Ellicott City mom teaches kids about the fun in healthy cooking

For Howard Magazine
For the founder of Healthy Little Cooks, spreading nutritional knowledge is a personal mission.

Kimberly Young is, as she puts it, “not a size 6.” The Ellicott City resident may not fit the stereotypical image of a healthy eating guru, but that she is.

Young is a trained culinary nutritionist who founded the nonprofit Love My Body and later her company Healthy Little Cooks to encourage healthful eating in teens and children, respectively. For Young, who’s survived an eating disorder, worked to relieve a son’s ailments through a diet reboot and helped to break the cycle of generational unhealthy relationships with food in her family, this mission is personal.

It was 1990, the heyday of teen programing, initiatives like D.A.R.E. and, ironically, eating disorder diagnoses. Young, who was living in Flint, Mich., at age 16, had hit puberty and was experiencing a body she couldn’t control with fluctuating weight. Like many teens in the late ’80s and early ’90s, she’d watch after-school specials, TV-movies and teen dramas that depicted risky behavior. After watching a Lifetime movie where the female protagonist struggled with an eating disorder, Young was enticed by bulimia nervosa. So began her 13-year-long battle with the illness.

She tried everything under the sun, but Young credits getting closer to God with helping her kick the illness. As a young adult, she says she realized that a life of faith includes loving your body. After moving to Maryland in 1999, she went on to start the Love My Body nonprofit in 2004. Before morphing into her work with Healthy Little Cooks, the organization worked to help young women and teens of color in Baltimore improve their self-esteem and overcome body image issues.

“The [eating disorder awareness] movement at the time was twofold. It was both for children and white women. So I wanted to hit minority and biracial girls and their parents,” says Young, who was born to a white mother and an African-American father.

Love My Body provided support for parents so that they could, in turn, raise healthier families. Young says parent involvement is essential in creating healthy relationships with food and body image. Young organized various events for the girls, but none seemed to have an effect quite like a cooking class.

“Through cooking, I saw such a behavior change in these girls. They went from not wanting to communicate, to fully engaging with me. It was amazing,” says Young. “That’s when I realized there’s something to this cooking thing.”

Soon after, Young had her first son, who was born with a slew of food allergies and intolerances that forced her to make extreme changes to the way her family ate. Her son’s once-negative relationship with food improved drastically with the right diet, Young says.

On the heels of those successes, in 2010 Young established Healthy Little Cooks, a media and nutrition company specializing in food education for children of all ages. Young leads interactive nutrition and cooking workshops with kids, teachers and administrators in schools around Howard County and Maryland. (She’s expanding into other states, she says.)

Tiffany Tresler, principal at Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City, where Young has led workshops and advised on healthy snack ideas, says Healthy Little Cooks fits into the overall mission of the school, which was nationally recognized last year for healthy eating.

“I think it’s great that she’s promoting health and wellness with children. A lot of people tend to focus on the physical aspect, but it’s great to talk about healthy eating as well,” Tresler says, noting how cooking can broaden a child’s horizons. “If kids can make sushi, they’re going to be more likely to try it.”

Young is hyper-aware that teaching children about food can have lasting positive or negative effects. Her approach: handle with care.

For instance, rather than telling people that a certain food choice is wrong, she’ll talk through why it’s not the healthiest and share other options.

“There’s a fine line between having them eat healthy and putting this pressure on them to do things perfectly. We’re about having them get messy in the kitchen — to have fun and realize that mistakes are OK,” says Young, continuing with, “We teach kids in a way that creates conversation at home.”

Parents can also enroll their children in the online Kids Cooking Club through the Healthy Little Cooks website. Each month, enrolled families receive a cooking activity box in the mail that includes ingredients and supplies needed to complete a virtual lesson.

In six years, the program has expanded to include pre-K and home school students as well as an annual Cook Off. This year on May 6, during its fourth annual Cook Off and Kid Foodie Expo event at the Mall in Columbia, Healthy Little Cooks will attempt to break the Guinness World record for the largest cooking class with 2,500 participants, split into 50 teams of kids and parents from 50 schools within Howard County.

Healthy Little Cooks brings together all types of family dynamics. Back in 2014, when Matthew Seliger, now 11, won the Cook Off with his sophisticated eggplant salsa, Matthew’s father Steven Seliger says he was one of the only fathers involved.

“It was great to show that dads can be a part of this, too,” says Steven Seliger of Ellicott City, who is the primary cook for his household. Since Matthew’s victory, he went on to place for the state of Maryland in a regional cooking competition and served as a judge for HLC’s annual cook off last year.

“There’s this great trend in this country of eating dinner [with your family] and Healthy Little Cooks is a great way to get kids a part of that. Kids can grow up knowing how to cook healthy meals for their own families,” Seliger says.

The mother of another Howard County participant notes that the experience gives children an alternative to sports.

“In this area, if you’re not into sports, it can be hard [to find an outlet]. This gave [my daughter] a way to shine,” says Laura Hachani, the mother of 2015’s cook off champion, 8-year-old Isabella Hachani. Isabella won with her take on a spiralized zucchini dish prepared with chicken and tossed in a soy sauce blend.

Young doesn’t charge a fee for parents to attend Healthy Little Cooks programs or classes.

“I love working with kids. But I equally love working with adults,” she says. “Kids are our future, but the adults are the ones helping with the framework.”

To further extend her reach with adults, Young has started partnering with area companies and businesses, like the GE Healthcare location in Laurel, to hold cooking demos and events that they will hopefully take home to their families.

Young’s says her success is, in part, because of how fun kids find cooking, but it’s also because she keeps it real.

“I’m an open book. I get asked very personal questions when I’m just teaching someone how to make a sushi wrap,” Young says, with a laugh. “There’s not really safe places for food struggles. Where can you talk about eating disorders without sitting on someone’s couch and paying them $150 an hour? There’s really no place for it.”

Developing and maintaining a healthy relationship with food is ongoing daily struggle. Even after all this time, Young says she still faces insecurities.

“When I started doing this, one of my biggest insecurities was that, you know, I’m not a size 6, but I’m talking about healthy eating. I used to have this credibility question. Like how am I credible? I so got over myself.”

After all, there’s no cut-and-dry way to be healthy, and Young is working to prove it.

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Blueberry Oatmeal Bars

Kim Young says her daughter loves blueberries and oatmeal, and another parent told her to try Starbucks’ blueberry oat bars. But the bars’ nutrition facts revealed they were “packed with sugar” and not gluten-free. (Starbucks has since discontinued the bars.) So Young created her own more nutritious recipe, published in her “Gluten & Dairy Free Holiday Cookbook” ($5.99 for Kindle).

Blueberry Filling:

3 cups fresh blueberries (can substitute frozen)

1/2 cup orange juice

4 dates with pits removed

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1/4 cup coconut sugar

3 teaspoon ground chia seeds

Oatmeal Bars:

3 cups of oats (gluten free if desired)

3/4 cup shaved coconut (no sugar added)

1 cup buckwheat or gluten free flour

3/4 cup coconut oil, melted

1/2 cup maple syrup

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Coconut oil for greasing the pan, if desired

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch by 10-inch, or 9-inch by 9-inch pan with parchment paper, or rub the bottom and sides with coconut oil.

2. Add all blueberry filling ingredients, except ground chia seeds, to a saucepan. Cover, bring to a boil and then reduce and simmer for 10 minutes.

3. Once finished cooking, place dates and 1/2 cup of the liquid into a food processor and blend until smooth. Add date mixture back to the saucepan and add chia seeds. Mix until fully combined and store in refrigerator for 10 minutes to cool to room temperature.

4. Add all ingredients for the oatmeal bars into a large bowl and mix well until all ingredients are completely combined.

5. Line the pan with half the oatmeal mixture, top with the blueberry filling and crumble the remaining oatmeal mixture on top.

6. Bake for 40-45 minutes. Keep it from crumbling by letting it cool completely before cutting.