Parenting involves making important choices that affect a child’s development, from what a child is allowed to play with to what time they must be in bed.
High schoolers in Murrell Dobbins’ ELECT (Education Leading Toward Employment and Career Training) program are learning about parenting through the choices they make about food.
Through ELECT, pregnant or parenting students come together over cooking lessons with culinary arts instructor Penny Greenberg.
“I want them to think about how they are raising their children,” said Greenberg, “I tell them that if they start their child on things like salt and soda, their child will be addicted.”
To understand how their decisions about what to eat affect their children, students learn about the hazards of consuming food and beverages with ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fat.
“If you’re putting sugar in you, you’re putting sugar in the baby,” Greenberg told students at the start of a cooking lesson.
Dressed in white aprons, the students stood around the kitchen’s large cooking table. It was covered in silver bowls that held fresh ingredients – chopped carrots, bits of kale, diced onions, minced garlic, and shredded cheddar. Rolling pins rested next to mounds of fresh dough. Small bottles of seasoning and olive oil cast shadows on the pans and burners spread across the table.
The menu: vegetable pizza with garlic red pepper sauce.
Within 15 minutes, students had sauce spread across their thoroughly kneaded dough and were topping it off with a sauteed vegetable mix.
“I made my pizza spicy with red pepper flakes,” said Sonali Williams, a senior and the only student dressed in a chef’s hat and coat.
The other students looked to her for advice about ingredients and the whereabouts of the cooking utensils.
“I’ve learned so much about food safety precautions, like how not to contaminate my food and how to make sure raw foods are fully cooked before I feed it to my child,” said Williams, whose daughter, Arianna, is a year old.
She added, “It’s important to take the temperature of certain foods while you’re cooking to make sure it’s not in the temperature danger zone. I don’t want my child to get sick.”
As a student on the culinary track at Dobbins, Williams has found ways to connect what she learns in her culinary classes to the parenting cooking classes with ELECT.
“It’s been great to share my experiences with classmates who are in a similar situation to mine,” she said. “We share tips with each other. I’ve told them that my daughter doesn’t like carrots, but I have come up with ways to bake them to a softer texture. So even if their child isn’t old enough to eat certain vegetables, they can smash them up and serve it as baby food.”
Arianna is enjoying the benefits of her mother’s approach to eating healthy food.
“She loves smoothies, [particularly] apple and kale smoothies, so I make that for her twice a week,” said Williams.
Greenberg encourages students to bring in recipes or ideas for what they want to learn how to make.
Students in the program came together for cooking lessons twice last year and made nutritious parfaits, bell peppers stuffed with ground turkey, and stir-fries. Demand for more sessions this year is growing as students submit recipes of interest.
“I hope that we’ll eventually be able cook fancier meals for our daughter,” said Taj Sewter, Arianna’s father and the only male among ELECT’s total enrollment of 15. “She’s very picky right now and doesn’t like to try many things.”
The cooking sessions have also helped the young parents understand the importance of cooking at home with fresh foods and avoiding processed dishes -- not to mention the lure of the two-story McDonald’s across the street from Dobbins.
“I wish I knew in the beginning not to give her corner-store junk food,” said Williams. “When she got a certain age I would just give her whatever, like cheese curls. But now I know I can make my own food and healthy snacks at home.”
Her classmates agreed and vowed to make smart choices about food.
“I want my child to grow up healthy,” said Keyirrah Bailey, a senior who is three months pregnant. “Greasy food can make you fat and when you get to that point, it’s hard to get back.
When students removed the pizzas from the oven, the aroma of cayenne pepper and curry powder wafted across the room. They divvied up the pies and as they took bites, they made notes on the quality of their results.
Shiree Russell, ELECT’s coordinator, said that the cooking classes have more than one purpose.
“I want them to know that having a baby doesn’t mean your goals stop,” she said, “and these cooking classes are a great way for them to be in control.”
The Notebook's next edition is on food and schools. Publication date is Feb. 5.