Junior chefs in the making in Streator

Program teaches students cooking skills, nutrition with hands-on lessons

A junior chef measures milk Wednesday, June 22, 2022, at the Streator installment at Northlawn School of the Illinois Junior Chefs presented by the University of Illinois Extension office.

US Foods chef Matt Dean demonstrated how to make a pizza from scratch Wednesday to 29 students registered in the Illinois Junior Chef program at Northlawn School in Streator.

But before he could toss the dough, dice the tomatoes or spread the cheese, he had to settle an important question.

“Do you like pineapple on pizza?” one of the students asked.

Dean said yes, and he encouraged students to top their pizzas with whatever they like.

“There’s no wrong topping,” Dean told them. “I’ve even seen grasshoppers put on pizzas.”

Dean’s demonstration is just one session of the five-day University of Illinois Extension camp sponsored by Live Well Streator, teaching mostly fourth and fifth graders cooking skills and nutrition.

Dean shared a pizza recipe with students to take home and walked through step-by-step making a homemade pizza, including letting students try their hand at tossing pizza dough and smell different cheeses.

Allowing the students to be hands-on with preparing food, watching demonstrations and tasting new items is a big part of the Illinois Junior Chefs program, which has sessions planned for Spring Valley, La Salle and Oglesby next, said Sherry Todas, program coordinator. Camps were conducted in Manlius and Neponset prior to Streator’s.

Todas said students tried raw turnips and beets Tuesday — and plenty of students liked the taste — and they also learned how to peel their vegetables.

Illinois Junior Chefs was developed by University of Illinois Extension’s Illinois Nutrition Education Programs.

Each class focuses on a nutrition topic using MyPlate food groups and an important kitchen skill, such as measuring liquid and dry ingredients, using a knife safely, grating, peeling and juicing, among other skills. Classes prepared one to two recipes each day to bring together the nutrition topic and practice newly learned skills. Students also receive their own cookbooks.

“We enjoy bringing the Illinois Junior Chef Program to youth to spark a lifelong love of cooking and healthy eating habits,” said Shasta Hladovcak, community worker and program lead for the U of I Extension. “The participants learn cooking skills like measuring, mixing, and basic knife skills, while cooking some of our favorite recipes like veggie chow mein, fruit salsa and eggs ole. The youth are then certified ‘junior chefs’ at the end of this exciting program.”

Children ages 8 to 13 years old can enroll in the 10-hour series, which typically takes place over five days. Fourth and fifth graders were the target audience for Streator’s camp.