Rehan Saber started getting ready to lead a cooking class last Tuesday night. She took out the ingredients: chicken breast, cauliflower, seasonings and so forth, and put them on the table. She took out the bowls, knives, cutting board — everything she would need. Then she turned on her webcam and greeted her students.
Rather than having everyone gather in the same kitchen, Saber has been leading a virtual cooking class for middle school students. Everyone is in their own space, but working on the same recipe. She not only walks her students through the technical steps in the cooking process, but she also uses the platform to explain the health benefits of nutritious foods.
As a researcher for Mayo Clinic, Saber is aware of the benefits of a proper diet. But as a busy professional, she also knows how easy it can be to sidestep that priority. She's even seen the effects of malnourishment in her own life.
“I just got to really see the effects of a poor diet on disease progression and prevention,” she said, acknowledging that distance learning may have taken a toll on students' diets, too. "For some families, school is the place where they eat; I know that some of the students didn't even have that opportunity anymore."
Called "Smart Cooking," Saber organized the cooking class through the Rochester Community Center. She said middle schoolers are beginning to form the habits that they will take with them throughout life. Because of that, she said, it's a good time to instill positive eating habits.
Zora McLaurin, one of the students in the class, said she's learned how to make food that's both tasty and healthy.
"It's fun, and you can kind of connect with people and you can make good food," she said in a promotional video for the class.
McLaurin's father, Thomas, said the class has been a way for Zora to mature as an individual.
"I think at this age, kids are really looking for ways to be independent, to show responsibility," he said in the video. "And this is a really awesome way for them to gain those skills."
During Tuesday's class, Saber helped students go through the steps of that night's recipe. She explained how to cut the chicken breast into cubes before rolling them in batter. She explained the importance of washing your hands after handling raw meat. She helped students determine whether their sauce was thick enough, and how to determine when the meat was ready if they forgot to set a timer.
Periodically, a student would pipe up from their own kitchen with a question.
"Can I add more seasonings to the batter if I want?" one asked.
"Yeah, definitely! That's a great option," Saber responded, explaining that she added more garlic powder and red pepper flakes to her own batter. "You can be as creative as you want."
At one point, she explained what a calorie is. Then she went on to explain how it's important to eat fruits and vegetables because of the nutrients they provide. Cauliflower, she told her students, contains vitamin K.
"There have been studies that show people who have a diet high in cauliflower are at lower risk for certain cancers," she said. "When you guys eat food, I encourage you to not look at the calories. Obviously, that's important, but base what you're going to eat more on the nutrients it provides you."
Saber said she likes how the online cooking class can serve students beyond the pandemic, by giving them the chance to feel comfortable in their own homes and become familiar with their own kitchens.
She also said she likes that it gives students the opportunity to cook with their family members, which would most likely not be as easy if everyone in the class was working in the same location.
"It's helping families come together through home-cooked meals," Saber said. "An important aspect of this is the family. I do like how parents and students and siblings are cooking together in their kitchens, and then enjoying that home-cooked meal together."