Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Worldly Celebration

I was panicked when the phone rang at ten of six yesterday morning. A school cancellation would have been disastrous. I had about $40 worth of groceries waiting to be cooked and eaten as a holiday celebration in my class. Luckily, the call was for my husband and children in a neighboring district. I tiptoed out of the house, relieved that I could wrap up the week as planned and that I wouldn't have to make up this day in June.

We spent an hour and a half in the morning cooking an internationally themed meal. We haven't quite finished the human body systems unit yet, but in mid-January we'll turn our focus to world geography.

Kids selected which recipe they wanted to prepare and worked with three fantastic parent volunteers, preparing egg roll, a taco pie, and tiramisu. They also peeled potatoes which I dunked in a bowl of water until it was time to peel and shred them for latkes. Music played, everything went smoothly -- we even stayed on top of the dishes during the lag times in each recipe's preparation!

Now this is how you mash beans!
Shredding cabbage (above) and rolling egg roll (several pictures below).

Tiramisu means...
separating eggs
cooking a (zabalone) custard

layering coffee-soaked ladyfingers
and whipping cream the old fashioned way.
Ta dah!
After lunch, the kids settled in watching Cupcake Wars while volunteers met me in the back of the room to shred the potatoes. I pan-fried the egg roll and served the first round hot, during a break in the show. A couple of girls weren't that interested in the show and ended up measuring and pouring juice and bubbly water for spritzers, using up juice from last week.

Then we ate!

It couldn't be done without parent volunteers!
The egg rolls were polished off, and most everyone enjoyed the latkes and the taco pie.  Note to self: the taco pie would be an excellent pot luck dish.  One student was okay with the latkes, but had several enthusiastic helpings of the homemade applesauce from my freezer.The grand finale (for me at least) was the tiramisu. I'd never made it before so it has always seemed like a miraculous item that exists only in fancy restaurants. Kids enjoyed it, although some didn't like the intense coffee flavor. The lady fingers were a bit soggy with coffee (I'm not sure how quickly they were dipped...), but the custard and whipped cream were fantastic! I ate two servings and skipped dinner.

Everyone washed their dishes, we cleaned up the room, and voila! Happy New Years were exchanged and the room was empty.

Happy New Year to all!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Typical Friday Afternoon

Although I'm posting about our science/food lesson from Friday, I'm not going to begin to pretend that whatever happened, however it went, matters in the grandest of all schemes. Hopefully it was fun, hopefully kids learned something. And if it wasn't, and they didn't -- at least they all safely left the classroom at 3PM the same as on any other day. 

I can't even begin to write about a very different Friday afternoon in a school in Connecticut. There aren't words.

Instead I'm plugging away, recording the lesson du jour. 

Feeling very fortunate. And very sad.


Often a food lesson will begin with us reading as a class about an ingredient we're about to cook with. Friday I went to the math place instead. I gave kids a worksheet that had some basic info:
  • A 12 oz. can of soda has about 150 calories.
  • A 16 oz. bottle of soda has about 250 calories.
  • If you take in 3,500 extra calories beyond what your body needs, you gain a pound.
  • If you take in 3,500 extra calories less than what your body needs, you lose a pound. 
I answered a few questions and had kids do the math. Answers at the bottom of the post, in case you're inclined to do the math yourself.

How many calories do you take in over the course of a month if you drink a can of soda a day?
How many pounds does that equate to?
How many calories do you take in over the course of a year if you drink a can of soda a day?
How many pounds does that equate to?
Find the same answers if you drink a bottle of soda every day.

Kids toiled willingly over the multiplication and division. (I let fifth graders use calculators on the long division, which they will master in January.) I wish I had helped them set up the equations before starting, because some of them were disappointingly not so clear on which numbers and operations to use. Even though word problems are a part of our math program, I think it threw them for a loop to encounter math outside of that chunk of the day. Which makes me think that maybe I should do things like this more often...

We shared results and discussed the final question on the worksheet I'd given them: 
Why do you think it could be a problem if too many of your calories each day are from sodas instead of from other foods/drinks?
While some of them commented that they hadn't known about the caloric content of soda, most quickly recognized that drinking sugary beverages could cause them to gain weight, putting a strain on their hearts. Some also mentioned they might not eat as many healthy foods if they filled up on sodas. I introduced the term "empty calorie." I also emphasized that their bodies are growing and changing and that they are expected to gain weight as they grow. The purpose for calling attention to the calories in soda is to raise awareness of what they may be putting into their bodies and to set them up with some healthier habits now, habits that will serve them well throughout their lives.

On the back of their worksheet were two recipes for juice spritzers, both out of ChopChop magazine. One was 3/4 c. bubbly water mixed with 1/4 cup of juice, a 30 calorie drink. The other was a full cup of bubbly water mixed with a splash of lemon juice and half a teaspoon of maple syrup (10 calories). The original recipe called for honey, but I substituted honey because a) all of my honey at home is crystallized and I was too lazy to deal with it Thursday night, and b) both honey and maple syrup are expensive to buy, buy many of my students have syrup in their homes because they have family members who produce it each spring.

Kids had a fun time choosing from three flavors of bubbly water, orange juice, cranberry juice. Some added lemon juice to the first recipe. Some sampled the bubbly water plain and liked it. Almost everyone had an idea for how to play with the recipes at home. I reminded them that if they increased the juice content, the calories would go up, but still be lower than the average soda. 

Are sodas okay once in a while? Sure. Just like french fries. But as an everyday habit, it's worth thinking twice.

We cleaned up the room and I sent them out the door, not yet aware of how lucky we were to have had a typical Friday afternoon together.

                                                 Answer Key

one 12 oz. can of soda per day                    one 16 oz. bottle of soda per day
4,500 calories per month                                7500 calories per month
1.3 pounds per month                                     2.1 pounds per month
 54,000 calories per year                                  90,000 calories per year
15.4 pounds per year                                      25.7 pounds per year

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Potatoes: To Fry or Not To Fry

Definition of irony:
Yesterday I made oven baked french fries with my class. Because it's healthier that way.
In a couple of hours I'm going to shred up a bunch of potatoes, fry them in oil, and feed them to my family.

We've been learning about the cardiovascular system and researching how to keep it healthy. This week (and next week's) cooking projects have been designed with the intention of raising awareness about some of the less healthy habits many of them may have. And of course, providing alternatives.

Friday afternoon we read a mildly revised version of this article about fried foods and oils in our diets. We've been working on strategies for note taking when reading non-fiction text, so this was a perfect opportunity to put those skills into practice.

Next we got to working halving potatoes and cutting them into wedges. Emilyinthekitchen helped amp up our project by getting us sweet potatoes, parsnips and a couple of turnips in addition to the potatoes.

One of the turnips had a gnarly, rotten cavity in the center of it. This, of course, simultaneously sickened and fascinated one of the fifth grade boys. I sent him down to show Emily, thinking it was headed straight for the compost. Of course not! She made them wait while she used her wicked knife skills to cull the decent bits from the turnip and sent the sticks back, ready to be added to the rest of the pile.

As kids finished chopping, one student went around collecting the veggies and a few others worked with Su to coat them in oil, spread them on two pans, and sprinkle them with salt.

We sat down to prepare for our planned reading lesson.  But first, I snuck in a little math! We estimated that Su used about half a cup of canola oil for all the potatoes and their veggie friends. This sounds like an obscene amount of oil, but upon further investigation, it's not too bad. Half a cup of oil is eight tablespoons. A tablespoon of canola is 14 grams of fat. That means our entire recipe used 112 grams of fat. Using our mad estimation skills, we determined this is just under 5 grams of fat per serving. Considering we had just read that a single potato, cut up and deep fried, has 34 grams of fat, this is a significant improvement. We also had read about types of fats, and that deep fried potato was probably fried in a hydrogenated fat -- way less healthy than canola.

While we did our reading lesson, Su dealt with the oven end of things, and soon she was back in the room with a bowl full of oven baked veggies and the lovely, oily aroma that accompanied them. I'm sorry I didn't snap any pictures of us eating, but I am not kidding you when I say that they were polished off in under three minutes. Even the student who couldn't get over the fact that there wouldn't be ketchup  managed to enjoy himself.

Hannukah starts in a couple of hours. I'll be making latkes (fried potato pancakes) for my family to enjoy for dinner. This is a food we eat a handful of times a year. Ironic? Yes. But not entirely. Part of what we discussed yesterday is that eating french fries or other fried foods is okay once in a while. On a regular basis, not so much. Today is our once in a while. My hope is that our project yesterday has provided my students with the realization that on the days it's not once in a while, a yummy alternative is roasting some potatoes instead.

Happy Hannukah!

Friday, November 30, 2012

A different angle on eating

I was at a fantastic conference today with dozens of Vermont educators, hearing author Ralph Fletcher speak. I did not leave a cooking lesson in my sub plans! Here's a different angle: my thoughts about mealtime.

Every night when we sit down to eat dinner, my family has a special routine, one my son brought home from preschool seven years ago. At snack time, he and his three- and four-year old friends would hold hands and take a deep breath in and out. Together, they'd chorus, "Thanks for the food." Then they'd munch cracker crumbs all over the large oval wooden table occasionally knocking over paper cups of juice.

My son was impressed with this routine and we quickly adapted it for home use. We do the same hand-holding and deep breath, but our standard line is, "Thanks for the food and the family." Sometimes we say things like, "Thanks for the food and the crazy kids," or "Thanks for the steak and the family" (if dinner is something special like steak). Regardless of adaptations, we have developed a family routine of pausing for a minute before we eat. Without religious overtones, we sanctify our meal.

Over time we've included friends and family in this routine when they've joined us for dinner. Often when we visit relatives, we bring the tradition with us.

Some nights the kids have pushed every limit in the minutes leading up to dinner time and I'm ready to strangle one or both of them. Some nights I'm annoyed at my husband in that unavoidable way annoyance overwhelms you at the end of a long day. No matter what my mood when I sit down at the table, I use that moment of holding hands and taking a breath to remind myself of how much I have, how much I love the people sitting around the table with me.

It may seem like this post is a week late, that this is a topic better suited to the days leading up the Thanksgiving. Instead, let's call it a coincidence that Thanksgiving was last week. Our routine is one for all seasons of the year. It reminds us every day -- not just on Thanksgiving -- to appreciate all that we have.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Keeping It Simple

Inspired by last week's successful non-cooking food exploration, I decided to keep it simple for another week.

We are now studying the respiratory system and my extensive research (I Googled "respiratory system healthy foods") told me that hot liquids are the best way to clear mucus out of respiratory passages. This can prevent or reduce symptoms of respiratory ailments.

Why not host a tea tasting in my classroom?

I started water boiling on the two-burner stove more than an hour in advance, knowing the huge kettles I'd filled would take some time to heat up. We started the lesson by reading about how tea could positively impact our respiratory system. Ginger tea in particular is recommended because ginger has anti-inflammatory properties. I also showed them the lovely photos of tea being grown and picked in India and China at this website. We read the information at that site about different varieties of tea, most of which I'd purchased for sampling. The article recommended smelling the tea before tasting, and slurping to cool off the tea as it enters the mouth, then holding it on the tongue to "cover the palette." Fun stuff! I'd also copied a flavor wheel from the site and made up a small table for each student to record adjectives to describe what they tasted.

Each table got a bowl with an assortment of teas: black, green, oolong and a white ginger pear. I also brought the remains of a box of straight up ginger tea from home, but I only had three teabags left and it's kind of strong, so I saved that out for later.

Kids paired up to brew a cup of tea together. After sniffing it as it steeped, they poured half into a second cup and started the tasting.

Su and I stood at the ready, prepared to give kids more water as they finished one cup and were ready to brew another. To my surprise, the pace in the room slowed. I was amazed to see kids sitting calmly, sniffing, tasting, comparing notes. One sixth grader smiled at me with his hands wrapped around his warm cup, and said, "I'm just sipping my tea."

This series of photos should be entitled, "Kids with cups for noses."

Two students decided that one tea tasted like dirt and peppermint. I told them that foodies would use the term "earthy" instead of "dirt." One of the two shook her head and said firmly, "I'll call it dirt."

Over the course of half an hour, most kids brewed and tasted four kinds of tea and many were interested in trying the ginger tea, too. Only one student opted not to try any tea, but he did do some sniffing! Then I recruited him to be my photographer for the afternoon. (He's responsible for that great shot of amber tea pouring from one cup to the next.) Before we cleaned up, almost everyone's hands were up, wanting to share the adjectives that best described what the tea tasted like to them. The flavor wheel inspired adjectives including: hay, grassy, cedar, oak, honey, and beechnuts. On their own kids came up with: smoke, super amazing good, ewww, and even canned cat food!

I collected all the cups, planning to take them to the kitchen to run through the Hobart after school. There are eight kinds of the plague going around, so I decided that washing them in our sink wouldn't be sufficient. I'd also noticed my throat was hoarse after a full week working with my large group. "I'm ready for a cup of tea," I thought to myself.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! I hope your holiday is filled with healthy, delicious foods, shared with those you love.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Sardines, plus the digressionary tale of a kitchen snafu

Lessons involving food don't always need to be elaborate. Friday's lesson stands as evidence.

This does not mean, however, that kids wouldn't have been thrilled to witness the cooking disaster that took place on my stove about an hour ago. It's so good that I'm going to digress and share it here:

I was finishing off a batch of a lovely chicken and root vegetable stew that is both enjoyed by all members of my family and brilliant in that it uses up all the weird root vegetables accumulating in the fridge from our winter CSA. I make it about once a month to clear out all the rutabaga and turnips. The cooked chicken and veggies had been removed from the pot, leaving only the seasoned stock. I added two tablespoons of cornstarch to some light cream and dumped it into the stock to thicken it. To  my surprise, the liquid on the stove foamed in a way that I'd never seen before. Baffled, I looked across the counter and realized I'd mistakenly grabbed the box of baking soda out of the cabinet instead of the cornstarch. 

The happy ending of this mix up is that other than making the sauce foamy, the baking soda didn't ruin the stew. Even if it had, the veggies and chicken were safely out of harms way in a bowl on the countertop. And to my amusement, when I Googled "accidentally used baking soda instead of cornstarch", I only had to type in the first four words before the rest of the phrase popped up. Apparently I'm not the only frazzled cook out there...

While I'm sure that, given the addition of twenty-two fifth and sixth graders, I could have turned this multi-ingredient bonanza into some sort of chemistry lesson, it's just as easy to teach kids about food with a single ingredient.

Let's get back to Friday afternoon.

We've been studying the nervous system for the past two weeks, and one of the unit's essential questions is "How can I keep my body systems healthy?" My intention is to introduce foods and recipes that can have a positive impact on the system under study. Foods rich in omega 3s are good for brain development and health, and these include many fatty fishes, nuts, and eggs. My classroom is nut free and most kids have eggs in their diets. Many families in this community hunt and fish, yet I was correct in assuming that most kids had not ever eaten sardines.

My dad has always been a big sardine eater, but they only became a regular part of my diet a couple years ago when I was trying to reduce my cholesterol without going on medication. I started eating sardines on toast on the nights we made grilled cheese for the kids. (Those omega 3s are also good for lowering cholesterol.) Sardines are not only high in omega 3s, but also low in mercury and other contaminants since they are so low on the food chain. They are also affordable and accessible, making them a good food for anyone to know about.

We started off by reading a greatly condensed version of this article. Then I told kids that each pair of kids would get a single sardine to split in half. (A student who fishes a lot informed me the proper term would be 'fillet.') There was a lot of interest in removing the spine! Then kids tasted a bit, with varied reactions. As this investigation was going on, Su was getting plates of crackers, bread, butter and cream cheese ready for each table.

Kids started experimenting with various combinations, and most pairs asked for a second sardine to split up and eat as well. The air smelled fishy, but there was almost no wasted food in the trash can. 

I collected dirty dishes and silverware in a bin, having decided that these dishes deserved a run through the dishwasher in the kitchen. Score one point for easy clean up! Then we shared reactions. Almost everyone had tried the sardines and almost everyone wanted to talk about what they thought about the little fishies. I informed kids where you can find sardines and how much they cost. I also mentioned that you can find them packaged in sauces. My dad likes the mustard sauce in particular. When I mentioned this, some people went, "Ooooh" in a I'm-not-sure-that's-a-good-idea sort of way, but at least one boy's face lit up and he said, "I wanna try those!"

When I first started cooking with my class just over a year ago, my goal was to help students learn more about how what they eat can be part of a healthy lifestyle. What we've cooked has almost always been integrated into the science and social studies curriculum. Along the way, it's also become my mission to expose them to new foods they didn't already know about. Yesterday, without any measuring, mixing, or heating, I accomplished all three goals. And all we had to do was open a couple of cans.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Two Words That Go Great Together

Have you ever tried to simplify something and then realized that your actions have only complicated the situation? Friday was a perfect example of that. But the day ended so well that I let it go...

We're starting to study a handful of human body systems but I started the unit with a couple of days of lessons about the concept of systems in general. Input, process, output. If one step in the process doesn't happen right, then things might go kerflooey. Cue foreshadowing. You get the idea.

So I thought it would be cool to make a recipe assembly-line style so kids could experience being part of the process of a working system. The raw food would be the input and the finished dish would be the output.

I went searching online and found a recipe that I will definitely make next spring. But since it featured asparagus, it didn't exactly feel like an October kind of project. I asked Emilyinthekitchen and she said she thought the same breading and baking process would work well with broccoli and cauliflower, almost reminiscent of tempura but without the deliciously unhealthy deep frying.

Friday afternoon I was all ready. Materials were all set out; directions were written for each stage of the recipe. One set of kids would prep the veggies, another group would learn how to separate eggs with Su, and the last group would mix up the parmesan breading. My plan was to divide the class into four groups of five, ask each group to decide who was going to do which job (some jobs would have to be shared within a group because of numbers), then have them break off from each other to do the prep work. Groups would reconvene with their prepped ingredients and together do the "assembly", following designated roles depending on if they were veggie preppers, egg separators, or breading mixers.

This was way to complicated for most of the kids to grasp on Friday afternoon. Or, possibly, I didn't explain things clearly enough.

No sweat. I stopped and repeated directions a couple more times than I would have liked to, and then the process started to work...

Twelve choppers chopping...

Eleven separators separating

Su took two loaded pans of vegetables down to the kitchen to bake and I worried we'd made too much.

I've noticed a pattern that kids love to handle the food, but then are less interested in actually eating it. We spent a few minutes talking as a whole group about what it was like being part of a process, but many kids look as glazed over as I was feeling. Also, there was a pile of dishes but no clear picture of who was responsible for which dishes since kids had been moving around according to my cockamamie directions. Let's call this a failing in the system design! I called for half an hour of silent reading, and did the dishes myself.

Su returned with two bowls of fragrant veggies and we packed up for the end of the day. I set out plates of broccoli and cauliflower and almost every kid sampled some. Even one student who is very reticent about trying new foods decided to try it, then reported to me that he didn't like it. "That's great that you tried something new!" I gushed.

 Here's the crazy part: It was 2:50 on a sunny Friday, and most of my twenty students were sitting around plates of broccoli munching it and talking about how good it was as if we were surrounding a bowl of popcorn. I made a comment to that effect, and one of my sixth grade boys said without a hint of irony in his voice, "Two words that go great together: broccoli and Friday."

Cue happy ending.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Week Off

Last year I challenged myself to cook at least once a week with my class. Which I did, almost every week. Most of the time it was good that I'd set that goal for myself, especially in the fall; it established cooking as a regular part of our class culture. We'd cook something and I'd blog about it, so it also established some regularity about my writing.

This year I have a slightly different approach. We cook every Friday, but if there isn't school on a Friday, that means we may not cook that week. And that's ok. I have the long view now and can appreciate that cooking is part of the fabric of the class culture in my room; taking a week off isn't going to change anything.

Last Friday my students had the day off while I attended a district inservice training. In two weeks, we have parent conferences. I also don't plan to do any cooking that week.

Having conquered last year's challenge, I have the perspective that it's ok if cooking becomes more sporadic when our schedule gets hacked up by conferences and the like.

So stay tuned! We are starting a human body unit this week and I am having fun making meaningful connections between that unit and the kitchen. And if "human body unit" and "cooking" started you worrying about what might be coming up, rest assured that we are not studying the digestive unit...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Baked Apples

I've never made a baked apple before this week.

Many of my posts could start that way. I've never made ice cream in a bag before this week. I've never baked bread in a cast iron pot before this week. I've never kept sourdough starter before. I'm exposing myself to new foods and cooking ideas as much as I am exposing my students to them.

This week's surprises me because baked apples are SO easy and SO yummy. How is it that I've never made one before?

The inspiration:
1) My funds are very limited this year, but I can get produce free through Emilyinthekitchen and our school's fresh fruits and veggies grant.
2) My class worked very hard on standardized testing this week and I felt like they deserved a celebratory cooking project.

Enter the apple. I would have loved to make these instead, but I took a deep breath and reminded myself that Friday afternoon I was leaving school right away to go on a girls getaway weekend and I didn't want to be stuck in my classroom cleaning up a pie crust mess. Then I talked to Emily and she suggested I set up the apple stuffing like an ice cream bar. Here are the possible toppings; how would you like your apple? I got together raisins, craisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger. Also oats, thinking a few kids might want to mash the toppings together and stuff an apple crisp type topping in the middle.

Thursday night while I heated up leftovers for dinner, I used a grapefruit spoon to scoop out most of the middle of an apple. I dropped in some raisins, brown sugar, a pat of butter, and put the apple in a pan with a half inch of water in the bottom. It sat in the oven for half an hour while my daughter and I ate dinner and we split it for dessert. It doesn't get any easier than that.

The glitch of the week is that amazing Su was hammered with a bad cold earlier in the week and emailed me Thursday night to say she wouldn't be coming to school on Friday. (Su, I hope you're on the mend!) I had been planning to have half the group prep their apples while the other half did a Check It Out circle to preview a stack of new class books we got through book order. This was in part due to the number of grapefruit spoons that people lent me. (Thanks Vera! Thanks Barb!) Everyone couldn't scoop at the same time.

No worries. We've shared materials before. Before I could revise my new plan, a parent contacted me and asked if she could come in for the afternoon. So I ended up with the amazing Roberta taking the cooking half of the group and I kids got to preview new books and prep their apples all in a tidy thirty minute period. Linda came in to help with reading and took over the book group, so I even got to squeeze in some pictures.

The intersection of food and books was spectacular.

Are you wondering how we kept track of whose apple was whose? Anyone that knows me knows that as much as I try to camouflage my Type A tendencies, they are still there, all the time. I made a map of the apples and labelled each one on the map as each student put them in the pan.

One student asked me what would happen if the pan got rotated to a different direction. I dredged up the term rotational symmetry and we agreed it was a good thing that there weren't twenty four kids in the class. 

At 1:30 we had twenty two apples ready to go in the oven, a table covered in oat crumbles and twenty two wound up kids. Roberta turned to me and said, "Do you think they need to come play a few relay races in my yard?" (Did I mention? Roberta lives next door and our classroom windows look down on her yard. She even sent her daughter home to get more oats when we ran out!) Roberta took the class outside and the remaining adults wiped down tables and put the apples in the oven.  Emily was still in the kitchen and took over the oven end of things for us. I went to go pick up the kids and found them running relay races carrying pumpkins from Roberta's garden!

Back inside to have a short conversation about leadership projects for the year, and then the apples were ready.
Emily brought them down and a student fetched the ice cream I had stashed in the freezer. A half gallon of ice cream split twenty two ways doesn't go far, but that was ok. The apples are yummy on their own and don't need a lot of sweetening up.
Not, perhaps, the most photogenic dessert. But tasty.
"I didn't think I'd like these, but I do," one child commented.
"Can I take some of this home to let my dad try?" asked another.
"You can make this yourself for him," I responded. "Just go buy some apples."
Another student listened intently when I first told them about the recipe, then raised his hand to ask how long to bake the apples and at what temperature. He does a lot of cooking at home so who knows? He might have the oven on at home right now...

This was my point. It's easy to make delicious and healthy desserts. Sometimes, you don't even need a recipe.