EWING TOWNSHIP, NEW JERSEY — On a dreary day in February, clients of HomeFront, an organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty, are gathered in a brightly painted kitchen, where once a week they learn to cook affordable, healthy meals. Their instructor for this particular lesson is Alexander Trimble, chef de cuisine for Princeton University’s Forbes College, who is assembling pre-portioned ingredients they will use to cook a hamburger that contains a 1-to-3 ratio of lentils to beef.
“Who here has eaten lentils?” Trimble asks the group. No one raises their hand. Some shake their heads. When Trimble passes around a container of the pre-cooked beans, there finally are some “ahs” of recognition.
“Lentejas,” says one woman in Spanish. The participants are intrigued, and they eagerly break into groups at one of several kitchen stations to mix and fry up burgers that are not only more nutritious and healthful, but more economical, as well.
Trimble’s HomeFront visit is one of numerous educational presentations offered each year by Campus Dining chefs and managers to groups at the University and throughout the surrounding community.
Through the Teaching Kitchen Outreach Program, the chefs have introduced seasonal produce to elementary students in the Princeton public schools, taught undergraduates at the University how to make the most of a basic vinaigrette, and led culinary craft workshops focused on the sheer delight of using one’s inventiveness.
“Our chefs have been doing interactive lectures and culinary demonstrations that were hands-on for years, throughout Campus Dining’s history on campus, and they’ve morphed into something a bit more structured that is curriculum-based and learning-objective-based in this style, known as the teaching kitchen,” said Melissa Mirota, campus wellness dietician for Campus Dining.
Mirota, a registered dietician and nutritionist, is one of several program leaders for the Teaching Kitchen Outreach Program, creating public presentations that align with Campus Dining’s Campus Vision for the Future of Dining.
“Cooking skills are rapidly decreasing while reliance on highly processed foods is rapidly increasing,” said Smitha Haneef, assistant vice president for Campus Dining in University Services. “Through our teaching kitchens, we share our knowledge of culinary skills, health and nutrition, and we empower others to cook together and share a meal. I am so proud of our work and my team in building a healthy vibrant community.”
For the initiative in the Princeton public elementary schools, Campus Dining partnered with Garden State on Your Plate, a pilot program linking farms with schools, to introduce young learners to kohlrabi, a type of cabbage.
Late last year, Campus Dining’s Bake Shop hosted a seminar on making chocolate bark for the holidays, donating some of their creations to a local food pantry. Over Wintersession at Princeton, teaching kitchens brought together groups of students to learn how to cook with avocados and how to make Italian foods such as chicken parmigiana.
The teaching kitchen program also visited Princeton’s University Now Day Nursery to teach preschoolers about shapes while dicing up a healthy mango-and-papaya salad with safe, plastic knives.
“It is topic-specific, so if we have interest from a group, we can cater to that,” Mirota said.
HomeFront’s weekly cooking class focuses on preparing a nutritious meal on a tight budget, said Liza Peck, support services liaison for HomeFront. Some of HomeFront’s clients live in emergency housing available on site. Others are enrolled in state aid programs that require learning credits.
“They’re in a time of flux,” Peck said. “Some are receiving emergency assistance, some are receiving TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families]. These families, going forward, are most likely going to be starting out in low-income jobs.”
Princeton’s chefs visited HomeFront’s Family Campus on three occasions in recent months, each time introducing a new ingredient along with recipes for dishes that are nutritious and economical.
For their first lesson, HomeFront clients learned how to use eggs to cook substantive and creative dinners — an egg-stuffed baked potato, for instance. During the second visit, they prepared a Bolognese sauce that incorporated vegetables. The recipe is flexible enough that it can accommodate most any vegetable, Mirota said.
The final session focused on lentils, which are packed with nutrients, and offer an affordable, healthy protein.
Trimble walked around the room to the different cooking stations to check on the progress of the HomeFront clients.
Several of the women in attendance made a beeline for HomeFront kitchen’s large pantry and grabbed adobo and onion powder among other spices to liven up the basic blend of lentils and meat. As they were doing so, Trimble explained that the recipe also could be used to make meatballs or meatloaf, for greater variety.
Later, he demonstrated how to make a lentil bowl with a simple lemon dressing that could incorporate any number or variety of grains and vegetables. He brought with him quinoa and brown rice, and threw them into the mix along with leftover vegetables from his own refrigerator.
“They can create a bowl by seeing what they have a little bit of, then they can have fun with it,” Trimble said.
Not everyone likes lentils and not everyone is familiar with them, but adding them to familiar items — such as burgers or a salad — is an easy way to introduce them into one’s diet, Trimble said.
Luely Garcia, who currently resides in HomeFront’s emergency housing, said the burgers were simple to make and delicious — and she definitely would make them again. “I like the combination,” she said. “This is a little soft, but it’s very tasty.”
Franceshi Acevedo of Trenton said mixing lentils into a burger was something different and better than she expected. “I never would have thought of putting lentils in a burger,” Acevedo said.
Jonathan Clark of Trenton said in recent years he has been cooking healthier meals for his family — including incorporating organic ingredients — and that he was glad to have new recipes to try with his older children, who are 6 and 11.
“He gave me a little twist to do in the kitchen,” Clark said.