An Appetite for Helping Families Eat Better

By Brian Sway
February 22, 2016
Chopping in industrial kitchen

The eye-opening moment came when I realized nobody in the room could identify nine of the dozen fruits and vegetables I’d spread across the counter.

We’re not talking rare, exotic foods. We’re talking kiwi, parsnip, pomegranate, celery root and other items you can find at most any grocery store.

Then, there are the staggering number of families that talk about grabbing fast food far more often than preparing a meal at home. One family explained they ate from the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant 11 times per week, mainly because that was the only option they felt like they could afford with their limited budget.

That’s why thousands of chefs, like me, and others across the country serve as volunteer instructors for Cooking Matters. The six-week program – created by Share Our Strength and supported by organizations like the Walmart Foundation – teaches participants to shop smarter, make healthier choices and cook delicious, affordable meals. An integral part of the No Kid Hungry campaign, Cooking Matters has helped more than 350,000 low-income families since 1993.

I graduated from cooking school at 19. I’ve worked everywhere from 300-seat steakhouses and catering companies to leading prepared food services for Foodie’s Urban Markets in the Boston metropolitan area. I can remember growing up cooking with my mom. We weren’t preparing elaborate, gourmet meals, but it's what sparked my love for cooking. So nothing compares to the feeling I get when I see that light go on for families through Cooking Matters.

The amenities I have to work with vary from class to class. I’ve been in church kitchens, YMCAs, school cafeterias, Boys & Girls Clubs, even a health center in downtown Boston. And the participants range from moms, dads and grandparents to kids, teens and caregivers. What I’ve learned is that a lot of people – regardless of age – don't realize things can be tasty, healthy and affordable at the same time. By taking the time to show them the basics, it can have a profound and lasting impact on their lives.

While the participants continue to gain confidence, having the opportunity to work with them also gives me a great sense of satisfaction. It has opened my eyes to the real challenges people face every day. Single parents trying to work and support their children. So many people wonder where their next meal will come from. Not everyone has had the luxury of growing up cooking alongside mom or dad, so they need someone to help.

We talk a lot about working more whole grain items into our diets and the benefits of brown rice over white rice. We get very hands on, learning how to make a healthier macaroni and cheese, turning popular traditional dishes into great salads, and creative ways to make the most of leftovers. And it’s amazing when we walk into a grocery store and challenge participants to round up everything they need to prepare a great family dinner – using only a $10 gift card. When they realize it really can be done, it’s a transforming moment.

I’ve always had a passion for creating with food. Through Cooking Matters, I’m able to use that passion to help people live healthier lives.