As the school year barrels toward its end (how did June arrive so quickly?) we’ve begun to wrap up all our programming here at Spoons Across America. I’ve already taught some of my final second-, third-, and fourth-grade classes, and we’re deep in preparation for the final two Dinner Parties with our students in Chinatown and Hell’s Kitchen. This time of year, the atmosphere in most classrooms veers daily between stress (all those end-of-year events! Final assessments!) and celebration (summer arriving! Another year completed!). Our classes take on extra meaning for kids looking for hands-on engagement during this fidgety, high-intensity season. The final lessons for each grade are festive and fun, marking the students’ transition to the next level of Spoons’ programming.

In second grade, my Farm to Book students are completing their first full year of Spoons’ programming. All year long, we have been sampling tiny tastes of fresh fruits, vegetables, and local products like cheese and honey, each tied to the literature we’re reading. For an end-of-year treat, the kids are “graduating” from tasters to chefs. For their last lesson, instead of waiting at their tables for a plate of food to taste, they make their own fresh butter from heavy cream — something that never fails to dazzle. It’s one thing to know that all dairy products come from milk or cream, but quite another to see the transformation happen in your own hands. When we stand in a circle to pass around the jar of cream, shaking it in time to the song we sing, the excitement is palpable. Hyper-tuned in to the sensory cues of the jar, the kids exclaim as they notice the cream get heavy and change from liquid to a fluffy solid. When the mass of butter suddenly thunks against the side of the jar, they cheer. We pour off the buttermilk, observe the pale golden pat of butter that remains, and spread it on crackers — ending the year on a sweet, creamy note. Putting the kids in charge of the snack on the final day is a lovely way to celebrate how much they’ve grown as “taste explorers” throughout the program.

My third grade Take a Taste classes are more like three-week “residencies”: many short clusters of nutrition and food literacy classes I teach in various schools throughout the year. But at one of my favorite schools in Harlem, I taught my last Take a Taste lesson just a couple of weeks ago. It was special for me because I’d taught the same group last year, and I was thrilled to see how much they had retained from second grade. When I enter a classroom of students who haven’t had our programming before, I usually spend some time going over how to experience food with all five senses, and emphasizing the importance of trying at least a little bite of whatever we’re tasting, without making other students feel bad about their own likes and dislikes. This group needed no such preamble. They were eager to remind each other of the tasting basics: “Smell it and look at it first!” “What’s the texture?” “Don’t yuck my yum!” After our second lesson, about sugary beverages, several of the students decided on their own to read nutrition labels throughout the week, keeping track of the grams of added sugar they consumed. When they held up their glasses of homemade fresh fruit “soda”, I felt so proud of them. I raised my own fizzy cup in celebration of their achievements.

Making a delicious vegetable stir-fry!

Fourth graders in our Spoons Recipe Days program do more hours of hands-on cooking than any other group, and have chopped, measured, tasted, sautéed, blended, and minced their way through a year’s worth of healthy recipes. Our final lesson is a festive dessert from scratch, a sweet way to celebrate after all the hard work they’ve put in (and a great time to discuss how occasional homemade treats can have a place in a balanced diet). We make our version of a traditional English “fruit fool” – a layered dessert with fresh local strawberries, tangy Greek yogurt, and homemade whipped cream. Like many of our recipes, it’s really more of a simple template that can be endlessly adapted at home; between spoonfuls of the custardy treat, students brainstorm which other fruits they’d use and whether they’d add a pinch of cinnamon or lemon zest next time.

Of course, the fifth grade Dinner Party Project puts the theme of celebration front and center, as we learn about the social and cultural importance of gathering around a meal for special occasions. At this time of year, we’re deep in the planning stages of our culminating community dinner, a homemade feast that students prepare from start to finish and serve to their families in the school cafeteria. This semester will mark the seventh Dinner Party I’ve been a part of, and I know by now just how much work it is — and just how big the payoff feels. Coinciding as it does with fifth grade graduation and our students’ final year of Spoons’ programming, this party is a true celebration of everything the kids have learned, all the new experiences they’ve had, and all the dishes they have made as “taste explorers” and chefs-in-training. My students are buzzing with excitement already as they plan the decorations and learn about the menu, anticipating their parents’ reactions when they see the dazzling array of dishes the kids will prepare themselves.

This semester’s party at a school in Hell’s Kitchen has a special significance to me because teaching the Dinner Party curriculum in this school was my very first experience with Spoons Across America. I’ll never forget the controlled chaos of that first Dinner Party. We made an ambitious menu involving butternut squash risotto, white bean crostini, and carrot ginger soup: lots of careful assembly, grating, chopping, and measuring. And the kids pulled it off! At every one of these events, just when we think we might not finish up in time for the parents’ arrival at six o’clock, there comes a moment when the kids kick into high gear and things seem to fall into place: our students and volunteers form impromptu table-setting teams, whisk away the last of the cooking utensils and food scraps, and line up at the kitchen to carry out their finished dishes. It’s a moment I look forward to every year and one that always makes me swell with pride. The smiles of accomplishment on the kids’ faces as they welcome their families is a celebration of what Spoons Across America is all about.

At your next family dinner party (whether it’s a fancy feast or a Tuesday night supper), top your veggies or bread with homemade butter from scratch – a simple recipe for kids of any age to make the meal feel special. Check out the recipe here.