Cooking from Scratch in School Cafeterias — and at Home

Bill Telepan, noted chef and healthy-cooking advocate, says it's time for us to take back our kitchens.

WITS cook Carly Gould teaching a WITS bean lab making vegetarian chili.

For some, cooking at home is a luxury. For many more, it can be a challenge and even a chore. However, I’ve found that some basic planning and a few tricks of the trade can make cooking at home a fun experience that brings the family closer together while inspiring a healthier lifestyle.

As the executive chef of Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a program dedicated to teaching children about healthy eating and environmental awareness, we know how important it is for children to learn healthy habits when they’re young, not only at school but also at home. For years we’ve been hearing the call to bring cooking back to public school cafeterias, and more recently, we’ve been pleased to hear more and more voices calling for a return to cooking in the home as well.

At WITS, scratch cooking is a major focus of our Cook for Kids program. We work closely with school cafeteria staff to create less processed, more scratch-cooked menus, and pair that work with tastings and engagement activities to get kids on board. We also teach culinary skills and healthy habits directly to our students through WITS Labs, which provide seasonal culinary and nutrition education classes. Our students make dishes based on seasonally themed ingredients like vegetarian chili or kale salad (dishes they also see in their cafeterias) and then take home a colorful recipe brochure with additional dishes to try with their families. We receive amazing feedback from the WITS Labs as kids become champions for their own health and ask, even demand, to cook at home with their parents. We also provide opportunities directly to parents with after-school parent labs in New York City and have taught "cooking on a budget" classes in Kentucky with our partners at Save the Children.

In my last article for The Daily Meal, I interviewed WITS founder Nancy Easton to get her insight as an educator and a parent on how to make our schools healthier places to learn and grow. In this article, Nancy turns the tables and interviews me about bringing scratch-cooking back to the family kitchen.

Nancy Easton: The last decade or so has seen a sort of “food renaissance.” People are starting to appreciate and think about real food again, but many still don’t cook it themselves. What do you think holds people back from cooking at home?

Bill Telepan: The obvious answer is that people are just busier. Women started working [more] outside the home in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Women were, and are, still the primary cooks in the home, however. When they started going to work every day, they had less and less time to cook at home — hence the development and proliferation of fast, processed food. The food industry, in my opinion, is fully responsible for the rise in obesity rates over the last 30 years and for why we are no longer cooking. We need to take back the kitchen! I know it’s easy for me to say, as I am a trained chef who cooks for a living. But I think by starting small, with some very easy tips, we can not only appreciate real food but also cook it for our families — both women and men!

Cooking can be very daunting to some people. What are your top tips for someone who wants to cook at home but isn’t sure where to begin?

These tips are critical for cooking at any skill level. They will give you a foundation on which to build, helping you cook more efficiently and affordably, and make cooking more pleasurable.

  • Know your knife skills. Invest in two good knives: a paring knife and a 6- to 8-inch chef's knife. Learn how to use them. The more you chop, the faster you get, and the sooner you will cut down on time. Wash and chop your vegetables when you have down time on the weekend and bag them for use during the week.
  • Buy seasonally. Seasonal produce not only tastes better but is less expensive. Buy from your greenmarket or join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
  • Make roasting the norm. If you can preheat an oven, have olive oil and salt, and can cut your own vegetables, you are good to go! You can roast meat with the vegetables, using the basic methods and ingredients (olive oil and salt) for a full meal.
  • Get friendly with basic herbs and spices. Here is where you can try to get “fancy”. Just experiment. Spice up chicken or vegetables with one herb or spice. Don’t worry about blending. Buy fresh and go for it! See what you like and what works for your family, and then build on this for more complex flavoring.

Can you share one recipe that I can try out on my kids? It must be easy, inexpensive, healthy and delicious. I am clearly very demanding.

The first recipe we developed for the school cafeterias was a vegetarian chili. We also make it in our WITS Lab in the winter. The kids love it. Your kids can help with the chopping of peppers and onions. Once the vegetables are chopped, the rest is simple. The recipe calls for canned beans, but you can also use dried beans. Kids usually get excited about seeing the beans go from one state to another overnight. You can also “dress up” the recipe by putting out an array of toppings when you serve — kids love choice. Add cilantro, sour cream, shredded cheese, salsa… you name it. It can be as simple or as complex as you’d like.


Click here to see the Vegetarian Chili recipe