BLUE EARTH - "Smells good!" was heard from those passing a classroom at Minnesota Valley Action Council in Blue Earth on Friday.
The delicious aroma was emanating from a pan of chicken-fried rice stirred by Sarah Smith, Faribault County's community nutrition educator, as she taught a cooking class.
The six-week course teaches low-cost, healthy cooking, with the curriculum developed by the University of Minnesota's Simply Good Eating program.
Instructor Sarah Smith stirs a pan of chicken-fried rice made from scratch at a cooking class in Blue Earth on Friday, with help from students, from left, April Lind and Sheena McDonald. The six-week course teaches low-cost, healthy cooking, with the curriculum developed by the University of Minnesota’s Simply Good Eating program.
Fay Smith, MVAC's Head Start family advocate, applied for a $1,000 grant from Walmart to pay for the food and other supplies the class uses.
"Every week, participants go home with a handful of recipes to use," Smith said.
They also get things such as utensils they have mastered.
Smith teaches participants about the new My Plate nutritional guidelines, and how to use whole grains, fruits, dairy, meat and beans in healthy meals.
Students meet Fridays at MVAC. They have just one class left next week, a field trip to a grocery store, where they will get $10 to buy ingredients for a healthy meal to feed a family.
Planning a month-long menu helps save money and time, Smith said. When students know what they want to prepare in the evening, they can make sure they have the ingredients ready. It also cuts down on last-minute trips to fast-food joints and helps the cook use leftovers creatively.
Smith has instructed students in how to save money by buying things whole and cutting them at home, everything from vegetables to the whole chicken she divided in front of the class on Friday.
A whole 4.25-pound chicken costs $3.36, Smith said, whereas just 1 pound of skinless, boneless chicken meat costs $4.
While she tackles costs, Smith also wants to do something about nutrition, which is a problem in the area.
"Our poverty level in our county is very high," she noted.
About 53 percent of students in Winnebago Elementary qualify for free or reduced lunches, Principal Kevin Grant said recently.
"The higher the poverty level, the higher the obesity rate," Smith said. "Not only the parents, but also the children. We are teaching families to cook for a low-cost and a healthy way to feed their kids. We're showing them an economical way of using low-cost foods."
That's what the students want.
April Lind of Blue Earth hoped to learn how to eat healthier and to show her three kids they don't need to eat junk food.
Lind said she grew up eating "junk food - chips, mac & cheese and hot dogs. I grew up on processed food and I didn't agree with it.
"I've learned how to cook more varieties of food, experiment a little bit," Lind said.
She adds different vegetables to the recipes she gets from the class.
"I love broccoli and my kids do too," she said.
Sheena McDonald of Blue Earth loves to cook, but her three girls have special dietary restrictions.
"I want to cook healthier to lose weight and live healthy," she said, adding she also grew up on processed foods.
Another concern is her family history of high blood pressure, so she wants to cut out salt.
McDonald has learned different healthy cooking techniques and how to adapt recipes to suit her daughters' various nutritional needs, substituting some ingredients for ones her kids can't have. She recently made fajitas with yogurt and they were a hit.
Norma Schmitt of Winnebago is an accomplished cook, but loves to learn new things, which she has in the class. The younger women say they've learned from her too.
Schmitt brought along Yareli Vega because she thought Vega could learn a new way of cooking for herself and her two kids.
"The way Spanish-speaking people cook is entirely different from Anglo-speaking people," said Schmitt, who helped Vega by translating for her. "Northerns don't cook with tomatoes. Nearly everything we cook with has tomatoes."
Another reason Schmitt wanted Vega to come is to socialize and exchange ideas. Lind and McDonald agreed getting to know the other class members, exchanging techniques and swapping recipes is one of their favorite parts of the class.
When the women take recipes home and make them for their families, some of the kids help out.
"It's a good way for them to grow up healthier than we did," McDonald said. "Not only teaching our kids, but others around us too."