Fab Five 2

By Kathryn Menue


Throughout the last two weeks of July, the University of Illinois Boone County Extension Office in partnership with the Belvidere YMCA, Boone County 4-H, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) brought the Illinois Junior Chef Program to the Belvidere community.

According to Extension Educator Lisa Hepker, the Illinois Junior Chef Program has been highly successful throughout the state, so the U of I Boone County Extension Office decided to incorporate the program within the local community.

“It’s been going strong throughout Illinois, but it’s the first time it’s been brought to Boone County,” Hepker said. “We’re very excited about how it’s going.”

Fab FiveThe Illinois Junior Chef Program allows teen teachers to educate children 8-years-old to 10-years-old on healthy lifestyle choices through educational cooking classes.

“It’s a teen leadership program to give teens an opportunity to develop leadership skills,” Hepker said. “The goal is kids learn the recipes and go home and make it at home.”

To help local youth learn about healthier meal options, Hepker recruited five teen volunteers to lead the classes: Cameron, 11, Chelsea, 15, Reyna, 15, Tajori, 12, and Whitley, 12. The teen teachers, also known as the Fab Five, received help from SNAP Educator Sue Buntjer and “extra help secretary” Heather Stranberg.

The teen teachers underwent 20 hours of training before teaching for eight days over a two week period. They taught two and a half hour sessions to a room of about 15 children each day. The children received cutting boards, two recipe books, measuring cups and spoons, and spatulas for participating in the program.

Fab Five 3Throughout the class sessions, teen teachers took turns leading the kids, which varied in topics from Tajori teaching how to make Chapati flatbread and pudding while using the proper stirring, whisking, and spatula techniques to Whitley and Chelsea teaching kids about fruits and vegetables. They covered how different vegetables provide different nutrients for the body and that everyone should have a variety of fruits and vegetables known as the “rainbow diet.”

Whitley and Chelsea also discussed proper knife and grater techniques when slicing, dicing, mincing, and chopping.

Whitley and Chelsea led the demonstration on how to make vegetable pita pockets and breakfast fruit parfaits as well.

Each of the recipes the teens presented was a healthy option for kids and their families.

“I think it’s important to show it is important to eat nutritional foods and stay active for a healthy lifestyle,” Chelsea said.

The program also encourages kids to expand their diet to include a variety of healthy options.

For instance, the teens led the kids through a taste testing exercise to get them to try new foods, such as a horned melon that Buntjer described as a “slimy fruit with pieces the size of a contact lens that taste like a cross between a banana, a kiwi, and a cucumber.”

The teens showed the kids to try different meals, such as vegetable chow mien. One of the kids refused to try the meal, thinking he wouldn’t like it. However, after much coaxing, he finally tried some and liked it enough to go grab a whole plateful.

“This group has been amazing to watch,” Hepker said.

Hepker was impressed how well the teens worked with the children and how they knew how to get them focused.

One day, Chelsea noticed that the children weren’t focused on class. So, Reyna jumped in and led the class through fun exercises to get them motivated to continue with class.

The program has provided great experience for the teens for cooking and for self-confidence.

Whitley said she not only loves working with the kids to gain interpersonal experience, but she has learned how to become a better cook. She now has the confidence to venture to stovetop cooking, versus just using the microwave.

“I thought it [Illinois Junior Chef Program] would be a lot of fun and help with cooking and confidence for the future,” Whitley said.

The other teen teachers were inspired to build their self-confidence levels and to learn how to cook as well.

“I took a couple of cooking classes before this and I learned skills I could never have learned on my own before those classes,” Cameron said. He wanted to share those skills with other youths in the community.

Tajori was motivated by Bobby Flay because he always seems so “comfortable in the kitchen.”

“I wanted to become more confident. I really like to cook, but I wanted recipes that are healthier that I can make for my family,” Tajori said.

Confidence is not only a key attribute in the kitchen, but in life as well, which is why Reyna signed on to the Illinois Junior Chef Program.

“It not only gives kids confidence, but teens as well,” Reyna said. “I decided to come here because I want to lead a career in teaching,” and Reyna knew that this program would provide her with the necessary skills to lead.

Reyna advocated that if anyone needed a confidence-booster, they should volunteer for the Illinois Junior Chef Program.

All of the teen teachers have had fun volunteering for the program and plan on coming back next year.

Even though Tajori is moving, she said she will join the program in her new hometown next year.

The University of Illinois Boone County Extension Office is looking to expand for next year, so teens should be on the lookout for YMCA ads, paper ads, and school flyers that will give them all the information on how to join the Illinois Junior Chef Program.

For teens uninterested in cooking, they can become a teen teacher in the 4-H horticulture, agriculture, and environmental studies programs.

However, Illinois Junior Chefs encouraged others to join their program because it provides teens with a great learning experience and an opportunity for self growth.

Plus, they got to work with great staff (Hepker, Buntjer, and Stranberg) for whom they are very grateful.

They also were thankful to the kids and the parents who allowed their kids to participate in the program.

“It’s truly been an amazing experience,” Chelsea said.


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