On a recent Monday evening at the Spectrum Health Lifestyle Medicine teaching kitchen at Grand Rapids Downtown Market, chef Will Barajas looked on with a smile as the group of families donned their aprons.

“Hola, como estas?” Barajas said.

He gestured to a nearby table.

“We have a healthy bran muffin with pina here for sampling—and trust me, it’s good,” he said.

Next to the muffins sat a colorful juice spritzer, fresh fruit floating on top.

“This might taste a little different to some of you, but we’re focusing on less sugar this week,” Barajas said.

Angel Canales, 10, grabbed a cup of the spritzer and gave it a try.

“I didn’t know if I liked it, but it’s really good,” he said. He poured himself another glass.

Angel’s eagerness to try the new drink was a testament to the influence of this creative cooking program, Cocinando en Familia—or, Cooking with Family. It brings Hispanic families together to learn healthy eating habits, and it’s presented entirely in Spanish.

The free, five-class program is offered every other week.

Barajas, of the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College, has had no trouble greeting families for this hands-on approach to all things culinary.

He and Miranda Hillard, MD, pediatric physician at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, developed the recipes for the class and tailored them to Hispanic participants.

“We wanted to make sure these recipes are all culturally appropriate,” Barajas said. “We started from scratch and created our own recipes.”

If you’re familiar with Hispanic culture, it’s very diverse, he said.

The program is designed to represent the broader Hispanic community. He and Dr. Hillard worked to develop recipes from various countries, including Brazil, Argentina and Puerto Rico.

“A lot of people think all Hispanics are from Mexico, but that’s not how it is,” he said.

Dr. Hillard said the class emphasized making these recipes more whole food, plant-based. Her role in the recipe development was to ensure a focus on whole ingredients and increasing the fiber, vegetables and plant sources of protein in each recipe.

The evening’s class marked the third cohort of families, taught entirely in Spanish.

Healthy eating is the primary aim.

“Many come from cultures where they used to eat better, but they assimilate into meat being the center of the plate,” Barajas said.

“But we have to be careful and limit certain foods like sugars, too,” Dr. Hillard said.

A focus for this class: “El azucar mata,” or, “sugar kills.”

Other classes in this series focused on “come sano, vive sano” (“eat healthy, be healthy”), “frijoles milagrosos” (“miraculous beans”) and “plantas poderosas” (“powerful plants”).

In all Lifestyle Medicine cooking classes, there’s ample caution about the risk of heavy sugar and excess fats.

“When families start, many will tell us they love meat and sugar and there is no way they will change their diet,” Barajas said. “But we have even seen tears at the end of the program when someone realizes the need for a healthier change. You can see the sincerity in their eyes.”

In the kitchen

As the cooking portion of the evening kicked off, the kids took to the cutting boards. Onions, colored peppers and other fresh vegetables needed chopping.

Angel is no stranger to the kitchen—he said he has cut up plenty of stuff for recipes at home.

“I sometimes even cook for myself,” he said.

He got right to work, clearly enjoying some of the special chopping tools in the teaching kitchen. Until he got to chopping the onions.

“I can’t see anything,” he said, his eyes tearing as he took a step back.

“It smells really good in here though,” he said.

Barajas next asked the families to pull out the cauliflower and broccoli. There was some skepticism at first—they were planning to make fajitas.

“I’ll try the broccoli, but I’ve never had it in fajitas before,” Angel said.

He then started seasoning the chicken cutlets, placing them in the pan to sear to perfection.

“You have to wash your hands before you touch stuff,” he said, stirring the seasoning in with his hands. “My hands are slippery.”

As they cooked, Dr. Hillard explained how you can get more fiber by adding additional vegetables to dishes.

As the fajitas sizzled, she articulated the benefits of each group of vegetables. Barajas added a note about the importance of meat quality, and why leaner cuts are a better choice.

Next came the Caesar salad.

The kids took out a whisk and got to work mixing ingredients for homemade salad dressing—nonfat Greek yogurt, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard.

It almost seemed too simple of a recipe, but it promised to be tasty.

Family-friendly meals

As the meal came together, Dr. Hillard showed families how to plate a meal with proper portions in mind.

“Use the palm of your hand, for example, to decide how much meat should accompany the vegetables on the plate,” she said.

As the food started to hit the plates, there were clearly more vegetables than meats.

Barajas showed parents how to fill half the plate with green vegetables, such as the kale Caesar salad they’d made. He then filled a whole wheat tortilla with grilled vegetables, using the grilled chicken as more of a condiment.

As the families sat to enjoy their meals, Dr. Hillard offered some additional thoughts on the importance of healthy eating.

The leftovers were then boxed up to take home to family members.

The Veggie Van also stopped by the Downtown Market that day, giving participants the opportunity to take home a bag of fresh ingredients to make one of Lifestyle Medicine’s healthy recipes at home.

The bag included everything they’d need to make the meal.

“I never knew I liked cauliflower,” Alondra Cisneros, 8, said, rising from the table to make another plate.

Angel even took a bite of the broccoli and agreed—it tasted good.

Angel’s mom, Imelda Choclopez, said they’ve been learning to cook healthier at home.

With less sugar.

And less salt.

“I plan to make some changes in my kitchen,” she said. “And the family likes it so far.”