drive home, it occurred to Beegle that this man simply didn’t know any better.
“He probably thought he was purchasing what his children liked and didn’t even realize what they needed. That is where the idea for the class came from,” she said.
Beegle’s students were an enthusiastic bunch as they assembled for their first class, which was taught by Beegle and her husband, Craig Beegle, a chef for AVI Food Service who volunteered to assist. Members of the school’s cafeteria staff also helped out.
There was plenty of safety talk — the importance of washing hands before handling food, the correct way to hold a knife, and the need to thoroughly wash all vegetables and fruits before eating them. But Beegle also discussed issues about nutrition that even had some of the parents sitting up and paying attention.
She began by describing a typical family meal of pasta with meat sauce, garlic bread and salad, and showed how the meal could be transformed by sauteing plenty of fresh vegetables to add to the pasta, substituting fresh tomato-topped bruschetta for cheesy garlic bread, and using a marinara sauce or turkey meatballs instead of the more fattening meat versions.
Beegle showed three different types of store-bought pasta sauce. A less-expensive can was filled with high-fructose corn syrup and was high in sodium. A better brand, while lower in sugar and sodium, was high in fat and costly — $7.99 per jar. A third, option, a store brand, was on sale for just $1 per jar, and was lower in salt, fat and sugar than the others. Beegle wanted the parents to see how they could make more healthful choices even on a budget.
She emphasized simple switches, such as a vegetable-based pasta instead of the traditional white pasta, or swapping out iceberg lettuce in salads for more nutritious mixed greens.
The comparison was eye-opening for Nate Hess, who was attending with his 7-year-old son, Ethan, a first-grader. Hess said he does most of the cooking, and typically purchased the pasta sauce brand that was so filled with sugar and salt.
Hess said he and Ethan signed up for the classes because he was looking for an activity for the two of them to do together, and because he comes from a family that likes to cook and he wants to encourage his son to learn as well. The nutrition information was an unexpected bonus.
Lisa Kufner of Lodi said she signed up with her daughter, Amara, 5, a kindergarten student, hoping it will encourage her daughter to try new foods.
“She doesn’t want to try anything,” Kufner said. “I really like to cook, so I thought it would be fun.”
For salads, Beegle encouraged the students to taste new items like garbanzo beans, dried and fresh fruits and nuts, in addition to the traditional lettuce and tomato.
Eight-year-old Tyler Pace came up with a creation of mixed greens topped with strawberries and hard-cooked egg.
“He does eat his veggies pretty well,” his grandmother Toni Perdue of Lodi said of the second-grader as she helped him slice strawberries.
Craig Beegle gave instruction on knife skills, showing which knives to use for the tasks and the proper way to hold hands and fingers while chopping. When cutting a fruit or vegetable, it is important to cut one side flat first, so the item doesn’t roll while it’s being chopped, he told the students.
Kayleigh Ethington, 8, of Chippewa Lake, followed his advice closely as she sliced strawberries for her salad with the assistance of her mom, Carmen.
Ethington said Kayleigh doesn’t work with sharp knives at home. But the second-grader kept her fingers in the perfect curl while she sliced the berries as Beegle demonstrated.
Beegle offered up a table full of fruits and vegetables for the class, along with three kinds of cooked pasta, and chopped boneless, skinless chicken breast. The students selected the vegetables they wanted in their pasta, washed them, chopped them, and then with the help of their parents, sauted them to create customized plates.
The classes are $20 for six two-hour sessions, which include dinner — the group eats what they’ve cooked. Parents also receive a book outlining all of the lessons, and recipe cards for making notes on the dishes their children created.
Here is the recipe the class made for bruschetta and another for chilled melon soup, which will be used in an upcoming session.
4 Roma tomatoes
? tsp. black pepper
2 tbsp. fresh basil
½ loaf French bread, sliced
2 tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Prepared pesto sauce (optional)
1 clove garlic or 1 tsp. minced garlic
¼ red onion
2 tbsp. olive oil
½ tsp salt
Balsamic glaze or balsamic vinegar (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice French bread into small slices (crostini) and place on cookie sheet. Spread with a thin layer of pesto. If not using pesto sauce, brush breads with olive oil or toast plain. Bake in oven for 10 minutes or until lightly brown.
Wash all produce and dice tomatoes and red onions into small pieces. Chop fresh basil and add with minced garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, black pepper and salt to the tomato and onion mixture. Place in a refrigerator until ready to use. This can be made a day in advance.
Place the French bread crostini on a plate. Using a spoon, put the tomato mixture on top. Sprinkle sparingly with Parmesan cheese. Drizzle with balsamic glaze if you desire. If you do not have balsamic glaze, you can add 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar to the tomato mixture instead.
Makes 4 servings.
— Adapted by Carrie Beegle
CHILLED MELON SOUP
1 cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
1 cup plain yogurt
2 cups strawberries
1 tbsp. honey
¼ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. salt
¾ cup orange juice
Fresh mint and more strawberries for garnish
Put half of the cantaloupe into a blender along with the yogurt and blend until smooth. Add the remaining cantaloupe and strawberries and blend again until smooth. Pour into a large mixing bowl. Add the orange juice, honey, nutmeg and salt and mix well. Pour into a soup bowl and chill at least 1 hour before serving. Garnish with fresh strawberries and mint sprigs before setting out.
Makes 4 servings.
— Adapted by Carrie Beegle
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @akronfoodie or visit her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/lisa.