Watching the transformation of young chefs in her teaching kitchen never gets old for Cheryl Davenport. Often shy, quiet and nervous at their first class, by the end of a session, her students
are engaged, passionate and confident. Davenport began offering cooking classes for kids and families when her restaurant Belle Kitchen opened in 2015. The former Canadian biology teacher,
turned marketing executive and then restaurant owner, missed being in the classroom, so she created her own, where life lessons are just as important as developing culinary skills.
“There are a lot of skills that are secondary to baking and cooking skills,” said Davenport. “There is a lot of chemistry in the kitchen, and they learn how to follow steps, time management and working as a team.”
Likewise, Toni Washington of Edmond Mobile Meals enjoys seeing a love of learning blossom among her young chefs at the nonprofit organization’s summer camps. Washington learned how to cook as a child herself, often making full meals for her family, so she knows firsthand the benefits kids gain in becoming confident cooks. In her summer camp, kids’ math and social skills get a boost and they learn the basics of kitchen safety. Washington loves expanding kids’ culinary horizons by exploring cuisines, seasonings and ingredients from other countries, incorporating lessons on other cultures and giving them a wider worldview.
Paula Hanger teaches students the importance of good nutrition in her Healthy Cooking with Kids classes at Moore Norman Technology Center. She knows she’s hit the mark when students tell her their oven fried chicken tenders are as good as Chick-Fil-A.
“As a parent, yes, it’s more trouble and you’ll have more mess when you allow kids to help you cook, but it’s definitely worth it for their buy-in and to have something to do together as a family,” said Hanger.
Local culinary instructors agree it can be easier and less stressful to start that process, and make those messes, in someone else’s kitchen. In that spirit, Vera Cheek tells students in her Saturdays R 4 Kids classes at Francis Tuttle Technology Center not to be afraid to spill something or get messy, giving them freedom to explore. Seeing her students’ belief in themselves and pride in their accomplishments are Shanna Garrett’s favorite part about her Kids in the Kitchen classes at the MAC in Edmond.
“Parents often note a change in their personality in even a short amount of time,” said Garrett. “They open up, learn it’s OK to make mistakes and how to problem solve.”
When can kids learn to cook?
Davenport’s monthly mommy-and-me classes for ages 3 and up typically involve quick exercises perfect for short attention spans, like glazing and decorating doughnuts. Garrett’s mommy-and-me Baking Tots classes start at age 2 and provide developmentally-appropriate recipes and crafts for participants to do at their own pace rather than instructional teaching.
“We do recipes that if they lick it, it will be OK and where they can engage their senses,” said Garrett. “You have the space to come in and make a mess, and I will clean it up!”
Garrett’s 2-year-old, who has Cerebral Palsy, points to the counter every Saturday morning while signing “eat,” which Garrett says means he wants to help her make waffles. Realizing how fortunate she is to get to cook with her own kids made her want to extend that same opportunity to other children.
Cheek’s Saturdays R 4 Kids classes are open to ages 5 through 11, accompanied by adults, and even the youngest students participate in each aspect of her half-day classes. Because her students
are so engaged, mixing meatloaf with their hands or stretching dough for strudel, she’s never had a child misbehave in class. She teaches good hygiene, laughingly reporting she reminds kids they can’t pick their noses in the kitchen, and that they must clean their own dishes.
“Some of the moms get a little nervous when I let them cut with knives,” said Cheek. “Sometimes parents want to take over, but I gently nudge them to allow the kid to do it.”
As students watch Cheek demonstrate cooking techniques and create their own dishes, they develop not only math and language skills but social skills as well.
“They learn to be considerate of each other, letting younger kids be up front so they can see better, and how to compliment each other,” said Cheek.
While many of Cheek’s students are learning to cook for fun, a few who started with her at age 5 have graduated to the school’s Summer Quest program for teens and then the culinary program as high schoolers.
“I see a lot of change in the kids in maturity,” said Cheek. “It’s such a joy to see those kids grow.”
Cooking up life lessons
Kids’ willingness to try new things increases tenfold when they are the chefs. Hanger teaches her students how to make tasty smoothies, complete with spinach, how to add pureed vegetables to their favorite boxed macaroni and cheese mix and why it’s important to fuel their bodies with foods that are good for them.
“Getting kids in on the cooking process is such a great life skill for them,” said Hanger, who as a working mom taught and relied on her kids to make some meals themselves or alongside her. “Teaching them how to add nutrition also allows them to be an experimental cook and tailor things to their own tastes.”
Garrett started her Kids in the Kitchen classes to give kids the skills and confidence to take charge of their nutrition. Through the Gateway Program, she’s been able to work with several foster kids in her classes, a personal passion project. The Garrett family hopes to one day foster or adopt, and for now Garrett is fulfilling that calling by spending time nurturing cooking students.
“For kids who don’t have a mom to bake cookies with or kids with working parents, I love to be there for them,” said Garrett.
In addition to meeting and working with chefs from local restaurants and culinary programs, Washington enjoys seeing students meet kids from varied backgrounds whom they may not have had a chance to interact with elsewhere. As Little Chefs campers learn to make pasta, sushi and desserts, they also learn about Edmond Mobile Meals’ mission to provide nourishing meals to the elderly and disabled. Several of Washington’s campers have returned as volunteers, helping prep weekend meals or even prepare full hot meals for their clients, experiencing how their skills can benefit others.
Cheek’s own kids, ages 19 and 12, often give her ideas for recipes or classes as they cook together at home, and they were the inspiration for her Junior Chefs class, based on the popular show Chopped. Students receive a mystery basket with several items they have to include, relying on their creativity to develop a tasty concoction.
“I give them basic recipes and they choose whatever they want to bake within the time limit,” said Cheek. “They come up with so many varieties of things. They present what they made and the other students get to taste.”
Davenport says those popular cooking shows are often the impetus for her students learning to cook. While they may come to class with a competitive spirit, by the end of camp, they learn cooking is a team effort and they can’t get the job done without supporting each other. Whether through making ravioli from scratch or a rustic tart, kids learn recipes they can repeat at home, how to plate
their creations and how to confidently explain to others what they’ve made.
Some parents of Garrett’s students admit they don’t know how to cook themselves and are learning from their kids, who gain self-confidence and pride in teaching their families how to make sheet pan fajitas, homemade spaghetti or pizzadillas, a student favorite. Garrett says on occasion she forgets to bring an ingredient, and the class learns together how to substitute, be flexible in the
kitchen and that there’s always more than one solution. Hanger says cooking classes give kids a safe place to make mistakes.
“You realize failure is a part of the process,” said Hanger.
For all these local kids cooking teachers, nothing beats the smiles on their students faces and the joyful camaraderie they witness between students or kids and their families.
“By the end of the day, they are so proud,” said Cheek.
Check out these local classes for budding chefs:
Classes for ages 5-12 (with adult)
Classes for ages 13+ (with paying adult)
Uptown Grocery Co.
Mommy-and-me baking and crafting
sessions for ages 2-6
Kids in the Kitchen
Weekly cooking classes for ages 6-17
MAC at Mitch Park
2733 Marilyn Williams Dr, Edmond
Monthly family cooking classes (with adult) and summer camps for ages 3-10, apprenticeships for 11+
7509 N May, OKC
Healthy Cooking with Kids
Cooking classes for ages 9-15 (with adult)
Cookie & Cake Decorating
Summer camps for ages 9-14
Moore Norman Technology Center
13301 S Pennsylvania, OKC
Summer camps for ages 9-11
Edmond Mobile Meals
25 W 3rd St, Edmond
Saturdays R 4 Kids
Monthly cooking classes for ages 5-11 (with adult)
Annual mystery basket baking class for ages 11-15
Francis Tuttle Technology Center
12777 N Rockwell, OKC
Sur la Table
Monthly family cooking classes for ages 8+ (with adult)
5854 N Classen Blvd, Suite P-01, OKC