Kids in the kitchen Healthy cooking classes at Milford Boys and Girls Club

Nine boys and girls in pink or blue chefs hats and aprons were intent on the day’s task: making macaroni and cheese from scratch.

And not ordinary mac and cheese, but whole grain mac and cheese.

The children were in the kitchen of the Boys & Girls Club of Souhegan Valley with two professional chefs as part of a series of healthy cooking classes going on this fall in the Milford club and at Boys & Girls Clubs in Nashua, Manchester, Laconia, Salem and Derry.

The programs are funded by a $75,000 grant from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, a Bedford-based nonprofit organization, and the grant went to FEEDNH.org, the charitable trust of Great NH Restaurants.

The chefs are Nicole Barreira, corporate chef for T-Bones and Cactus Jack’s, and Megan Robinson, Great NH Restaurants‘ director of catering and events.

The three-week series of classes is designed to show eight- to 12-year-olds how to read a recipe, prepare and cook nutritious food.

Along with macaroni and cheese, the kids learn to prepare a vegetable stir fry (made with sesame oil, brown rice and lots of vegetables), as well as fruit and yogurt parfaits, buckwheat pancakes, turkey burritos, and black bean, corn and avocado salsa.

The Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation funds programs combating childhood obesity. Public health professionals studying obesity believe the turning away from home cooking in recent decades in favor of restaurant and take-out food is one of its causes.

“There’s a whole generation of people who don’t know how to cook,” said Karen Voci, the foundation’s president in a phone interview. “We’ve learned … over the past eight years that cooking is a lost art, regardless of income.”

The aim of the program is to have the kids enjoy the lessons and the food so much they will bring their new skills home.

Some of the children who crowded around Barreira on a recent day said they like to make breakfast foods – eggs or pancake batter – but none of them indicated they’ve tried to cook supper.

Another cause of obesity is said to be soda, and at the start of their cooking classes, Barreira and Robinson brought out vanilla beans, fruit and big bottles of flavored seltzers for the kids to make tasty low-sugar drinks.

As they guided the children through meal preparation, the grown-up chefs talked about safety in the kitchen, nutrition and the importance of appearance, as well as taste.

“It has to look good, smell good,” Barreira said.

Voci said there will be attempts to follow up and learn if the cooking lessons made any changes in family habits.

“It’s really a pilot effort,” she said, and they will try to ask parents what their children have learned.

All the participants get cookbooks and “swag bags” of kitchen implements to use at home and to remind them of the lessons.

“Teaching kids the value of healthy eating is an important step in getting them to eat right, stay active, and live a long, healthy life,” Voci said.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at kcleveland@cabinet.com or 673– 3100, ext. 304.