Youth discover food prep through Jr. Chefs program

Popular camp has a waiting list.

ELIZABETH TWP., Miami County – One group of young “chefs” slowly cut produce for small charcuterie boards, while those in another group concentrated on squeezing frosting on cupcakes.

In another station, the focus was on making pizza quesadillas using tortillas, sauce, cheese, pepperoni and a small electric skillet.

The lessons in the kitchen were part of the annual Jr. Chef program offered by the staff of the Miami County Ohio State University Extension office for county youth ages six to 12.

Day one of the three-day camp held at the Elizabeth Twp. Community Center featured a birthday theme, explaining several young people wearing birthday hats as they went about the business of learning their way around the kitchen a bit.

This was the fourth year for Jr. Chefs, a program “dreamed up by us as a way to cook and explore food with youth,” Alisha Barton, extension educator, family and consumer science, said of the local Extension staff.

Other members include Amanda Bennett, educator, agriculture and natural resources, and Jessica Adams, educator, 4-H youth development.

They were assisted in the program by the extension interns and several adult and teen volunteers, including some teens who help run the program following their own participation in previous years.

The program gained more importance in staff’s mind after Barton and Bennett were going through research and came across a statistic startling to them.

“It was that youth today can be up to two generations removed from households where healthy food is prepared from fresh ingredients,” Barton said. “This makes nutrition education programs like this important to their future health. We started thinking of ways to meet the need for this education. This was what came from that.”

The reaction was overwhelming from day one. The program has been full every year (100 participants) and has a waiting list.

The participants attend either morning or afternoon sessions over three days. In addition to birthdays, the daily themes this year included July 4 and Halloween.

Foods prepared by the chefs follow the holiday theme.

Among goals of the program is for youth to learn they can explore and try things in the kitchen with success, Barton said.

“There is no right or wrong way to cook. Even if something doesn’t turn out as planned, they have learned a valuable cooking lesson they can use in the future,” she said.

For most participants, there is usually at least one food they are trying for the first time.

“We also try to have cooking stations and recipes that give them opportunities to explore their personal preferences and create food that they are excited to eat.” Barton said.

“We encourage our chefs not to label food as gross or disgusting, but instead talk about what they don’t like. Maybe the texture is too slimy for them and that’s OK. We want them to pay attention to what it is they love or dislike about foods,” she said.

Other program goals are showing the youth that cooking doesn’t have to be difficult or intimidating. Food also can bring people together. In this case, the youth cook in groups and eat in groups.

For more information on the Miami County Extension Office and programs, visit\

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