Youth cooking classes are hot sellouts

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

HADLEY, Mass. -- Her eyes wide, 5-year-old Naomi Burisov licks the frosting off her cupcake and settles into her favorite part of cooking class: Eating.

"Mmm, I like the chocolate," she says as she sits with 12 aproned children and their parents at a sold-out kids cooking class offered by her local Whole Foods grocer. "I love making all the stuff."

Forget swimming lessons and soccer, the latest trend in extracurricular activities for children ages 4 to 16 is cooking class. And not just any cooking class. There are culinary summer camps, cooking birthday parties, private cooking lessons, plus a plethora of new cookbooks for the young chef who aspires to be the next Rachael Ray or Bobby Flay.

"Part of what we are seeing is a trend in 'eatertainment' with all the cooking shows," says Stephen Hengst, spokesman for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Indeed, children even make up a large part of the audiences for cooking shows, says Mark O'Connor, a spokesman for the Food Network, noting that at book-signings and public events, kids flock to see celebrities like Ray and superstar chef Emeril Lagasse.

Children tend to try foods in cooking class they would never eat at home. And then they repeat the recipe in their own kitchen.

With the rise in childhood obesity, some parents are turning to cooking class as a way to educate their children about portions and nutrition. Gregory Zifchak, an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, says "we've become a prepackaged, processed food society, where so many items in grocery carts are just heat and serve." Children need real food and if they know how to make it, they'll eat better, he says.

Families also are attending cooking class for "quality time" together, he says. The parent-child classes allow families to spend time together without the interruptions of daily life. "Their lives are so busy that they use the six hours together in cooking class as time to catch up with each other."

Using her skills from class, Florman spends time with her mother cooking with adult and kids cookbooks. "It's just a nice, relaxing quiet time when I can work with my mom in the kitchen," she says.

So move over, Spanish lessons, gymnastics and learning the violin. Cooking class is the latest activity to get penciled in on the family calendar. "After all, cooking is a basic life skill," Zifchak says.

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