Learning healthy habits

Chop-Chop Cooking Camp at St. Ephrem teaches local kids nutrition and wellness

Life lessons: In an effort to promote a well-balanced diet and lifestyle, St. Mary Medical Center is once again hosting its Chop-Chop Cooking Camp, which recently took place at St. Ephrem in Bensalem. Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

When it comes to staying healthy, summer can be a tough time for children and teens. While the academic year provides nutritious foods during lunch and daily exercise during recess, those three months of vacation are usually met with less structure. Yes, a cheeseburger at the family barbecue is OK. But too often, unhealthy habits creep into warm weather schedules.

“We see a lot of kids gaining weight over the summer because they’re inactive and not in school. They’re mindfully able to eat whatever,” said Joann Dorr, manager of St. Mary Medical Center’s Families Living Well initiative, which works to address the growing obesity epidemic in local kids.

In an effort to promote a well-balanced diet and lifestyle, St. Mary is once again hosting its Chop-Chop Cooking Camp. Now in its 12th year and part of Families Living Well, the camp helps children ages 6 to 12 learn to prepare nutritious snacks and lunches, participate in fun, physical games and create mindful crafts.

Chop-Chop Cooking Camp is hosted at a different location in Bucks County each week throughout the summer, giving as many children as possible the chance to participate in the high-demand program.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on July 15-19, it was held at St. Ephrem Catholic Church, 5400 Hulmeville Road, Bensalem, where 41 young campers enjoyed hands-on activities in a variety of health-related areas.

For example, on Thursday, the children (all donning personalized chef hats) made their own zucchini pancakes and yogurt sundaes under the watchful eye of Stacy Smith, a registered dietician with the Philadelphia School District.

“Each day has a different topic. Today was on breakfast and how important it is to start your day with a healthy breakfast,” Smith said. “It’s really important for everyone, especially in the summer when it’s hot, to eat a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also to stay hydrated.”

Smith admitted there were a few picky-eater grumbles when she announced zucchini as the special ingredient. Still, most of the kids willingly gave the vegetable a chance and ended up loving it.

“It’s really good and I think it’s definitely a good breakfast, a healthy breakfast,” said camper Paige Pressler.

In addition to the zucchini pancakes, the kids crafted spinach smoothies, which Smith said were another surprise success.

“The color wasn’t as beautiful as some of them would’ve liked, but we got rave reviews,” she reflected. “They’re always trying new things, which is really the most important thing.”

Each day of Chop-Chop Cooking Camp begins with a morning circle, during which the kids talk about what they did and didn’t enjoy from the previous day. Next, they partake in a physical activity for 30 minutes, which Dorr said always works up an appetite for their homemade lunches at noon. The children then spend time on a craft before concluding the afternoon with a second physical activity.

“Just while they’re eating is their sit down time,” said Dorr.

In addition to teaching healthy eating habits, Chop-Chop Cooking Camp instructs kids in the art of self-care, wellness and disconnecting from the addicting world of social media. In Dorr’s opinion, this component is what truly sets the camp apart.

“We try to get them to identify what we call their ‘personal IQ’ so they know their own bodies. We talk about stress and sleep,” Dorr said. “Kids are so overstressed. We try to get them back to basics a little bit. We do some crafting, they’re using their hands, talking to each other. We’re a no-screen situation here. A lot of kids have a hard time falling asleep at night, so we try to teach them ways to learn to relax, learn to calm themselves.”

This is done through daily projects such as creating handmade sleep masks, and introducing campers to new activities like yoga.

Cost for Chop-Chop Cooking Camp is $50, which includes all food ingredients. Children are able to register for one week, with other host locations including Queen of the Universe in Levittown and Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol. A camp exclusively for teens also takes place in the evenings. For families who quality, scholarships are available.

Visit stmaryhealthcare.org/flw for more information. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com