This local cooking school teacher has tips for raising adventurous eaters
Photo above courtesy of Izabella’s Gourmet Chow.
Sofya Stearns cares deeply about raising adventurous eaters — not just her own child, but also the kids who come and learn at her cooking school in Wexford, Izabella’s Gourmet Chow. At Izabella’s, Stearns uses a hands-on approach to help kids discover new foods and develop a love for cooking during monthly classes, afterschool programs and summer camp, as well as birthday and holiday parties.
“If you give them the option to take initiative to do it themselves, then they feel proud and might want to try it,” Stearns says.
This can start with an invitation: “Say ‘Let’s make something together, however, why don’t I take an ingredient and then you take an ingredient, and we’ll incorporate everything together into the dish?’” she suggests. “Make it fun and say ‘Let’s see who can fix something — who’s quicker, you or me?’ It encourages kids to work together and then eat what they just made.”
Stearns says the first step to raising adventurous eaters is to make dishes with them. Once kids are engaged in the fun of cooking, that can be the perfect time to try an unfamiliar recipe or quietly introduce an ingredient you’d like them to try.
“Be creative. Try to do a spin-off on something they like, but add one ‘secret’ ingredient they don’t like, but won’t able to taste too much because it will not be the star ingredient of the dish.”
Stearns suggests adding a vegetable to fan favorites like pasta or pizza. For example, she says, instead of making plain cheese pizza together, add a few slivers of colorful bell peppers or bits of chopped broccoli.
The key is keeping things in the spirit of experimentation: “I never force a child to eat something she just made, but I always say, ‘We all have likes and dislikes. We do not all like the same things, however, try it — you won’t know if you like it until you try it.’”
Stearns was inspired to start Izabella’s Gourmet Chow by her now 11-year-old daughter.
“Six years ago, she was taking art and science classes at the Treesdale Community Center, and one of my friends suggested I should start a cooking club for kids, which made sense because every time I would have my friends over with their little ones, we would make something from scratch,” Stearns remembers.
“But I didn’t want to teach just the cooking aspect of it, I wanted to open a window to the world and at home, since my daughter was one, with each meal we always listened to classical music, and spoke Russian and practiced other languages. She always enjoyed going through art books and looking at the turning globe. So I thought, I’ll start with one class and see where it will take me.”
After that first class, Stearns found a huge demand for classes that would expose kids to new foods and new cultures. Parents found that their kids were eager to learn, especially if they discovered cooking at a young age.
“Kids are like sponges; if you start something from a young age, it’s practically effortless to teach them anything — that’s why my program starts for kids at the age of 3,” she says. “Every dish has a country of origin and every country has a story, so why not to teach it to the kids? Where else can you ‘travel’ the world, ‘visit’ infamous sites and museums, make delicious dishes, learn a language, and do a dance? For example, if you take ballet, you must learn French terminology for ballet. Same thing here… cooking comes as a package.”
In her classes, “children learn to be open-minded about various cultures and cuisines. They build self-confidence, self-pride — how to be proud of what you have learned and accomplished. They learn respect for one another. No matter what we look like, at the core, we are all the same.”
Embracing other cultures is always a central part of classes at Izabella’s, including summer camp programming: “During each camp, we ‘travel’ to five countries and make at least 16 dishes from scratch. For the afterschool programs, depending if the program is for four or six weeks long, we make one dish per class and ‘travel’ to either four or six countries.”
In September 2020, Stearns began donating a portion of the proceeds from her business to the National Association for Down Syndrome (NADS), which has made her work even more rewarding. She has also done occasional Zoom cooking classes with the Down Syndrome Association of Pittsburgh, as well as cooking classes for The Woodlands via Zoom and in person.
“A few months ago, I was told that I literally saved NADS’ advocates during the darkest days of COVID and that, I have to say, melted my heart. To be honest, I never knew my programs and classes would give courage to go on, make people smile, enjoy life, and make people’s evenings,” Stearns says.