How do you get today's kids excited about sitting down to a balanced meal with their family instead of in front of the TV or computer with some chips? That was the question nagging at Julia Jordan, a professor of hospitality management at New York City College of Technology. Her answer: the Dinner Party Project. Jordan helped create the school-based program for fifth- through seventh-graders five years ago to teach students all about throwing the perfect dinner party. Its goal is not to turn the kids into mini Martha Stewarts. Instead, it aims to get kids involved and excited about the possibilities of sharing a meal. "We felt that youngsters had lost the connection to food," says Jordan, who founded Spoons Across America, a nonprofit organization that teaches kids about cooking and nutrition. "Part of that was because their families had lost the connection to food--in particular, the connection to sitting and having conversations at the table."
Together with other food professionals, Jordan cooked up the notion that kids would become more enthusiastic about family dinners if they prepared one themselves. "What better way to get kids involved with dinner than to have them do the planning? And who better to invite than their own parents?" asks Jordan. "We believe in experiential education, the idea that people learn through their senses first and then reflect on what they've experienced. We felt that the way to change things was to take that first bold step and bring children together to design their own dinner."
The first Dinner Party was staged in 2001 in the cafeteria of a New York City school. By the end of this year there will have been 70 such events throughout the country, many of them in low-income areas. Working with a school principal and classroom teachers, Spoons provides an 80-page curriculum and support. The program, which takes about an hour a week for five weeks, is coordinated by a local food professional and a chef, in some cases culinary luminaries such as Tim Love of the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth, Texas, and Feliberto Estevez, the executive chef at Gracie Mansion in New York City. The chefs and coordinators all volunteer their time, and many of the ingredients and supplies are donated by local purveyors.