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Greenville & Hockessin Life

Teaching kids that 'Cooking's Cool'

Jun 13, 2016 11:44AM ● By J. Chambless

Cindy Sardo developed her 'Cooking's Cool' program for young chefs and brings it to Delaware schools.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

When Cindy Sardo was a little girl, growing up in north Wilmington, she and her four sisters “were always smelling bread baking, and soup simmering on the stove. Our mom and dad were great home chefs,” she said during an interview at her home. “We were all taught to love cooking, and we all helped out in the kitchen. And we always sat down for dinner together.”

Those simple memories have sustained Sardo through her adult life, and inspired her as she developed “Cooking's Cool,” a set of books, cooking kits and lessons that aim to make cooking a favorite part of everyone's life.

Sardo, who was an elementary school teacher in the Brandywine School District before becoming a full-time mom, has three daughters of her own. Her youngest, Sarah, has developmental disabilities and struggled with feeding issues. “She was only eating tan foods, for instance,” Sardo recalled, “so it became a game for us to eat different colored foods. That's when I discovered the Eating A Rainbow concept, which is not my idea, but we have a rainbow hanging on our fridge,” she added.

One day in 2007, Sardo was watching “The Rachael Ray Show” and heard about Ray's non-profit, Yum-o!, that has a goal of improving nutrition and reducing childhood obesity. “That inspired me to begin writing my books,” Sardo said.

“Cooking's Cool” centers on the lively instructor Mrs. Sheff, who starts each day by asking, “What are we cooking today?” The book contains recipes for dishes that kids can help make – and enjoy eating. The book naturally led to boxed sets that contain everything needed for a fun cooking experience – kid-sized tools, a chef's bandana, recipes, shopping lists and tote, and even a Spotify playlist of food-related songs that can be played in the kitchen while you're working.

“I never imagined myself being a children's author,” Sardo said, smiling, but the engaging book illustrations by Penny Webber and the clear, well-designed text are irresistible. “Everybody asks me if I'm Mrs. Sheff,” Sardo said. “But actually, I'm not!”

Sardo works with schools to teach children about healthy cooking.

 “Sometimes the school lets me use their kitchen,” she said, “and sometimes we have to bring everything in – burners, ovens, the whole thing. I teach the recipes and kids get to taste what we make. A lot of the kids are surprised that they like it. But when they see their peers enjoying it, it inspires them.” Reaching out to her target audience, Sardo initially volunteered at the schools attended by her daughters. As a teacher, she can handle a gym full of bouncy third-graders and keep them focused on cooking. “Now, I go into public, private and Catholic schools in Delaware. I've been doing that since 2009,” Sardo said.

All the dishes in the “Cooking's Cool” books are healthy, but fun. “We make things like rainbow wraps, alphabet soup, and roasted vegetable quesadillas,” Sardo said. The emphasis is always on fresh ingredients.

“I think that with the pace of families today, everyone's busier, and a lot of families rely on the drive-through for dinner,” Sardo said. “And it's cheaper, believe it or not, to just buy fast food. People today just don't know how to cook. Even some of my friends,” she added, laughing, “don't prepare their own meals.”

Cooking demonstrations are hands-on, with children helping as much as possible.

 Children not only don't make the connection between animals on the farm and the meat we eat, but they don't know how fruits and vegetables grow.

“I do things like hold up a scallion and describe how it grows – how the roots draw up the water,” Sardo said. “A lot of kids have never tasted a fresh strawberry. Some of them are actually afraid of them.”

Beyond the health benefits of eating fresh foods, the time spent around a family table has been proven to help children grow socially and academically. Meal times are a chance to catch up on everyone's lives, and for too many families, that time is non-existent.

“In our family, we all eat together, probably five nights a week,” Sardo said. Her daughters are now 12, 14 and 16, so schedules are getting busier, but table time is still a priority.

When Sardo does the school programs, she said boys are as eager as girls to get involved. The old adage about cooking being for girls has faded away, she said. “Some of the boys want to be on 'Chopped Junior,' Sardo said of the popular Food Network cooking show. “There's a good mix of girls and boys who take part.”

Sardo demonstrates food prep with real knives and kitchen tools, and the children use plastic versions or pizza cutters to lend a hand. She does family classes at the Hockessin PAL Center. The six- to eight-week sessions cover many of her fun, delicious recipes.

The 'Cooking's Cool' kits contain everything needed to prepare a healthy meal – and have fun doing it.

 “Once a year, we do 'Bandanas for a Cause' at the PAL Center or a local school, and we bring the meal to the Emmanuel Dining Room,” Sardo said of the shelter in Wilmington. “We did things like a six-foot hoagie, and vegetable macaroni and cheese. The people there just loved it. I'd like to do things like that more often.”

There was a field trip to a restaurant where chefs explained how they work, and helped the families make pizzas and vegetable kabobs.

In Sardo's Cooking's Cool Collection, customers can buy meals themed by color and by season. “In the yellow kit, for instance,” Sardo said, opening up the box, “We feature three recipes and shopping lists featuring yellow foods, with a yellow wooden spoon, a chef's hat, and there's a playlist of yellow-themed songs, along with a book with a story and activities.”

Sardo works online with a graphic designer for the visual part of the products, but she handles all the boxing and mailing herself from her home. “I do take off summers to spend time with my kids,” she said. “I do so much food shopping to make sure everything's ready for the classes during the school year. I handle the shipping of the kits during the day. I have a whole play room stacked full of boxes.”

Stores can order the “Cooking's Cool” kits for resale, and Sardo's business is becoming known nationwide. “The kits are a great way for me to reach a broader audience beyond Delaware,” she said. There's a commercial for “Cooking's Cool” that was filmed with Sardo in her own kitchen, and her e-commerce website offers everything a customer could want.

Sardo is already booked for next year's school appearances, she said. “A lot of wellness communities in schools invite me because it fits right in with their goals of improving eating habits,” she said.

“My whole goal is that I just want kids and their families to realize that cooking and eating healthy is cool. That's why I call it that – it sounds like cooking school. Kids love the recipes. They're all observing how the recipe begins and ends -- and then they get to taste.”

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To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].

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