Top chefs start out young in Arroyo Grande

Program at Mesa Middle School in Arroyo Grande teaches seventh-graders the skills to prepare healthier meals for their families.

Caitlin Stewart prefers to work the sauté station while other cooks sprinkle cheese on lasagnas, chop vegetables for the salads and warm the bread.

She and her fellow cooks are preparing to cater a feast for 50 guests, but they hope dinner doesn’t go too late — they have homework to do.

The cooks are seventh-graders at Mesa Middle School who partake in the culinary afterschool program known as “Pink Chefs” and “Dude Chefs.”

The six-week program aims to improve the nutritional habits, skills and behaviors among middle school girls and boys by educating them about dietary choices. It’s part of a program from Cal Poly known as COPE — Center for Obesity Prevention and Education — which promotes healthy living at all ages.

Program coordinator Julie Chessen piloted the program in the spring as a way to teach youth to eat well. She partnered with Lucia Mar Unified School District’s “Bright Futures” afterschool program and hopes to expand the classes to other schools around the county.

“There’s been a shift with people wanting to eat at home and get back into the kitchen,” she said. “The idea is that they’ll take these skills and help their own families make good choices.”

So far, the program appears to have impacted the lives — and eating habits — of its participants.

Most of the “Pink Chefs” surveyed said they have cooked a healthy tasty meal for their families since starting the class. For seventh-grader Shayla Beck, it means getting to eat what she wants while her dad has to clean up afterward.

“My dad has a rule: if you cook, the other person cleans. So whatever chance I get, I cook,” Beck said.

They’ve learned chopping skills, how to sauté, how to pick healthy foods at the grocery store and how to maintain a balanced diet.

Julia Lariz has since made tacos with her dad, as well as salads and milkshakes. The best parts for her have been spending time in the kitchen with friends.

“We get to hang out,” she said. “And we definitely seem to know more about health than other friends at school.”