Guest interviewer: Ashley Rasmussen
Briefly describe the mission of Brainfood and its afterschool program.
Brainfood uses food as a tool to build life skills with youth in a fun, creative setting. Through culinary-related activities, we promote active learning, self-reliance, and healthy living to empower youth as resources in their own community.
The after school program is designed to give DC high school youth a safe space to learn new skills, learn to cook, and meet new people. The nine-month long program is grounded in experiential learning as a method to teach life skills and cooking skills. Adult classroom assistants ensure that each participant gets individual support, and the Brainfood staff ensure that the cooking curriculum is tailored to address the interests of each class of participants.
What is a typical day in the program like?
Each day in class, students cook food, clean dishes, and eat as a group. Beyond those three things, though, it’s hard to pinpoint what a “typical” day looks like. One day, we might talk about vegan alternatives and make a tofu berry smoothie; another day, we’ll focus on learning how to safely work with proteins and make three recipes that all use chicken.
Describe some successes you have had in encouraging the participants to try new, healthy foods.
Oftentimes, food fads can dictate what we eat at restaurants and what we buy at grocery stores. But in a different context, getting excited about a new food or ingredient can also inspire healthy eating habits. During a workshop on different kinds of salads, several students whipped up a basic vinaigrette that was both flavorful and easy to make. After the rest of the class tried their salad with the homemade dressing, many students were pleasantly surprised that salad could really be so much more exciting than a basic iceberg wedge. Getting students to reconsider a certain food or dish that they’ve previously dismissed as boring or unappetizing is always a huge success.
How about some failures? Why do you think the kids didn’t like certain foods/tastes?
Every time we eat, both our palate and our brain create different food memories – some pleasant and some not so pleasant. In this sense, high school students are no different from adults: a bad memory of eating spinach as a child, getting food poisoning from seafood, or accidentally eating a rotten piece of fruit can turn them off of a food or ingredient for a long time. One student didn’t like the texture of butternut squash because it reminded her of baby food, even though she liked the taste. What can help is being able to articulate why a certain food is unappealing. If you can pinpoint a texture or flavor profile that you dislike, it’s easier to find foods that you do like.
What are some important things to remember when cooking with teenagers?
Teach the skills that teens need to know to complete a recipe, then get out of the way! Emphasize finding foods or flavors that teens like instead of pressuring them to like everything they eat. Talk about your food after you’re done eating – it’s the best way to pique curiosity about cooking. Don’t worry about little things like imperfectly diced tomatoes or slightly burnt muffins; encourage teen cooks to think big about what they’d like to learn in the kitchen, and the cooking skills will follow.
What do you think is more valuable for teenagers to know and understand: the basics of cooking, or the basics of nutrition? Or do these two go hand-in-hand?
I think it’s much easier to grasp some of the basics of cooking in a way that yields immediate and gratifying results. It’s empowering and fulfilling for anyone, but especially teens, to be able to create something (whether it be art, food, music, or something else.) An initial interest in food and cooking can also be a great starting point for discussing more complex topics such as nutrition, food access, and sustainable farming. In my time at Brainfood, I’ve learned that cooking makes for a great conversation, but nutrition makes for an even better punch line.
Why is high school a good time to start teaching kids about the foundations of cooking and nutrition?
High school students can make decisions about what and how they eat in a way that younger students can’t. There’s a pervasive and negative stereotype that teens don’t care about food, and what better way to combat it than by empowering teens to be resources on food in their own families and communities? Of course, it would be wonderful if youth had opportunities to learn to cook at an earlier age, but high school is a really meaningful time to learn a new life skill.
Would the general principles of Brainfood be easy to replicate in a home setting? What tips do you have for parents who would like to teach their children to prepare healthy meals?
Brainfood is a program whose success hinges on the power of experiential learning and the commitment to build community through food. There’s nothing that happens at Brainfood that couldn’t happen in homes, at rec centers, and in schools with the right approach. My advice to parents who want their children to cook or eat healthier is to find out more about your children’s interests around food and then meet them where they are. If your daughter refuses to eat anything besides chicken, learn 20 different ways to cook chicken, and have her decide which ones she likes best. If your son doesn’t like following recipes, make a simple muffin batter and let him decide what fruits or nuts to add. The element of choice can go a long way toward making cooking fun.
How about teenagers who would like to take the initiative to learn how to cook? Do you have any suggestions as to how they should go about doing so?
The best way to learn how to cook is through trial and error. Any enthusiastic cook has stories of glorious success and stories of utter and complete failure. There’s no substitute for getting in the kitchen and getting your hands dirty. Online cooking forums and discussion groups can also be great (free) resources to supplement and inform home cooking adventures.