Slicing, dicing and grating.

That’s what a group of about 25 students from Grand Rapids Public Schools spent their morning doing in the Grand Rapids Community College Secchia Institute for Culinary Education.

It’s all thanks to a collaboration led by Spectrum Health Culinary Medicine that pairs local students with culinary experts to teach the art of food as medicine.

“We are finding opportunities to invest in the youth in the communities that we serve,” said Jason Slaikeu, MD, division chief for vascular surgery at Spectrum Health.  “This program gives these students the opportunity to gain first-hand life skills.”

Today’s lesson was all about culinary medicine and learning to eat healthy.

“Decisions we make early on can impact us later in life,” Dr. Slaikeu said. “That’s why this collaboration is so important to the community.”

Recipes included salsa verde, one pot bean chili nachos, hidden veggie burgers, cauliflower mac and cheese, stuffed peppers and homemade corn tortilla chips.

“We may have added a little too much cayenne in here!” said chef Elizabeth Suvedi, a culinary medicine student. “Oh, this is going to be spicy!”

Small groups of students worked together on a variety of recipes. As several tasted the salsa verde, they determined it was just the right spice.

Estephanie Jimenez, a senior at Innovations Central High School, liked the salsa her team made.

“Today was a great bonding experience,” she said. “We learned how to follow recipes and directions, and overall it was a great experience. I’ll definitely be cooking more at home from now on.”

Dr. Slaikeu tried all the salsa and exchanged high fives with the students.

Brenda Arroyo Cortez, a junior, rocked the blender while making a green salsa. She thought hers needed a little more salt.

“I always cook at home but don’t always follow the recipes,” she said.

Rihana and Amaia Pellow, twin sisters in their senior year, joked that their hidden veggie burgers were snack size.

“We made our patties a little smaller than they should have been, so they browned up to more of a nugget size,” they said, laughing as they compared their patties to other teams’ burgers. “This is total expectation verses reality.”

Lead teacher for health sciences, Kathy Hodder, said the program is helpful.

“Everyone is completely engaged today and these are life skills that you can’t teach in the classroom,” she said. “My hope is that the students will take home what they learned and share with their families. For these kids to get hooked on healthy food would be wonderful.”

A group of students across the kitchen laughed as they discussed their misstep. The corn tortilla chip recipe had called for a 1/4 tsp of salt and pepper, but they had added a 1/4 cup.

“We’re going to have to find a creative solution for this one!” exclaimed one of the chefs.

As the students finished cooking, they plated their meals and swapped stories from group to group. They even learned how to plate meals and make a nice presentation.

“Somebody’s gonna get a whole lot of cheese in this cup!” said Robert Flowers, a senior. “And excuse me if I take my time on this,” as he carefully placed parsley leaves on each individual cup.

The culinary medicine team, including registered dietitian Krista Gast, also shared tips on cooking and making healthier snacks ahead of time so it’s ready to take on the go.

“We saw a lot of artistic flair and a lot of people trying things that they would otherwise maybe not have tried,” said Kristi Artz, MD, medical director for lifestyle medicine at Spectrum Health.

“Have you heard about phytonutrients?” she asked the group. “When we look at all the colorful rainbow of fruits and vegetables we have put into our meal today, know that this is going to protect your body and makes you feel energized. We want to try and use more vegetables and grains in our meals and a little less meat—change it up a little bit and make it a little healthier for our bodies.”

The chefs discussed reading nutrition labels, using less salt and eating more vegetables. They also talked about conditions such as high blood pressure and how you can cook differently to avoid or mitigate this condition.

Thanks to the YMCA Veggie Van, the students all went home with a bag of fresh produce and groceries to make one of the recipes at home with their families and a bag of kitchen utensils to encourage healthy cooking at home.