"Cooking Matters" Program Proves You Can Eat Fresh on a Budget

The free six-week course teaches best practices for buying and cooking healthy meals for just $1.50 per person. 

May 4 2016, 12:00 PM

Mayra Ramirez (left) and Jeannetthe Burgos chopping vegetables in the Cooking Matters classroom.

Jeanetthe Burgos cooks for a family of six in her Aurora home. Although she’s always been conscious of meal planning and providing nutritious food to her loved ones, there are some dietary restrictions working against her: She and her daughters prefer to eat gluten free because of a sensitivity to wheat; her in-laws are diabetic; and her husband is just plain picky. While chicken and rice had become a family staple, Burgos was looking for ways to change up the menu and add more nutrients. So when she heard about Cooking Matters through her daughters’ school—a completely free six-week course for low-income families that teaches how to plan, prep, and cook healthy meals—she signed up.

“We’re still eating chicken and rice but the serving size has shrunk,” Burgos says. “Now, the plate is also full of vegetables.” New dishes—like turkey tacos wrapped in lettuce served with mango or pineapple salsa—have quickly become family favorites.  

Share Our Strength is a national nonprofit that runs the Cooking Matters program in more than 40 states. As a part of their No Kid Hungry campaign, it was started in 1993 to end childhood hunger and has served more than 369,000 families nationwide and 85,000 in the Centennial State. Each course is taught by a volunteer chef and nutrition educator and covers cooking safety, technique, nutrition, meal planning, and budgeting. There are many program options, which all develop self-sufficiency in the kitchen. 

Upon completion of the course (for participants who attended at least four out of six classes), graduates receive a guidebook with course material and 60 recipes. Each recipe costs about $1.50 per person and includes fresh, healthy ingredients that can be purchased at a local grocery store. Staff and volunteers create the recipes, and the Cooking Matters office in D.C. screens them for nutritional and cost requirements. Since completing Cooking Matters for Adults in March, the recipes have been key to menu planning for Burgos. “I go through and see which ones I want to try when I’m making the grocery list,” she says.­­

“What we try to teach is that healthy eating does not have to be expensive, and we can show you how to do it,” says Mayra Ramirez, a program associate. It’s interactive, so the students will be chopping vegetables and learning new recipes throughout class. “Then when we cover nutrition,” she continued. “They’re learning about why [the instructors] chose those ingredients, why they’re healthy, and how [the students] can save money.” As well as the recipe book, Cooking Matters also provides a knife, cutting board, and resources on how to freeze foods and read unit prices in the store to stretch food dollars.

New but simple habits like reading nutrition labels have helped Burgos make educated decisions based on products’ suggested portions and ingredients. “It’s important to see what’s in the products I’m buying, and the portion sizes,” she says. “I look at how many people the box of food feeds and the portion size—so I know that one serving is two cookies, for example.”

One class activity, dubbed the “Blubber Burger,” takes the fat content of specific dishes like a hamburger from Burger King and spoons the comparable amount of lard onto a plate for a visual understanding. “We do the same thing with sugary drinks,” Ramirez explains. “We figure out how much sugar is in the drink and spoon the raw sugar out into a cup—that always gets everybody going.”

After each class the students receive a bag of groceries and a recipe to try with their families. One of the first things Burgos learned from trying out the new recipes is that she and her daughters don’t have a wheat sensitivity, but a sensitivity to processed grains. “We learned how to identify whole grains and enriched grains, and the benefits of eating whole grains,” she said. Whole grains don’t cause the stomach sensitivities that enriched grains did for Burgos or her daughters, meaning that her menus aren’t limited to gluten-free ingredients anymore. She also learned that serving sweet potatoes opposed to regular potatoes is a great way to reduce the simple carbohydrates her family is eating, which is better for her diabetic in-laws.

The best part of the program is it’s making a positive, long-term impact on graduates’ lives. Share our Strength found that 17 percent of families are more confident in stretching their food dollars and 11 percent of students are still reaching for low-sodium options six months after taking the course. Burgos agrees: “Now I’m more conscious of the content of fat, salt, and sugar in everything I buy for my family, and I’m looking for low-fat, low-salt options,” she says.

“The food from Mexico is delicious, but it can also be high in fat and sugar,” Burgos admits. “It’s not that we can’t eat it, but we need to have a limit on what we eat, or prepare it better to be a little healthier.” She makes a point to educate her daughters on the family's new healthy habits, because she’s looking to make an impact on future generations, she says. “It’s good to give our kids options to live a healthier life.”

Learn how to get involved with Colorado's Cooking Matters program, or check out their course options for you or your family.