Learning about recipes, ingredients and food groups can ignite kids’ natural curiosity and playfulness. A Mid-Continent Public Library summer program aimed to give this energy a practical application: Kids in the Kitchen, a series sponsored by Family Nutrition Education Programs, integrated cooking into children’s daily lives.

The six-week program emphasized lessons such as how to pack a lunch box with healthy options and making simple after-school snacks. As children of all ages gathered for their last class Monday at the South Independence branch, nutrition educator Virginia Vanderford began by summing up the course’s leading philosophy: “We have a lot to do, but we’re gonna have some fun.”

This included making time for silliness. Between giggles and bouncing in their chairs, the kids asked questions like, “Is ham made from hamsters?” and “Can anyone really live without chocolate?” One student worried that upping her calcium intake would make her teeth grow bigger with each serving. Meanwhile, other participants debated about the best way to eat an Oreo: all at once, or by unscrewing the cookie to get to the cream?

It’s this lively – and sometimes crazy – dynamic that inspires Vanderford’s love of teaching.

“Getting to know these kids, seeing them light up and say, ‘I’m so sad it’s over,’ that makes it 100 percent worth it,” Vanderford said. “The main focus has been helping them understand what they put into their bodies and how to make healthier choices.”

The kids have whipped up fruit pizza, vegetable dip and other easy treats, with their last class focusing on meat and cheese roll-ups. Each snack corresponds to a lesson about a food group or nutrient, including fruit, vegetables, dairy and protein.

Again, these teachings centered around what kids already know and experience. For example, Vanderford asked everyone to brainstorm their favorite sources of dairy and how they could incorporate more dairy into their diets.

Emma Blasor, a fifth-grader who attended all six weeks of classes, said she liked to cook before the program but has been encouraged to try new foods and return to the kitchen with more enthusiasm.

“Our teacher was a great teacher,” she said. “I didn’t ever want the class to end.”

Blasor signed with three of her sisters. Her mother, Nicole Blasor, said that every Monday throughout the series, the girls would shout, “It’s time for cooking class!” In a family with six kids, Nicole stressed the benefit of self-sufficiency in the kitchen.

“We home-school, so this is an awesome opportunity to learn about science, cooking and being in the kitchen, since I can’t always facilitate that,” Nicole explained. “For them to learn about recipes that they can make themselves is a big deal for us.”

It could also be the beginning of a tradition. With the class wrapping up, Emma asked if her younger brother, still a toddler, could come in and watch. As he teetered in, she offered him a bite of her snack and let him try on the class’s graduation present: a chef’s hat.