Developing taste buds

Summer camp aims to turn kids into health-conscious chefs

Over the last two years working with the Leap Into Summer camp, Emily McMillen (left) has seen many kids come away as “their own personal little chef.”

Over the last two years working with the Leap Into Summer camp, Emily McMillen (left) has seen many kids come away as “their own personal little chef.”

Get cookin’:

Those interested in the cooking camp can sign up their children through CARD at Registration is $100.

Go to CNAP’s website at to check out the Leap Into Summer promotional video.

On a recent afternoon, about 20 children and five instructors bustled about the kitchen in the Chico Area Recreation District (CARD) Community Center. Five teams were preparing five different items, from apple salad to stove-top mac ‘n’ cheese. Cries of “Where’s the can opener?” and “Do we have any butter?” rang through the kitchen.

One camper said she had been cooking since she was 3 years old and spoke of dreams to open a restaurant in Venice, Italy. Clearly excited about the camp, she said she liked working with other people, and that she hopes to come back later this summer.

And she will get that chance, because this was just the first week of Leap Into Summer, an interactive five-day nutrition-education, cooking and swimming camp for kids ages 7 to 13 sponsored by Chico State’s Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion (CNAP). There will be two more camps—Aug. 4-8 and 11-15—both held at the CARD center, which is in close proximity to Sycamore Pool at One-Mile Recreation Area.

“We’ve been running this camp somewhere between eight and 10 years,” said Jennifer Murphy, nutrition education specialist with CNAP, “and last year we really incorporated cooking; it was this huge event, and we had so much interest that we added a third camp [last summer].”

Murphy’s vision helped transition the camp’s lessons from abstract nutrition education to a more hands-on approach.

“It’s a great platform to introduce new foods to kids. We’ve really found that when kids are involved in the preparation, and involved in cooking, they’re way more open to trying it, and enjoying it,” she said. “They get to learn how to use a knife, how to keep your food safe so you don’t get sick, and practical skills besides just the health benefits of eating right.”

Payne Dietz, 8, was one of 20 children who recently attended the camp.

Photos by Melanie Mactavish

The Leap Into Summer instructors try to impart such knowledge in fun ways. Murphy mentioned a lesson called Rethink Your Drink, in which kids are taught about the benefits of drinking water and the detriments of overconsuming sugary drinks. At the end of the day’s lesson, the kids get to pedal a bike powering a blender to make their own smoothies. And while there is a lot of cooking and nutrition education, there’s no shortage of swimming and games for the kids as well.

The camp doesn’t promote an all-vegetarian diet, but there is an emphasis on less expensive—though protein-rich—foods.

“We all watch our budgets,” Murphy said, “so if we can show them some cost-effective meals that are tasty and filling, that’s what we want to do.” That helps make the camp more cost-effective for CNAP as well.

Campers make things like Mediterranean tabouli salads, hearty egg burritos and pumpkin pudding, and a few past participants have brought in their own recipes and dared to make dishes as adventurous as frittatas (like an Italian quiche). Getting kids interested in looking up their own recipes is part of the plan, and it seems to be working.

This will be the first year that CNAP is collaborating with CARD, a partnership that benefits the children by increasing their access to kitchen equipment, Murphy said. Last year, kids cooked with portable burners and one small convection oven. This year, CARD’s full kitchen is at their disposal. “It’s a bigger site, so we can take more kids,” Murphy said.

Emily McMillen, a Chico State graduate student, has been involved with Leap for three years, and thinks the Chopped Challenge, held on the last day of class and based on the popular TV show, is the most exciting part for campers. “We give the kids a bunch of ingredients in a mystery bag, and they have an hour to create something,” McMillen said. “They come up with amazing things. It’s a fantastic way for them to show off the skills that they’ve learned.”

McMillen said the cooking lessons can really make an impression. Kids come in and don’t know anything about preparing their own food, and when they leave, “they become their own personal little chef. It’s incredible to see the transformation that they make, and to see their confidence increase.”

For the instructors, it’s also rewarding to see such values instilled at a young age.

“There are a lot of adults who don’t know how to cook—or they’re scared to,” she said. “Now that we’re doing the cooking [part of camp], we’re dedicating a lot more time to actually developing skills that they’ll be using when they’re adults, and for the rest of their lives.”