Jane Horner is encouraging local families to move away from frozen and fast foods that do not have high nutritional value. Instead, she wants to teach families cooking skills, easy recipes, smart shopping, and how to make healthy food choices.
Horner, a Purdue University Extension health and human sciences educator, plans to offer a free Cooking Matters course to Cass County families. She said a lack of time and knowledge coupled with the high cost of groceries can make cooking healthy meals feel impossible for busy families on a budget. Her goal is to teach a six week class that helps people overcome those obstacles to make easy, nutritional meals.
“Every time they come to class, we actually cook and make a recipe,” Horner said. “Then they take home the groceries to make that for their family at home. We also have incentives to come to class. The whole goal is to get families eating healthier and better and helping them stretch their food dollars also.”
The course, Cooking Matters, is a national program that allows organizations across the country to hold classes. All the recipes along with their nutritional values are listed on the program’s website cookingmatters.org. Anyone who takes Cooking Matters classes also receives a booklet of information and recipes.
The recipes include meals like turkey tacos and hearty vegetable pasta as well as snacks like fruit smoothies and mozzarella sticks. There are even vegetarian meals and options for people with various food allergies and intolerances.
“They’re simple, easily findable ingredients,” said Allison Hillis, a Purdue University Extension health and human sciences educator in Howard County. “The spicy bean dip was something we’ve served at all three of our programs that we’ve done and everybody has really liked it. It’s not a heavy spice, so if somebody’s looking it up or is interested, it’s not over the top.”
The Excel Center in Kokomo hosted the three courses in Howard County, and Hillis said they have been very helpful to the people who took them. She gave examples of teaching people how to safely handle cooking equipment and knives while preparing food.
“Going through this, the participants get to walk away with a resource book and some more recipes they can keep on their shelf or take pictures of and keep on their phones for easy access,” she said.
Horner said there is great need for a Cooking Matters class in Cass County because it is ranked the 62 healthiest county in Indiana out of 92 counties. Cass County also has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the state.
The money to host Cooking Matters courses in Cass County came from an Indiana Department of Health grant. Horner has until next September to use the grant, but she needs at least 10 people to sign up for a Cooking Matters course before she can host one. She said she is getting closer to the minimum requirement.
One important aspect of Cooking Matters is the course’s attention to families who qualify for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Some of the program’s tips guide people on how to best utilize WIC benefits and give examples of which foods are covered by the program. For example, one of the program’s tips posted on social media shared that WIC typically covers yogurt and recommended making yogurt parfaits as a simple and easy snack.
The booklet participants receive for taking the class also has information about how to make grocery shopping more budget-friendly. Those tips are expanded on in the class to detail how to purchase the most nutritious food for the least amount of money.
“It has all these tips for how to go around the grocery store,” Horner said. “We talk about how to decide what’s really the best bargain for your buck. You’ve got to really look at how much it costs per ounce or per pound. Just because something is $2.99 for three pounds, if I can get five pounds for $4.99, that’s going to be the best bet. We talk about how you can then either freeze it or do other things with it.”
Horner said providing people with knowledge and information helps them make more informed decisions about what they are putting in their bodies. She also helps participants create a plan so they know what to cook for the week.
“One of the things that gets us not eating healthy is, we don’t menu plan,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re going to have so you just order a pizza, go through the drive through, or cook something that isn’t necessarily meeting the five food groups. We talk about how a little planning ahead can help you actually eat healthier.”
It is ultimately up to each individual participant to implement the changes discussed in the course, but Horner encourages to take it one step at a time.
“When trying to eat healthy on a budget, you’ve just got to take it in with small steps,” she said. “We kind of give you those small steps to put you on the right track to eating healthy. It’s being empowered to make that change and make it a priority. We really empower people to start having healthy habits.”
Horner recommended that anyone interested in taking the course reach out to her at 574-753-7750.
“The course gives people the confidence to recreate the meals at home with their families,” Hillis said. “Ultimately, the goal is to not only teach the individuals who are attending the class, but we want them to take the information and use it in their lives. (I like) seeing the confidence in them.”