Different kinds of literacy: Teaching nutrition (and 10 healthy snack ideas)

Chef Bill

What’s more affordable – feeding your family McDonalds, or cooking a healthy meal? The teen mothers at the Athena Interactive Literacy Program, Reader to Reader’s annual family literacy training for teen moms, were shocked to discover that preparing a balanced meal actually costs less than eating fast food. Each day during this one-week program, Chef Bill Collins teaches participants how to cook healthy, inexpensive food through interactive cooking demonstrations.

These skills are not only vital to health and well-being, but are also necessary for developing traditional, reading and writing-centered literacy skills. Concentrating on sounding out a word is difficult enough, but with an empty stomach, low energy, or health problems caused by unhealthy eating, it becomes far more difficult.

Chef Bill, a professional chef and graduate of the Cambridge Institute of Culinary Arts, radiates positive energy and gets the mothers laughing. As he demonstrates a cooking technique, he’ll ask, with a grin on his face, “Want to hear a gross story?” His stories are interspersed with proclamations like “Bad things happen in the kitchen when there are witnesses” and “I know I say this again and again, but this is my favorite week of the year.”

Over the course of the week, these young moms develop nutritional literacy skills in a few different ways. First, they learn that compared to eating out, cooking at home is cheap and healthy. Chef Bill shares the cost of each meal he makes, showing that a plentiful and healthy meal of pulled pork, fresh fruit, and mashed cauliflower (instead of mashed potatoes), along with a “shrub,” a colonial-style soft drink (instead of soda), is far more affordable than a burger, fries, and a soda at McDonald’s.

Second, the program dispels the idea that cooking at home is extremely time-consuming or difficult. Chef Bill prepared most of each dish in half an hour, with the help of the teen moms. Third, each mom leaves with many tips and tricks for shopping, cooking, and menu planning. Chef Bill shares tips like looking for fresh fruit on sale, making categorized grocery lists to speed up shopping, and cooking with eggs, which are packed with protein and relatively inexpensive.

Just as important, the teenage moms shared their own nutritional knowledge and tips they had acquired. This year, one mom taught us to make grilled cheese with mayonnaise, for example, which turned out to be slightly healthier than butter. At the end of the week, each mom went home with a recipe book, which contains the foods that were cooked throughout week.

Here are 10 healthier snack ideas for parents and children from the Athena recipe book:

  1. Cheese and crackers
  2. Plain yogurt with healthy additions like bananas, mango, cinnamon, or honey
  3. Frozen fruit salad: Freeze pieces of watermelon, strawberries, bananas, peaches, apple, etc. Any combination of these works.
  4. String cheese and fresh fruit
  5. Ants on a log – spread peanut butter on celery and add raisins
  6. Banana scream
    • Ingredients: 3 bananas (the riper the banana, the sweeter the shake) and 2 tablespoons nonfat milk
    • Peel the bananas, cut in half width-wise, wrap in plastic wrap, and freeze until firm. Place in a blender, add milk and puree until creamy (serves 4)
  7. Shrunken sandwiches: Between two round crackers, cut cheese and/or turkey into round pieces the same size as the crackers
  8. Chopped apples microwaved with a bit of cinnamon and sugar
  9. Hummus with pita bread
  10. Apples dipped in peanut butter

This article is the second post in a three-part series on different kinds of literacy. Read the first article here.

Dennis Quinn is a 2016 Mass Literacy Champion and is the Director of Mentoring Programs at Reader to Reader in Amherst, Massachusetts.