Larry LaRue

Tacoma cooking class teaches lower-income kids about nutrition, kitchen safety — and good food

An only child, Remington Meredith has helped his mother with cooking since he was small. He even took a one-session cooking class at the park.

That was a disappointment; the Tacoma boy learned how to cook a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a sandwich machine, his mother said.

So when the Portland Avenue Community Center offered Dr. Cleo’s Cooking Class this summer, Remington could have been excused if he’d been cynical. Dr. Cleo, you see, is a cat.

The food-preparation course, a series of two-hour sessions held in a kitchen once a week for four weeks, was fully funded by Molina Healthcare and offered at the Eastside community center specifically to reach out to low-income kids ages 8-13.

“We’re in 10 states, and the focus is to teach kids about nutrition, kitchen safety, help them eat better,” said Carrie Ching, Molina’s supervisor for community engagement. “They learn about using vegetables, making smoothies and how to prepare full meals.”

That, said Coco Meredith, was the hook for her son, 8-year-old Remington.

“I was worried that a two-hour class might be too long, but he thought it was too short,” she said. “He loved it.”

Once it was offered, spots filled up fast. There were only a dozen because the community center kitchen is not large enough for more.

“We had to turn away quite a few kids,” said Laura Rodriguez, the center’s recreation supervisor. “We had a lot of families that wanted to take part that couldn’t.”

The kids who got into the free class received chef’s hats and aprons, complete with the Dr. Cleo logo. Turns out, the good doctor is the Molina mascot and wears a lab coat and stethoscope.

The class teacher was Elsa Sanabia, who has taught art, dance and cooking through Metro Parks Tacoma. Ching served as a chef’s helper, and each week one mother or another put on an apron and lent a pair of hands.

“We chose different meals to make each week and included whole grains, fruits and vegetables,” Sanabia said. “They learned how to present food in an appealing way, and they understood nutrition.

“We taught proper kitchen hygiene and safety, and how to clean up afterward. Cooking is not playing time.”

Sanabia taught them more than that, Ching said.

“Elsa has a natural Dominican flare, and she taught them wonderful dishes and introduced foods some of them had never had,” Ching said. “She showed them how to cut a pineapple — and one young man had never tasted pineapple before.”

For the course finale last week, the kids had two hours to prepare a full dinner for their parents. They made lasagna, a salad with vinaigrette dressing and fresh strawberry shortcake. To drink: a fresh fruit smoothie.

The kitchen was organized chaos. One girl browned lean ground beef, another sauteed onions. Then they stirred in sauces.

Three girls handled mixing the cheeses, and when Sanabia needed two eggs cracked, a boy quickly volunteered. On a second counter, a young girl mixed the salad, and each time she’d nervously touch her hair someone would cry, “Wash your hands!”

Each time, she did.

With the food prepared, the students were turned into greeters and waiters, with two assigned to each table. As parents and family members arrived, the dining area lit up with smiles. Just before the meal was served, a special guest appeared at the door.

It was Dr. Cleo, a bit more than 6 feet of him. The kids shied away from the costumed mascot, then charged when he held out welcoming cat arms. Photos were taken, then dinner was served.

“Fabulous,” Coco Meredith said.

Afterward, each student got a white three-ring notebook with recipes of every dish they’d made and more, and photos of the class cooking.

And when it was all over?

“I’d like to go through the parks system, get a grant for more classes,” Rodriguez said. “There’s clearly an interest in this community. The kids who just took it want to take it again.”

At home, young Remington Meredith helps his mother in the kitchen but isn’t satisfied with their work.

“He doesn’t want to improvise on a recipe; he wants his specific ingredients,” she said. “We did chicken and rice, but not quite the same way as class did it, so he doesn’t count that. We’re going to get all his ingredients lined up for his next full meal.”

Remington also wears his Dr. Cleo apron in the kitchen and likes the picture his mother took of him with the doctor.

Along with everything else, he liked the cat.