Fajitas, please. These kids know how to show off their skills in the kitchen.

Students from Druid Hills Academy compete Saturday in the Kids Cook with Heart competition at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte.
Students from Druid Hills Academy compete Saturday in the Kids Cook with Heart competition at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte.

From chopping fresh bell peppers and dicing chicken to making their own guacamole garnishes and sautéing black beans, it was like Charlotte’s own Chopped Jr. episode when students battled it out for 60 minutes in the kitchens of Johnson and Wales University this past weekend.

The Charlotte chapter of the American Heart Association introduced the Kids Cook with Heart competition as a way to combat childhood obesity and properly educate students early on. This program targets local middle schoolers, mostly in priority areas where there is the greatest need, in hopes of preparing them to live healthier lives.

“The Kids Cook with Heart initiative began about 5 years ago in Charlotte,” Shannon Emmanuel, vice president of health of the Charlotte American Heart Association, told CharlotteFive. “It all stems from us building a healthy generation of cooks. We want to end cardiovascular disease, and we know that starting with our youth is key.”

As a kid, you aren’t often thinking: “’Is this meal good for me? Am I being heart healthy by choosing this snack?’” More than likely, you’re only looking to curb your hunger. Whether it’s a bag of chips or a favorite candy, the choices we make early on can have a major impact on our health.

According to the American Heart Association, 13.5% of children ages 10-17 in North Carolina are considered obese, making our state 32nd in childhood obesity.

This year, students from Druid Hills Academy and the Creative Player Foundation’s after-school program went through the 4-week course, where they worked closely with local chefs and dietitians to learn the importance of healthy eating. The hands-on course gave students the chance to get in the kitchen to learn to properly prepare their meals.

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Students from the Creative Players Foundation prepare for the Kids Cook With Heart competition in Charlotte on Oct. 26. DeAnna Taylor

“We target middle schoolers in 6th through 8th grade. A lot of Title I schools are selected, and the schools are in charge of selecting the actual students,” Emmanuel said. Title I schools have high percentages of low-income families.

As a way to test what was learned, students went head to head in the healthy cooks challenge.

The competition was held in the commercial kitchens of Johnson and Wales University. Teams dressed in aprons and chefs hats were given the same recipe for fajitas with exactly one hour to wow the judges with their skills.

Each team at the Kids Cook With Heart competition was tasked to create a fajita dish with the same set of ingredients. DeAnna Taylor

In addition to having the best tasting dish, the kids were scored on how well they worked together as a team, how creative they could get with the fajitas recipe and how well they used the tools in the kitchen.

The kids were given a cutting board of fresh vegetables that included red and green peppers, avocados, tomatoes, garlic, jalapenos, limes and cilantro. One team decided to dice up veggies to create a pico de gallo topping. Another team could be seen mashing up avocado and folding in garlic, tomatoes and onions as chefs prepared guacamole to complement their dish.

During the hour, students were having fun and talking to each other through the varying stages of preparation. Their coaches couldn’t physically help them, but Johnson and Wales students could. Parents and supporters cheered the young cooks on from windows just outside the kitchens.

A student from Druid HIlls Academy chops red bell pepper for a fajita dish. DeAnna Taylor

The winning team was a group of students from the Creative Player’s Association after-school program. That team will have the opportunity to take a two-hour private cooking lesson with a Johnson and Wales instructor. They’ll make an appearance on the news to talk about their experience.

Students were given gift bags that were filled with kitchen gadgets to will allow them to continue creating healthy meals at home.

Druid Hill Academy students prepare vegetables during a cooking competition tied to a program of the Charlotte chapter of the American Heart Association. DeAnna Taylor

Disclaimer: The writer served as a judge for the competition.

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