In a high school cafeteria on Chicago’s West Side, four women stood around a stove burner on a recent Friday morning and laughed about whole grain spaghetti.

During this Cooking Matters class, students learned how to make whole grain spaghetti with turkey meat. Photos by Nancy Stone.

The women – Dorris Campbell, Janice Holmes, Delia Perez and Brenda Rivera – were students of Cooking Matters, a healthy cooking class facilitated by the Greater Chicago Food Depository. And they were, at least in the beginning of the class, a bit wary of the recipe that called for whole grain noodles topped with a ground turkey sauce.

Cooking Matters teaches participants how to prepare nutritious meals for their families and to make healthy choices within their current lifestyles.

“Everyone has different taste. I want you to make things you would make for your family’s taste, but by following some guidelines that you see in this book,” said Nyahne Bergeron, the Food Depository’s health and nutrition community program manager, holding a workbook designed for the course.

“Things like butter, salt and sugar all have an impact on you and your family’s health,” Bergeron said.

Students listen to Nyahne Bergeron, who teaches the Cooking Matters class.

The Food Depository offered the Cooking Matters class at Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High through Chicago Public Schools’ Parent University, a program that provides free resources and support to CPS parents. The curriculum was designed by Share our Strength, a national organization working to end childhood hunger in the U.S.

The four students came to the class with distinct challenges.

Janice Holmes believes healthy eating is vital for her grandchildren.

Holmes – or Ms. Holmes, as she introduced herself to the group – kept the mood light, cracking jokes throughout the class. But Holmes also takes healthy eating seriously. Two of her young grandchildren have sickle cell anemia, she said, a genetic condition that is helped by a nutritious diet.

In between wisecracks, Holmes learned about reading nutritional facts on food labels during the class. Knowing the amount of cholesterol in food as it relates to recommended daily value will help her going forward, she said.

“When you know better, you do better,” said Holmes, 65, a resident of the North Austin neighborhood. “At least I do.”

Dorris Campbell works for CPS Parent University and signed up for the class to learn to be healthier. “I like to cook, but I am stuck in my ways,” Campbell said. “I want to learn to cook healthier food without so much salt and butter. I love to use butter.”

Anita Rong, AmeriCorps VISTA – health and nutrition coordinator, helps teach the class alongside Nyahne Bergeron.

Cooking Matters encourages students to add fruits and vegetables to meals whenever they can.

Delia Perez says she eats meals out because her boyfriend works at a local pizza shop and it is easier than cooking herself. But she is also worried about the health implications on her children.

Brenda Rivera aims to teach her son healthy habits.

Rivera, meanwhile, signed up for the class immediately after seeing it online. Rivera goes out to eat on average of three times a week, but wants to teach her 9-year-old son to eat healthier.

Before the Cooking Matters class, Rivera said, she had never cooked spaghetti by herself.

“It’s easier as a grown-up to eat healthy if you have all your life,” Rivera said. “Out of the get-go you have to eat vegetables because at the end of the day, if you ate cheeseburgers all your childhood, you aren’t going to suddenly think carrots taste better.”

Students leave each class with a bag of ingredients they used to cook the meal that day.

At the end of the day, the Cooking Matters class aims to help families make healthier choices from the start. The Food Depository hopes to expand the program in the months to come.

Bergeron meets participants where they are, asking them to implement small changes in their diet – one dish at a time.

“I challenge you to try something a little different this week,” Bergeron said. “See if there’s a meal you can make a little healthier by adding more grains or more vegetables.”

None of the students answered. They were too busy eating the whole grain spaghetti.