SKOWHEGAN — You don’t have to sacrifice taste to enjoy a healthy meal.
That’s the message from the nonprofit Somerset Public Health as it launches this year’s Cooking Matters, six weeks of classes that teach adults and older teens about cooking healthfully and spending less money on food. The national program is in its third year in Skowhegan and continues throughout the year.
“Most of what we do is geared toward low-income people — anyone that’s receiving food stamps,” said Denise Robinson, nutrition educator at Somerset Public Health in Skowhegan. “We have six classes — one every Monday — where we just talk about healthy eating, healthy cooking; ways to redo a recipe to make it healthier.”
The six weekly classes begin Monday from noon to 2 p.m. at the Skowhegan Community Center off West Front Street. Classes are two hours long and participants will make two or three recipes each week, get groceries to take home and sit down to a family-style meal with other participants, Robinson said.
“It’s all free and they get to go home with groceries,” she said. “Cooking Matters teaches low-income adults about healthy meal preparation and sensible shopping on a limited budget. We have a lot of women, but the last class we did we had two husbands with their wives.”
The fifth class in the series features a tour of a local supermarket for comparison statistics on such things as “sugar shock” — charting the amount of unhealthy sweeteners found in everyday foods and a demonstration with shortening on just how much fat is contained in a fast-food hamburger. Robinson calls that demonstration the “blubber burger.”
It’s not about the cooking, she said; it’s also about the shopping.
At the end, each participant receives a $10 gift card, with which they use what they have learned in class and are challenged to prepare a meal for four people for less than $10.
“Every class has a focus, whether it’s adding more fruit to your diet, adding more vegetables, eating more whole grains, eating lean protein,” Robinson said. “Just because it’s brown bread, doesn’t make it healthy.”
An examples of redoing an ordinary dinner to make it more healthful would be the favorite macaroni and cheese, done on a stovetop with reduced-fat cheese, skim milk and whole wheat pasta, with broccoli added, Robinson said. “It’s a healthier dish and families really love it. In one of the classes, we added a turkey burger to make it a healthier version of Hamburger Helper.”
Cooking Matters is a nationwide program developed by the group Share our Strength, which partners with food banks with the goal of not having any child go hungry, Robinson said. In Maine the group partners with the Good Shepherd Food Bank, the 26 Healthy Maine Partnerships, through the SNAP educational program — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Hannaford supermarkets also support the program.
Skowhegan was the first of many partnerships in Maine to get Cooking Matters off the ground. There are about 15 series of classes each year, with each class averaging about 12 people.
Funding is made available through the Maine Center for Disease Control, federal tobacco settlement money the state received and $5 million in federal grants. The Skowhegan partnership also gets funding from New Balance and is coordinated through Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, the group’s fiscal agent, with no local or county money invested.
Robinson said Somerset Public Health also works with Fruit and Veggie Prescription Program participants who last year joined the Cooking Matters classes. She also takes her program to area schools and to the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market. The group also partners with the Women, Infants, Children program, known as WIC; the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program; area churches; and the hospital on the Weigh to Go program.
“Most of the time we’re cooking, but we do spend a little time teaching nutrition — how to read nutrition facts and labels, how to use certain cooking utensils, holding a knife the right way,” she said. “We do just the basics of getting people in the kitchen, because a lot of these people haven’t had home economics in their school.”
Wednesday evening classes will be held as well, starting May 28.
For more information on Cooking Matters and to sign up for the classes, call Denise Robinson at 858-8456, or contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.