Teaching the Elements of Taste

The looks on their faces when they tasted the cider vinegar were priceless.

Some of the students opened their eyes wide, others slammed them shut so hard their heads shook. “That’s vinegar!” one shouted. “That’s gross!” said another. “I kinda like it,” one whispered to her friend.

Lowerlab5From olive oil to salt to lemon juice, kids participating in a Take a Taste with Spoons program blindly sample components of a recipe before combining them together into a snack or meal. It is a subtle reminder of what happens when individuals come together to form a classroom, a family, a community.

“One of our goals with this, as with all our programs, is to encourage positive, and ultimately healthy food memories for children,” explains Alexandra Weisman McDowell, Director of Programs and Partnerships for SAA.

“The lessons in Take a Taste set the groundwork and develop the language, for these memories. Sour brings them to the lemonade they made with their grandfather on the hottest day of the summer. Salt reminds them of the pickles they ate with their best friend at the street fair. And sweet? Maybe it’s the cookies they made with their mom, but hopefully it’s also the crisp New York apple they tasted one day in their 3rd grade classroom.”

Girl with apple2

As the lessons go on, students use what they learned about the elements of taste to think critically about food and discerningly about ingredients. What is the role of sugar in sweetening beverages? How much is too much? What are healthier alternatives to soda? Can we create these alternatives in our classroom and then, ultimately, at home? The class makes their own sparkling beverage and snacks to enjoy together.  In addition to learning about flavors and recipes, the kids receive conversation prompts to jump start discussions around the table while they’re eating.

This fall, Take a Taste is occurring in third grade classrooms across New York City.

“We have an amazing group of Curriculum Leader and volunteers who will be working in the classrooms this Fall,” said McDowell. “They come from an array of backgrounds and experiences- students in food studies and nutrition, lawyers, financial experts, chefs, parents and teachers. They bring their talents and own interest in food to our students, but will also serve in a “mentoring” role, developing relationships in the classroom as they visit each week, representing for students the various options and opportunities they have as they grow up. ” 

Are you interested in volunteering for Spoons Across America’s Take a Taste program? Contact us here.

Spoons Across America Receives Grants to Expand Programs

SAA Programs Will Serve More Classrooms in 2014-15


Great news! Spoons Across America has been awarded a $20,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to expand our programming in New York City this year. With this generous support, SAA programs will reach an additional 600 students through The Dinner Party Project and Take A Taste with Spoons programs.

Earlier this summer, SAA received a grant award from the Julia Child Foundation to expand Take a Taste with Spoons from a one day program to a three day program. Our fall programs kick off in just a couple of weeks and we couldn’t be more excited!

Take a Taste with Spoons promotes the importance of fresh, local and seasonal food, explores the elements of taste, and encourages children to eat healthy, tasty foods. The Dinner Party Project engages children in the fun and excitement of planning, preparing and enjoying a meal with their parents and friends. Both programs educate children about the benefits of healthy eating.

SAA is currently accepting applications for volunteers to support fall programs. Read more about volunteer opportunities and how to apply here.

To read the entire fall newsletter, click here.

5 Reasons to Love Packing a Lunchbox

carrotsMy kids aren’t very picky eaters, but they flat out refuse to eat school food. And since my middle schooler’s lunch period is at 10:40 in the morning, she turns into a voraciously hungry and very cranky preteen by the time she gets home. Thankfully, they eat what they bring from home. Their lunch boxes return with empty containers, apple cores, and bread crusts because apparently, my kids also refuse to use the cafeteria trashcans. But I’m not complaining. Even on the most hectic days, packing three lunch boxes has become a family ritual.

Spoons Across America believes that cooking with our children and eating together as a family contributes to the development of healthy habits that will serve kids well beyond childhood. You can read more about the research-based, lifelong benefits of eating and preparing meals together here. The same can be said for preparing school lunches and snacks, which we generally eat when we’re apart. Packing school lunches and snacks with the kids provides another opportunity in the day to stop and focus on each other.

The New York Times parenting blog, The Motherlode recently published a story titled, Nine Things to Hate About Packing School Lunches (and How to Fix Them)The list rings true for me (particularly #4), and I feel stress knots forming in my shoulders just reading it. I decided to make a list of the five things I love about packing school lunches, and the stress is gone (see number #5 on my list):

1) We are what we eat. The 19th century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Saverin wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” Our relationship with food is about our relationship with our bodies, our environment and each other. If we want our kids to be strong, and healthy individuals who make good choices, who are respectful and compassionate, who recognize that the natural world is the source of all the foods that sustain us, then food is a part of helping them become this way. Its not just about the vitamins and minerals.

2) Kids can make their own choices about food. They may try to get away with choosing a lunch that has chocolate as an ingredient in each item, but if I give my kids some guidelines, they figure out pretty quickly what their lunch should look like. A vegetable and a fruit are non-negotiables, so an apple or pineapple chunks, carrot sticks or cucumber slices, as examples, go in. Sometimes sandwiches don’t, but leftovers from dinner do. And yes, a Hershey’s Kiss or two does make the final cut.

3) Variety is the spice of life. They may want the same lunch every day, but I try to include a range of flavors, colors and textures.

4) Convenience does not have to equal junk food. Packing your own servings into reusable or recyclable containers allows you to determine serving sizes, and presents a great opportunity to talk about serving sizes with your kids. Besides, the pre-packed single servings in the supermarkets create more waste. I admit, I don’t always follow this, but I try more often than not.

5) Don’t stress. So what if my Kindergartener wants to eat the same thing every day. She’s going to eat, and that’s what I’m aiming for.

Spoons Swings into Spring with The Dinner Party Project and Agriculture Literacy Week

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Its been a busy spring for Spoons Across America! Volunteers and program leaders worked with over 3000 students participating in Agricultural Literacy Week and the Dinner Party Project. Classrooms were transformed into kitchens, and kids illustrated their favorite healthy meals using My Plate as their guide. Click on the photos below for a look at a couple of our school-based programs in action:

Time to Eat…

Time to Eat… Reflections on The Dinner Party Project by Catherine Lea

It’s time. At quarter to six on a November night, the lasagnas are coming out of the oven. Cups of bright orange soup steam on silver trays. The carpaccio gets its final sprinkle of cilantro. Our guests have begun to filter in to the cafeteria – which is decked out, tonight only, in autumn colors and handmade tissue flowers, the lunch tables transformed by brown paper runners, pitchers of fruited water, and colorful paper hand-prints. A formal place setting has been arranged with care at each seat. The room is warm with the smells of pumpkin, ginger and garlic, and the fifth grade students at PS 111 are ready to host their dinner party.


 It’s a moment that fills me with pride on their behalf. For the past seven Wednesdays, I’ve had the privilege of going into two fifth grade classrooms at PS 111, helping the radiant Hope Mirlis talk to the students about cooking, nutrition, food customs, and what it means to plan and host a dinner. Together, we have learned about eating with the seasons and balancing meals. We’ve measured out the sugar in bottles of soda (“Whoa.”) and talked about portion sizes. We’ve practiced setting the table and serving each other on our best behavior. In one memorable class, we tasted each of the components of a vinaigrette and described them –salty, sweet, lemony– before mixing them together into a concoction that the kids dubbed “VinaiGREAT.” (Well, one of them named it “Throw-Up Liquid” – guess you can’t please them all.) The students have been by turns skeptical and thrilled, shy and hamming it up – but mainly enthusiastic. The morning of the big dinner party, they were so excited that they burst into applause when we walked in the room.


 At the risk of sounding cliché, the Dinner Party Project has been as much of a learning experience for me as for the students. I grew up in rural Vermont, where it’s hard to avoid a basic knowledge of food and farming. Walk into the fifth-grade classroom in my hometown elementary school and not only will you find students that know where milk comes from, you’ll meet a few who have milked their own dairy cows. But New York City, culturally rich as it may be in a thousand other ways, it takes an active effort to get to know how your food arrived on your plate. I was impressed by how interested these city kids were in tracing their dinners and eating with the seasons.


I was even more impressed by how much they took home. In a big class that meets just once a week, it can be hard to gauge how much of our discussions about healthful eating and meaningful mealtimes actually sink in.  We also knew from the kids’ stories that it can be difficult for busy families to sit and eat together without distractions, let alone shop and cook fresh food together. That’s why I was so excited by what I later heard from parents: “My daughter has been talking about portion sizes at dinnertime.” “When I take her to the grocery store, she reads the labels of every beverage I take off the shelf: ‘Look at all that sugar, Mom.’” Parents told us their children had asked them to put their phones away at dinnertime (they also requested that at the dinner party itself) and were planning to help them prepare food at Thanksgiving. Their hard work in class was paying off at home around the dinner table.

Spoons Across America, 11/20/13

And tonight, it’s all coming together. For hours the students, with the help of some dedicated volunteers from Spoons, City Tech, and the community, have been slicing and peeling, measuring and whisking. They have wept over the pungent shallots and taken turns stirring epic proportions of thick pumpkin puree and ricotta to fill the vegetarian lasagna. They have shaved parsnip and carrots into translucent ribbons for our carpaccio salad, and practiced the knife skills we learned a few weeks ago, using safety knives to slice celery and peppers for our crudité-in-a-cup. Now, as the cafeteria fills with hungry parents and siblings, the kids are jostling for the chance to pass around the soup and salad, practicing their spiels (“Have you tried our crudité?”). I watch a student peer out from the student lounge, where we’re ladling up the last of the soup, and whisper to the crowd at large: “You’re welcome.”

Spoons Across America, 11/20/13

Thank you, I think. A week from Thanksgiving, I am full of gratitude: for the chance to be involved in this incredible program, for the weeks I’ve spent learning from Hope’s passion for food and talent with kids, for their dedicated teachers and our volunteers (some of whom stuck around long after they planned to leave this afternoon), and for the fact that we’ve somehow managed to pull it all off as the families begin to sit down. Mostly, I am thankful I got to work with these funny, talented, and enthusiastic students.

Time to eat.

Catherine Lea is a personal chef and teaches after-school cooking classes for kids. She has studied food and farming in Vermont, New York, and Cuba. She lives in Harlem and writes on regional farm and labor issues.

Thank you to Dinner Party Project Managers Hope Mirlis and Catherine Lea for working with the students at PS111 on this project. Thank you also goes to Bloomberg LP for funding the project, volunteers from City Tech, Chef Charles Rodriguez from Print Restaurant, Rose Brook for photos, and all our tireless supporters and volunteers.

View more pictures from The Dinner Party Project below:


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