Everybody can cook! That’s not just the name of PreventObesity.net Leader Cricket Azima’s newly developed cooking curriculum for classrooms, those are the words she lives by.
After receiving a master’s degree in food studies and food management from New York University, Cricket was torn between becoming a chef or a kindergarten teacher. In the end, she decided on both.
Cricket started teaching kids’ cooking classes in 2000, and founded The Creative Kitchen in 2003. The Creative Kitchen is an organization based in New York City that teaches students in preschool and above in schools, daycares, afterschool programs and community programs about food and cooking using age-appropriate skillsets like colors, shapes and sizes for the younger students, and geography, science and math for the older students.
“A lot of kids don’t know that they like fruits and vegetables because they haven’t been given a chance to try them,” Cricket explains, and that is part of the reason she founded The Creative Kitchen.
She also believes that food education will greatly help kids’ health: “People talk about picky eaters, but we’ve found that the more hands-on time kids have with food and making the recipes themselves, the more comfortable they are with various foods and the more ready they are to eat and accept them.”
Cricket and The Creative Kitchen team host an annual two-day, weekend-long festival called the Kids Food Festival, where thousands of children and their families descend on a local to learn about food, cooking, nutrition and how to live healthy lifestyles through cooking classes and demonstrations, the Balanced Plate Scavenger Hunt, family-friendly performances, yoga, and other wellness activities
Now hosting its sixth event, the festival was created as a way to reach more children and their families than was possible through The Creative Kitchen’s cooking classes. The festival’s mission is to educate families on how to make balanced food choices through fun.
“It’s important to make sure that we’re teaching kids how to have a balanced diet and lifestyle as opposed to telling them what they can’t do. In my opinion, the best way to teach children about nutrition is doing it through fun – people retain more when they’re having fun. And, if it’s done in a fun and delicious hands-on way, the kids are going to be more prone to adopting these more healthful eating habits,” she notes.
Cricket has also developed a curriculum called Everybody Can Cook, a series of 15 recipes that can be created in a classroom. The recipes were developed so that students in both general and special education classrooms can all participate through various adaptations of how the lessons are delivered and how the students participate. She ensured that all the recipes were pictorial and structured so that even students with physical and developmental disabilities like her son, a seven-and-a-half year old with multiple disabilities and part of the inspiration for the series, can participate.
For all the fun programs she teachers and creates, her work hasn’t been without challenges. “It can be tough to break down the boundaries from the preconceived notions that parents have about their children’s eating habits,” she explains. “Sometimes the hardest thing is showing the parents that their kids will be open to healthier fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and reminding them that they are role models and that it is important to lead by example.”
Cricket doesn’t allow “eww” or “yuck” in her classroom, but she does see a lot of faces being made at some of the fruits and vegetables she has kids try. But that initial dislike leads to what she feels is one of her biggest victories, since more often than not, the kids ultimately embrace the same fruits and vegetables.
“When I see a child in the beginning of class squishing his nose at different foods, then 30 minutes later is excited to try it in the recipe we made together and often asks for more—that’s one of the greatest accomplishments for me. It makes me so happy to watch them embrace these new and healthful foods—and then watching the parents eyes light up when they hear their kid asking for more veggies. I’m really proud of how we’re helping these families.”
To learn more about Cricket and the work she does, visit her PreventObesity.net Leader profile here.