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Kids in the kitchen

Eleanor Rush students put their culinary skills to the test for the annual Future Chefs competition.

Jenna Kirstein, fifth-grader at Eleanor Rush Elementary School, poses with general manager for Sodexo Education, Lisa Friedrich, after winning first prize at the Cinnaminson School District Future Chefs competition for her entry, “hongos” asada tacos.

If you are unfamiliar with the Sodexo brand, there’s a good chance your children could fill you in. In addition to facility management and maintenance, the company is most recognizable to students as the people who serve them lunch at school every day.

In an effort to promote healthy eating habits for young people, Sodexo holds the annual Future Chefs competition. Each year, students from 256 school districts throughout the country compete in the cooking contest.

In Sodexo’s own words, “the national initiative was created to get students thinking about making healthy food choices while also encouraging them to get active and creative in the kitchen.”

On Wednesday, March 6, Cinnaminson High School hosted six students from Eleanor Rush Elementary School, who competed to represent their district in the national cooking competition.

Students submitted recipes of their choosing based on themed ingredients provided by Sodexo. This year’s theme was Healthy Mexican. Out of the 24 recipes submitted, six were selected for the district competition.

This year’s competitors included, fifth-graders Hailey O’Brien, Shiloh Moore, Jordyn Flunder, Jenna Kirstein and Mia Zuccarelli, and fourth-grader Zyani Gass.

According to general manager for Sodexo Education Lisa Friedrich, given how young the competitors are, it can be tough choosing just six to compete.

“It’s really hard to pick, especially since they’re students, you don’t want to say ‘no.’ They get so excited, they really, really enjoy this,” said Friedrich.

She compared the actual competition portion to Food Network’s “Chopped Junior.”

“I hand them a basket that has all their ingredients in it and they have approximately an hour and a half to two hours to prepare the dish,” said Friedrich.

Judging the competition were district administrators like Superintendent Stephen Cappello, high school principal Ryan Gorman and principal at Eleanor Rush, Deborah Banecker. Dishes were judged based on criteria including presentation, taste, nutritional value and preparation time.

Banecker was impressed with her students’ kitchen prowess on display during the challenge.

She recalled being unable to cook until she taught herself as a married adult. She believes the skills these children are developing now, at such a young age, will help them in the future.

“I think we focus so much on academics that sometimes we forget the life skills you need,” said Banecker.

O’Brien, one of the young competitors, chose to make mahi mahi fish tacos, one of her favorite Mexican style dishes. No stranger to the kitchen, O’Brian says she enjoys cooking at home with mom and dad.

“I like eating food that I made,” said O’Brien. “My mom taught me healthy cooking and my dad taught me how to make stuff taste better.”

Although O’Brien’s fish tacos were a hit with the judges, the competition was ultimately won by returning champion, fifth-grader Jenna Kirstein, winner of Cinnaminson’s Future Chefs 2018.

According to her mother Stephanie, cooking has always been a staple for Jenna, who is an avid watcher of cooking shows like “The Final Table” and “Chopped.” Stephanie says her daughter often asks if she can cook dinner and she is more than happy to oblige.

“She gets to use her creativity, she gets to do something she really likes to do and I think this is a great experience for her,” said Stephanie.

Following her victory at the school level, Jenna will go on to represent her district in the regional Future Chefs competition in the coming months.

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