Dr. Cleo, Molina Healthcare's cat doctor mascot, is out to make cooking healthy food fun and educational at the Boys and Girls Club in Murray.
The six-week program, called Dr. Cleo's Cooking Club, funded by Molina, runs every Monday from Sept. 10 to Oct. 15. It caters to youth between ages 8 and 12 and teaches them how to prepare healthy food and practice basic kitchen skills.
"Basically, what's going during this program is it's giving a chance for the kids to learn healthy habits," said Heather Jackson, teens director at the Murray Club.
The program is aimed to combat childhood obesity. Each hourlong class averages about 20 students and focuses on nutrition and kitchen safety along with preparing not just healthy but affordable meals.
"They learn about vegetables and carbohydrates," Jackson said. "We teach them to do a balanced meal, making a meal and learning about the healthy part of it."
An instructor from the Boys and Girls Club works with a syllabus and comes up with activities and lesson plans. It's a hands-on experience. The kids get to prepare the ingredients, clean the utensils, chop the vegetables, etc. Then they're rewarded by getting to partake of their work.
"It's an incentive for them," Jackson said.
Some of the food the kids served up included blue corn quesadillas, salsa, fruit kebabs and vegetable stir fry.
"I was able to try the stir fry; it was really good," Jackson said. "They also made the homemade sauce that they put in the stir fry."
She said the kids enjoyed the food they made regardless of whether they viewed it as healthy, but they get to write down the recipes to take home, and she hopes that will make an impression on them in time.
"It's not only healthy habits," Jackson said. "It's something that they will be conscious of long-term."
Furthermore, the curriculum also centers on teaching simple recipes that are time-saving but still incorporate wholesome ingredients.
"It's something they can do really quickly, but not frozen pizza, so they can be conscious of what they're putting into their bodies," Jackson said.
One of the youth who attend the classes is Choli Langi, 9, who goes to Horizon Elementary in Murray. She said Dr. Cleo adds a sense of humor to the class, and she enjoys learning to make healthy snacks and following good kitchen etiquette.
"We always have to wash our hands before we start cooking and wash the equipment," Choli said.
The class is doing its part to inspire kids like Choli to take what they learn and incorporate it in their lifestyles.
"It makes me want to cook at home," she said.
Scott Sherratt, community outreach director of Molina Healthcare of Utah, pointed out a couple of reasons childhood obesity needs to be addressed.
"With the downturn in the economy, the mindset becomes 'It's easier to eat cheaper food,' " Sherratt said.
The cheaper food, however, might contain harmful ingredients that could lead to severe health issues such as obesity, Sherratt said.
He said obesity can incur severe complications such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and even cancer.
"There's a lot of issues that can be extrapolated from this," Sherratt said. "We want to offset the trend as we look at childhood obesity rate."
According to him, a study done in 2010 showed that the percentage of obese kids has tripled since the 1960s, and Utah in particular reported about 20 percent of elementary students were overweight or obese.
"As a health-care company, we want the best health outcome for our clientele, and for the community as well," Sherratt said. "We can help [kids] realize at a younger age how important these day-to-day decisions are."
Dr. Cleo's Cooking Club seeks to help kids feel comfortable maneuvering in the kitchen and open their eyes to the possibilities of healthy food. The youth even get to feel professional as they're given chef hats and aprons.
"It makes it fun and makes the kids more engaged in the program," Sherratt said. "We want to help them to understand it's easier than you think."
Another way he said the kids might benefit from learning to cook at an early age is gaining a sense of responsibility.
"It doesn't have to be your mom and dad preparing the food," Sherratt said. "You can go in the kitchen and prepare a food that is healthy."
Molina Healthcare, operating in 15 states, serves people who receive Medicaid, Medicare and other government-funded aids. The demographic fits with the Boys and Girls Club because it's geared toward lower-income groups.
The cooking program at the Murray Club commenced the effort to fight childhood obesity for Molina. Sherratt said the company is looking to spread the progress throughout the Salt Lake Valley. The next stops will be the Boys and Girls Club in Kearns and Horizon Elementary.
He said Molina is excited to partner with the Boys and Girls Club and to provide the resources needed to increase the overall health of the community.
"We're just excited to be able to participate in this aspect of children health," he said. "Hopefully, it makes a dent."
Dr. Cleo's Cooking Club
Held every Monday from Sept. 10 to Oct. 15
Murray Boys and Girls Club, 244 E. Myrtle St.
Focuses on nutrition, kitchen safety, basic cooking skills
Funded by Molina Healthcare