Eat Your Vegetables! (With Didi Emmons)

kids' cooking class

A kids' cooking class at Haley House

If there's anyone who knows how to get kids to eat their vegetables, it's Didi Emmons.

This cookbook author and chef teaches inner city, at-risk kids how to cook healthy meals as part of the non-profit Haley House Youth Cooking Program in Massachusetts. The kids—ages 10- to 17-years-old—attend weekly cooking classes where they learn nutrition and how to cook meals using a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as healthy Mac 'N' Cheese with Broccoli (keep reading for the recipe!).


Many of Didi's kids have not been exposed to a variety of whole foods—particularly fresh foods and vegetables—and, therefore, are often "prejudiced" against these types of foods. The same could be said about many of the kids in our own families, who turn up their noses to, say, a fresh avocado or a baked sweet potato, in favor of over-processed, industrialized foods.

Because empowering kids to make good decisions about what they eat is important for people of ALL backgrounds, I asked Didi to share her top five techniques for teaching the difference between good food and junk food.

Here's what Didi had to say:

  • Cook with kids.

Parents can get kids interested in healthy food by getting kids to help prepare the meal. This is not anything new, but I think when parents put something on table, it's a control issue, and kids are more apt to refuse food. When kids are part of decision-making process, then that helps them to want to eat it.

  • Empower kids with the knowledge of what happens when they eat junk food and convenience food instead of whole, healthy foods.

For example, with my 10-year-olds, I talk about flour. Flour is something they can understand. I talk about how white flour (and a lot of white food) is kind of dead because we have taken all the "alive" parts (essential oils, grain, etc.) so that the little part that is left (endosperm) can hang out on grocery store shelves forever. We tell kids that the "alive" food nourishes you, helps your brain develop, helps your body grow, helps you to become a cool, great person. That seems to definitely resonate with all age groups. We do the same thing with white rice versus brown rice and so on.

  • The more you can teach about a particular food, the more invested kids will be in it.

I think about what is cool and fun to me, and I try to teach them that. So, one day I might teach about leeks, because leeks are cool-looking vegetables and to wash them is a cool technique. There is so much to teach about a leek— it has two parts, a green part and a white part, and both parts are good for you and both have different flavors...Lots of kids get really intrigued about the "science" of food. If you can get them to really love something, then it becomes "theirs."

  • Encourage kids to have a good attitude about food.

Lots of our kids start off saying, "But I don't like vegetables!" But in my classes I teach that the key to happy life is learning how to be flexible and be open to new things. This directly applies to food. We talk about the attitude of saying you "don't like onions" even if you have never tried them and how that attitude might hurt you in the long run because you are saying something without knowing what you are saying. We try to teach them that they have to keep learning how to take in new information.

  • Cook recipes that marry healthy food with food that kids' love (even if some of that food isn't always so great for them).

For example, I cook a dish that's really popular with the kids that calls for white pasta and ketchup [not so good] but also mustard greens, chicken, and carrots [good]...Or, you can start with things that you know your kids like—like roast chicken—and then introduce healthy, new things around that, like roast vegetables or perhaps sweet potatoes. With this in mind, check out my popular, kid-approved recipe for healthy Mac 'N' Cheese With Broccoli:

Healthy Mac 'N' Cheese With Broccoli:

You can make this with just one or two vegetables. You don't need all three, unless its your birthday. It is unconventional to add a touch of flour into the sauce raw, but this is the same technique for thickening and stabilizing cheese fondue. No need to thank us, but not making a cream sauce for Mac and Cheese saves a lot of time.

Serves 8-10

3 cups chopped greens (callalloo, chard, kale, spinach)

3 cups broccoli, florets and spears chopped

1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (sweet potato is a good sub here)

16 ounces whole grain elbow macaroni

4 tablespoons butter

2 rounded cups grated cheddar

2/3 cup grated Parmesan

2 tablespoons flour

3 cups low fat cottage cheese or tofu

1 cup milk (skim is fine)

1 minced clove of garlic

salt and pepper

Get two pots of water boiling, one should be 1/3 full of water, the other 2/3 full.  Both should be salted. 

Get all of your ingredients prepped.  Once the water is boiling add the callalloo and broccoli into the pot that is 1/3 full of water. Pour through a colander after 5 minutes. 

In the other pot, add the sweet potatoes. After 3 minutes add the macaroni and cook until the macaroni is done, about 6 more minutes. Strain through a colander but do NOT rinse. Put back into the empty pot and add the butter and flour. Stir well. Add the milk, garlic and cottage cheese and stir well. Add the cheeses, add the greens, heat it up a bit over medium heat stirring and season with salt and pepper. 

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