Cooking class shows how Mass General tackles community health issues in ways that reach families.

Kids at MGH Revere Youth Zone, a Massachusetts General Hospital after-school program, are learning that healthy eating begins with a little planning and the right ingredients.

Among other things, they have even taken foods, like sandwiches, and made them healthier by loading them up with vegetables and lean meats.

After-school cooking instructor Eliza Abdu-Glass helps student Alexandra Mercado choose ingredients for a sandwich.
After-school cooking instructor Eliza Abdu-Glass helps student Alexandra Mercado choose ingredients for a sandwich.

A cooking class, held during the Youth Zone after-school program, is popular. Kids arrive hungry after a day at school and eager to experiment in the program’s new kitchen.

Youth Zone serves students from ages 9 to 17 and is run by the MGH Revere HealthCare Center at a Mass General site recently renovated for the program. Youth Zone is free and open to children of all income levels. On average, 45 kids attend on school days.

This year, instructors and students planted a garden. Then, they used the vegetables and herbs from the garden in their recipes.

The cooking class helps busy families by teaching kids that there are alternatives to junk food when they are hungry, says Debra Jacobson, administrative director of the MGH Revere HealthCare Center.

Ms. Jacobson realized the impact of the cooking class when an 11-year-old proudly told her that he and his sister made vegetable lasagna for a family dinner. “We’re making a difference,” she says. “That’s our hope and our goal.”

Focus on Community Health.

The MGH Revere HealthCare Center created Youth Zone 19 years ago, responding to the community’s needs. Today, the program is supported by the health center and receives partial funding from Mass General’s Center for Community Health Improvement (CCHI). CCHI works with community partners on tough health problems such as obesity, cancer and substance abuse.

“Youth Zone is making a difference. That’s our hope and our goal.”

Revere HealthCare Center has also expanded its iFit program, which is free. Parents and children attend sessions once a week for six weeks. They learn about exercise, healthy eating and stress reduction. During the nutrition component, families make a healthy meal they have never eaten before and try it during class.

Leslie Heffron, a registered nurse and manager of Youth Services at Revere HealthCare Center, says child involvement in decisions about food is key.

The results, Ms. Heffron says, surprise some parents. Because the kids helped create the meal, they are more likely to take a bite.

Cooking with Your Child

The winner of the Youth Zone sandwich competition was a grilled masterpiece of melted cheese, spinach, caramelized onions, and possibly some meat — no one can remember if it had meat it was so good, says Ms. Heffron. The winning team used a tabletop indoor grill. There was no need for butter.

This lesson in taking something fun, like a sandwich, and making it a little healthier is one that Youth Zone cooking instructor Eliza Abdu-Glass uses as a theme. She shows kids how to make fruit-infused water, a healthier option than juice, and add applesauce instead of sugar to muffin batter.

Ms. Abdu-Glass, who is known to slip broccoli into cheese lasagna, says eating healthy as a family is a group effort. “You can take something that is typically thought of as unhealthy, like a sandwich, and make it healthier,” she says.

Tips for Parents

  • Know what your kids like and how to incorporate it. Some like sweet onions, but not red onions. Or spinach, but not lettuce.
  • Involve your child in meal planning. Take them grocery shopping. Ask them to help make dinner or pack their lunch.

To learn more about how you can support Mass General’s community health programs, please contact us.