The categories for judging range from mis en place to visual presentation to taste. The contestants show off their knife work, expertly chopping a giant cabbage head into mountains of tiny leaves. They arrange basil into a blooming flower atop a plate of steaming risotto, and dollops of a sweet tamarind sauce surround hand-made spicy dumplings. But this isn’t a show on the Food Network or a culinary school presentation– this is Kurt Hahn High School in Brooklyn, New York. And these are Teen Battle Chefs.
The Choices/TeenBeing team is judging a practice competition for these young chefs, where the students are preparing two dishes – one tried and true healthy risotto recipe that’s a TBC favorite, and one shrimp and chicken dumpling recipe they are working on perfecting for their upcoming live battle at the HealthCorps Highway to Health festival. Knives flash across the spotless kitchen as teens quietly and diligently chop vegetables, roll out dumpling dough, and sauté shrimp, cleaning as they go. Even the teens who have only recently joined the team have studied food safety, culinary skills, and nutrition through the program, and are asked to present this information with their dish. Students are also asked to consider how they could make this dish in an equally satisfying and nutritious way at home, but with whatever ingredients they have on hand. TBC isn’t simply preparing these students for their next competition, it’s preparing them for their whole lives.
Their teacher, Tonie McKenzie, is a HealthCorps coordinator, one of the 160+ young teachers dedicated to bringing health education into classrooms. The partnership between HealthCorps and Teen Battle Chefs has helped to bring the program into over 100 schools and sites nationwide, changing the nutrition habits of and igniting a culinary passion in hundreds of thousands of teens. This sense of dedication and community was clearly present in the classroom—as evidenced by several of the students eagerly volunteering to participate in an upcoming battle starting at 8:00am on a Sunday, the day before prom.
Research and feedback have shown that the TBC program not only encourages teens to choose healthier, homemade options for snacks and meals, but that they are then encouraging their friends and families to eat better, too. With skyrocketing obesity rates and boundless inexpensive, nutrition-devoid snacks, it’s more important than ever that teens are aware of what they’re putting into their bodies.
As one student studied the nutrition label on a box of rice, Tonie reminded her students to always understand the food they’re eating. “You don’t walk into a store and buy clothes without looking at the size. So why wouldn’t you look at the nutrition label before you buy food or put it in your body?” We couldn’t agree more.
We’d like to thank Tonie and her Teen Battle Chefs for allowing us into their kitchen and for preparing us such a delicious and nutritious meal, and for inspiring us to roll up our sleeves and get cooking. For more information on how to teach your teens to read food labels, check out the Choices explainer video, “Label of Love.” And for more information about HealthCorps and Teen Battle Chefs, take a look at the Choices article featuring real TBC teens, “Meet the Food Fighters.”