Special Guest Blog: Cooking up Change Student Reflects on the Contest & Lessons Learned

  • October 26, 2010

Last spring, high school and college students from all over the country competed in Detroit for the finals of the Cooking up Change national healthy cooking contest, the first national competition based on HSC’s signature Cooking up Change contest in Chicago.

As we prepare for Cooking up Change in Chicago, we’re featuring a special blog from YingFang, a student who was part of a finalist college team in Detroit. Here, she shares her expertise and experience with future Cooking up Change students.

By YingFang Liao 

Along with other dietetic students from U.C. Berkeley, I was excited to enter Cooking up Change 2010 as part of our food service management class. Though we put a lot of effort into creating the recipes for the first round, we knew we would be up against significant competition from all over the country. I could not believe my eyes when I received an email from Cooking up Change notifying us that we’d reached the final round.

Then the work really started. Honestly, we were pulling our hair out at one point to create recipes with the limited ingredient list and cook them with no more than six steps, plus meet the strict nutritional requirements. We made modifications time after time to balance the taste of our dishes and to meet all the criteria set by Cooking up Change.

The biggest tip I would like to share with the future teams is: Read all the directions and guidelines before creating the dishes; do it in a systematic way so you can achieve the greatest results with the least frustration. For example, read the ingredient list at least twice before starting. This will save you from being frustrated about having to recreate dishes because you originally used ingredients that are not allowed. Did we ever get frustrated? Of course! There was a time when we rolled our eyes and thought we could not make anything with that “has nothing” ingredient list.

For example, the nutrition requirements state that the dish must include :

  • 1 cup vegetables, ½ of which must be either dark green or orange vegetables
  • 1 cup of fruit (not juice)
  • No starchy vegetables (i.e., potatoes, corn or peas)

We wanted so badly to include broccoli in our main dish, thinking it could be our half cup of dark green vegetable. Broccoli is easily found almost anywhere and is locally grown near our university in California. However, it wasn’t on the ingredient list! The only dark green or orange vegetables from the ingredient list are collard greens, green beans, spinach and carrots. It is a must to incorporate ½ cup of any of these into the dishes.

The ingredient list is based on items that are commonly available through school food service. School food service lacks access to a wide variety of ingredients, especially the expensive ones such as seafood, fresh herbs or olive oil.

A possible solution for Cooking up Change students is to always search for an alternative. For example, white vinegar might be a substitute for lime juice. We realized we had plenty of options to create a good meal, and the ingredient limitation was just an interesting challenge waiting for us to overcome it.

It was a wonderful experience to cook in a school kitchen at the finals in Detroit. This opportunity reinforced the knowledge I learned about food service from my class. It was my first time making large portions of food with big and powerful cooking equipment. I learned how important it is to have correct measurements for all the ingredients because there was no way to “eyeball it” in large food production.

Last, but not least, I would like to give a special thanks to our instructor Susan Brooks, who has worked in a school kitchen since 1975 and shared her enormous field experience in food service management with us. The menu project assigned by her prepared us very well for competing in this cooking contest. I will never forget a golden line she said, “If you can write a recipe for school lunch, then you are able to write any recipe.”

HSC extends a big thanks to YingFang for sharing her excellent tips and thoughts about her experiences in Cooking up Change! To learn more or get involved with Cooking up Change, visit www.cookingupchange.org.