Creating A Special Space… in the Kitchen!

When Dr. Greg Chang, the Founder of SuperChefs (www.superchefs.org) was a child, he remembered how his mother taught cooking classes in their family home to neighbors wanting to learn Chinese cooking techniques. Seeing this excitement in the kitchen brought joy and instilled a passion to share this love of food with others, as well as be involved with health and fun development, as his father was a caring physician with an engaging sense of humor.

BY Malia Koslowsky | March 2021 | Category: Schools, Camps & Residences

Creating A Special Space… in the Kitchen!

Using his dental training, the culinary knowledge learned from around the world, and community funding to hire university students with a passion for promoting healthy lifestyles for kids, a health program called SuperChefs was born. Guided by experts, including dentists, doctors, chefs, dieticians, educators and entertainment experts, SuperChefs has partnerships with Fortune 500 companies, governments, schools, universities and leading advocacy groups to stir up fun in the kitchen while raising healthier kids through local and global programming.

During the first camp in 2009, a child named Allen came to SuperChefs. He described himself as obese, regularly eating at McDonalds and doing little in the way of regular exercise. During the four-day camp he was taught how to cook, about nutrition guidelines, and was ushered into team sports. Allen lost 40 pounds in one year. SuperChefs changed his life, as it has for the many thousands of kids seen over the 12-plus years these free camps and events have been offered around the world. Additionally, SuperChefs’ healthy Kids Eat Well menus adorn the offerings in over 200 Westin Hotel restaurants globally.

One of the SuperChefs team members had a passion for working with kids with disabilities and expressed a deep desire to offer these opportunities in the kitchen to children with intellectual and physical disabilities. Since the camps did not have the capacity to include children of all abilities, I helped to create an adapted program to achieve similar results of the world-famous and award-winning, Dr. Greg’s SuperChefs Cookery for Kids program. Thus, the Special SuperChefs program was born, rooted in the belief that “A Good Chef is Never Without Friends”, and testament to Jacques Pepin’s definition that cooking is about adjustment.

By encompassing SuperChefs Cookery for Kids’ core values and mission, Special SuperChefs provides an inclusive opportunity for children requiring additional support. We believe every child has the right to be empowered to join in the fight against childhood obesity and malnutrition. We teach the essentials of balanced nutrition, food preparation, and inspiring lifelong habits of physical and social well-being. Special SuperChefs was adapted from the original SuperChefs program to promote inclusivity within our programming. We see inclusivity as an attitude and approach that seeks to ensure that every child, regardless of ability or background, can meaningfully participate in our events.

Unlike any program, Special SuperChefs offers free summer camps in Surrey BC, partnering with the largest school district in British Columbia and providing a unique 1:1 support model by trained staff for each child participant. Recognizing the power of creative therapy, we take advantage of the natural developmental opportunities our cooking provides. All activities were designed to be accessible for all participants. Each activity has multiple modification ideas to shift the focus to the child’s strengths rather than their limitations. The intentional structure of each day at Special SuperChefs camp allows every child to fully experience the contents of the program.

We prioritize creating an environment that is optimal for our campers to learn and explore. Daily routines and consistent activities help the kids settle into their new environment, which can often be a challenge. Many children are triggered by the new environment for the first two days, but excited on the third day to see the daily routine written on the board with their 1:1 leader waiting next to their chair. This relationship allows them to learn at their own pace. Having a strong support system creates a positive inclusive environment. Part of creating a safe environment for children with special needs is teaching through various learning styles, using clear and direct language, breaking down steps and skills for all activities, eliminating additional stimuli and loud noises, and preparing children for transitions. To support these intents, we create customized tools for our program. Some of our favorite tools include token boards, flip schedules, visual choice boards, and visual “first-then” boards.

Each day, we learn to cook different recipes encompassing various important kitchen skills. The cooking lesson is broken up throughout the day to maintain engagement. The group comes together to observe a demonstration, which clearly illustrates the next steps and coordinates with our visual recipe book. We make use of task analysis, an evidence-based approach for breaking down a complex task into manageable steps. Our campers and leaders work together to complete each task, through guided verbal, visual, or physical prompts. The nutrition sections include basic oral and digestive health content curated alongside interactive activities and games to create excitement around topics that can seem dull to children. The “Mystery Box” is a well-loved game. One child is selected to stand behind a box that is open to the rest of the group. A leader places a food item in the box, correlating with the recipe of the day. The child puts their hands through the box's side armholes to feel the item. We laugh lots as the camper tries to identify the food item, and their friends help by giving clues!

We work closely with Occupational Therapists from the Centre for Childhood Development in Surrey, B.C., who provide feedback and consultation for our program. These specialists help our staff foresee potential obstacles and barriers and work with us to create possible solutions and adaptation ideas. Our adaptive equipment toolbox has grown over Special SuperChefs’ three years and includes assistive devices for limited motor functions, sensory calming toys, easy-grip cooking utensils, and other tools that make cooking challenges accessible for all kids!

 Teaching children the importance of cooking nutritious meals and engaging in healthy habits build steps towards future independence. Cooking is a wonderful chance to work on sensory processing skills as kids are exposed to new smells, colors, textures and experiences. Our controlled environment where children feel safe facilitates these experiences.

Often, kids arrive at camp with texture aversions, picky food preferences, and lacking an appetite. With the gentle encouragement of leaders and fellow campers, many kids have stepped out of their comfort zones to try new things through small and manageable steps. We use fun challenges to encourage campers to choose at least one piece of vegetable to put on their homemade pizza, or move in gradual stages towards trying new textures. One of our first campers said he hated all vegetables. After being convinced to put one tiny piece of red pepper on his pizza, he thought that red peppers taste, “much more delicious on pizza than they do on their own.” Throughout camp he would frequently exclaim, “I love red peppers on pizza!” Another camper with texture sensitivities discovered her love for granola over three days, after playing with it first in her hands, then exploring with it gingerly with her tongue, and finally chewing and swallowing a piece on the third day. She is now a Granola Girl! Many kids are averse to the feeling of raw chicken or sticky pasta dough, and we always find alternate ways for them to work with ingredients by using utensils found in the kitchen.

Including kids in the preparation of a meal or snack opens them up to explore beyond their dietary preferences. Giving kids choices empowers them to make decisions they feel confident about while putting them on course for positive experiences with new foods.

The Special SuperChef kitchen is a place where our campers can come as they are and grow. One of our first campers has attended three years of our summer program, and he and his family have eagerly participated in events throughout the years. When our program was covered by a local television station, he displayed the skills and speech confidence he developed through learning to cook and making friends at camps. His parents have graciously communicated how much they appreciate the program by offering video endorsements, and sharing that, “although we don’t know what the future holds for our child, SuperChefs has provided opportunities for our son that we could never have imagined. It has enriched his development in so many ways, and he enjoys his time in the kitchen with you all, and now has the confidence to do this at home as well. We can’t thank you enough!”

We’ve seen many lasting connections built between campers, as working in the kitchen brings them together and creates a common interest. Including kids in the kitchen is an amazing way to incorporate therapy aspects with a fun, common interest in the home. Many parents have shared that their kids are teaching them how to make pizza from scratch and are even excited about washing dishes and shopping for ingredients after just four days in the kitchen. What family doesn’t need an extra dishwasher or pair of hands doing groceries? This excitement is cultivated by giving kids the freedom to explore various cooking skills, interacting with different ingredients, and doing it alongside others. Making dinner may be a chore for you, but has the potential to be an exciting activity! It can feel daunting to invite them in, but great success can be achieved by breaking down the steps and being quick to offer adaptations. Almost all of our participants leave camp wanting to be a chef when they grow up. We believe that everyone is a chef in their own kitchen! Parents of past campers are consistently sending photos of their kid’s new culinary creations, thankful for the kitchen exposure we provide.

New skill development leads to confidence that opens the opportunity for social engagement by cooking and sharing meals together. We have seen this in our camps, as parents have been delighted to see their children make friends with other campers, leading to new bonds through shared culinary adventures. This is possible for your child as well! Try starting with simple recipes and using basic methods.

Some tips for supporting your new chef through kitchen tasks include “hand-over-hand” assistance when stirring, cutting, or kneading dough to keep the child actively involved in the learning stages. It is also helpful to draw checkboxes next to each step on the recipe to help visually stay on task. Try to make every part of the cooking process fun by incorporating games, such as an equipment scavenger hunt and the “eye spy” ingredients game. 

Special SuperChefs summer camps were turned upside down at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We pivoted to provide virtual camps for families alongside prepared food and activity kits. Each family received detailed daily schedules with correlating videos and tangible activities and recipes. This content equipped families to guide their child through a “camp from home” experience. This virtual experience empowered families to include all their children in the frequent activity that cooking is. Parents expressed gratitude for how the program made a daily task fun and inclusive for the entire family. Regardless of whether the cooking experience is live or virtual, guided culinary instruction can be a fulfilling and vital attribute that leads to a lifetime of developing new skills, cultivating a sense of creativity, and shared fun memories in the kitchen.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Malia Koslowsky is a Community Support Worker for individuals with disabilities through Strive Living Society and Creator of Special SuperChefs. She and Dr. Greg Chang work collectively with the non-profit SuperChefs team to teach food literacy, nutrition and physical activity to kids in Surrey BC and beyond with global partners. Dr. Greg is a dentist/food educator/clown and the Founder of SuperChefs Cookery for Kids. 

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