MENDOTA — Children throughout the Illinois Valley area will again have their chance at becoming healthy chefs through a program offered by the University of Illinois Extension and 4-H.

The Junior Chef program lasts for a week and classes are two hours long. But those two hours go by quickly when it’s time for stirring, measuring and eating.

“For this camp, we have more registrants than we can handle,” said Tim McNally, one of the chef instructors.

The program has been offered for several years and some kids look forward to taking it again while others hear about it from their friends. For a lot of the children, the very act of cooking is exciting.

“I had one kid tell me his dad was going to have him make dinner,” McNally said.

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Cody Falcon tries to get an entire pumpkin pancake into his mouth.

Instructor Dawn Dove said they do repeat some of the more popular dishes, like the fruit salsa, every summer but they also try to mix it up for the kids that have attended previously.

The dishes all feature one component of the “My Plate” guide developed by the United States Department of Agriculture. The plate encourages people to eat healthy by balancing protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables and grains.

The class ends with an emphasis on grains, including the whole wheat blend used for the pumpkin pancakes.

“We have a lot of kids come in and say they won’t like it,” McNally said. “We ask for ‘one polite bite’ of whatever we’re making that day. After taking that bite they find they might like it.”

A lot of kids probably know about pumpkins — but in a pancake?

“We try a food in a different way

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Jessica Terrazas (from left) pours batter into the skillet for pumpkin pancakes as Janelle Rodriguez and Isa Arreola watch during the“Junior Chef School” program held at Lincoln School in  Mendota.

and that also makes a difference,” McNally said. “And, we make it fun.”

A quick quiz toward the end of the week revealed the kids might not be memorizing the three parts to a whole grain, but they are learning a lot about different food groups.

“Everything we’ve learned this week is helping you become healthier,” Dove told the young chefs.

True or not, that was a very impressive stack of pancakes that disappeared by the end of the class.

Look for upcoming classes in Spring Valley and also in La Salle. The Junior Chef School also was given in Neponset and Buda. Information on the chef school is usually distributed to area schools and most of the classes do fill quickly.

Tamara Abbey can be reached by calling or texting (815) 539-5200 or mendota@newstrib.com. Follow her on Twitter @NT_Mendota.

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