After weeks of lessons on nutritious breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack, the instructors had given the kids exactly what they wanted: a class entirely focused on desserts. And, still, the students were pushing back.
"Why does it have to be healthy cheesecake?" asked Oscar Wolfe, 13. "I don't want to make my cheesecake healthy."
And thus the challenge of trying to undo the negative perception of eating right.
"Well, as my mom always says, 'You are going to want dessert, so you might as well put something good in it,' " said Sally Vitez, my daughter, and the namesake of My Daughter's Kitchen, the healthy-cooking program being taught by volunteers at 31 urban schools throughout the region.
I was visiting an after-school cooking class at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, just outside New Brunswick, N.J., last week. It was being taught by Yatee Dave and Katie Millen, first-year students at Rutgers' Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and colleagues of Sally's, who is a fourth-year medical student there.
The med students are encouraged to do community service at RWJ, and after seeing what a significant role food plays in so many diseases, Sally and two of her classmates, Jaclyn Portelli Tremont and Melissa Villars, started an after-school cooking program two years ago.
"With the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country, we felt an obligation, as future physicians, to try and teach kids how much the food they eat is directly related to their health," said Sally.
Interestingly, the idea of medical students taking and teaching healthy cooking classes is gaining momentum across the country.
Most notably, Tulane University School of Medicine, in New Orleans has pioneered a program it calls "culinary medicine" to teach cooking skills to medical students and doctors in order to improve their patients' health with practical dietary changes. Staff and med students at Tulane teach free cooking classes for the community. More than 20 medical schools around the country have started programs based on Tulane's curriculum, including a new class at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
With obesity related to more than 20 major chronic diseases, with one in three adults diagnosed with some form of heart disease, with more than 80 million Americans having type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, medical schools are recognizing future doctors can benefit greatly from the simple act of learning to cook.
"Medical students need to know how to talk to their patients about healthy eating," said Douglas Reifler, associate dean for student affairs and professor of medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. "It's not enough to say, 'Lose 20 pounds'; they need to be able to speak in more detail about how to eat well. They also need to practice taking care of themselves."
Bryan Zoll, a first-year med student at Temple, created what he's calling Temple's Culinary Wellness Initiative, a cooking program planned for the fall, after observing firsthand how significant it could be.
"I noticed health professionals shying away from holding dietary conversations with their patients," Zoll wrote in an email. "I also noticed that when patients did receive dietary advice, they often shirked away from it - too expensive, too much time, not tasty enough, not convenient, etc."
He borrowed from Tulane's idea and put together a cooking class for patients and med students to take together.
"I think it helps bring a conversation to life that really can reduce the chronic disease burden in Philadelphia," Zoll wrote. "It directly educates patients who otherwise might have thought of health foods as too difficult. . . . At the same time, it encourages [med students] to engage future patients in a dietary dialogue and feel comfortable doing so."
David B. Sarwer, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at the College of Public Health at Temple, enthusiastically supports the initiative.
Sarwer, who has been studying obesity for 20 years, said that when he got started, it was difficult to get physicians to measure body mass indexes (BMIs).
"They weren't sure it was part of their job," he said. "Obesity wasn't recognized as a disease."
But as obesity has reached epidemic proportions, physicians have done a much better job, diagnosing and managing their patients' weight-related health problems, he said.
"I think, increasingly, medical schools are looking at teaching the next generation of doctors about nutrition and dietary interventions for preventing disease, and that medical schools will embrace cooking education as part of its curriculum."
Back in Highland Park, the students were sitting down to eat their healthy treats: mini-cheesecakes (with a boost of protein from Greek yogurt and blueberries for topping); energy balls (made with oatmeal, sunflower seeds, honey, and dried fruit), and dark chocolate medallions (with sunflower seeds, coconut, and dried fruit).
As the med students gave lessons in moderation and the benefits of learning to make your own food, they talked about meals they had made, and were heartened to see that the kids remembered the lessons.
"I loved the vegetarian tacos," said Layla Maloney-Yadlowsky, 11. "That was my favorite."
"I loved the refried beans," said Lila Shahidi, 11.
But Maria Pellerano, an assistant professor of family medicine and community health at Rutgers RWJ Medical School and faculty adviser for the cooking program, saw another benefit, this one for the med students.
"They are working so hard," she said. "This is such a nice break for them to come and just teach kids to cook."