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Food and Drink

Geneva hospital to host cooking classes for kids with sensory challenges

GENEVA – Children with disabilities, sensory issues or autism may be extremely sensitive to the flavor, color, smell and texture of foods. A new program at the Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital Community Kitchen is teaching children with disabilities how to cook and introducing them to healthier food options.

Children use kid-friendly utensils to cut up fruit and vegetables, and chop fresh herbs, a news release stated. They assemble fruit salsas, make their own pizzas, and stuff tacos with loads of healthy options. All is done under the guidance of a dietitian and pediatric occupational and speech therapists.

“Eating is a huge sensory experience – more exposure to a variety of foods in an enjoyable environment helps our young patients tolerate new tastes, textures and smells,” stated Breanna Foley, pediatric occupational therapist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital, in the release. “And the hands-on experience is wonderful for working on fine motor skills.”

The class starts with a food demo to show the participants step-by-step what they will be making. Registered dietitian Mary Zupke passes around the ingredients, encouraging the children to touch, feel and smell every item. She chooses recipes that are simple, but with a variety of ingredients and lots of color. Then the dicing, chopping and mixing begins.

“We have found if the children make the food themselves, they are much more likely to eat it,” Zupke stated in the release. “It’s been wonderful to watch the kids explore new flavors, and the parents are excited about getting out of a food rut.”

Five-year-old Joshua Blake of Geneva wrinkled up his nose as his put spinach, dried tomatoes and basil on a Mediterranean pizza, but once it came out of the oven, he quickly gobbled up his own creation.

“He normally wouldn’t eat spinach; I can’t believe he ate the whole thing,” his mom, Robyn Blake, stated in the release. “This program has been great. He is trying new foods, and when he comes home, he wants to help in the kitchen.”

Classes include tips on how to make every meal healthier. The pizza class incorporates hummus, lots of veggies, and low-fat cheese. A healthy desserts menu highlights dark chocolate and fresh berries to add sweetness to the meal, while also decreasing inflammation and increasing antioxidants. The Mediterranean class makes meals with healthy fats and plant-based proteins.

“The children are learning so much more than just cooking; they also count, make shapes, follow directions, share and take turns,” Alyssa Boyer, pediatric speech therapist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital, said in the release. “It provides social interaction and the opportunity to encourage independence.”

The next class will be offered Sept. 18. Tot Chefs (ages 3 to 5) meets from 10 to 11 a.m. and Taste Heroes (ages 6 to 15) meets from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.  On the menu will be tacos. The children will explore healthy taco options with meat and without, using fresh herbs.

The Northwestern Medicine Delnor Community Kitchen is a place for people of all ages to learn about nutrition in a fun and engaging environment, according to the release. Participants discover how to eat healthy by increasing consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and protein foods. Previous cooking experience is not required.

For information, visit or call 630-933-4234.

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