Credit: Kelsey Tsipis

A local nutrition-conscience cooking class for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities makes healthy eating easy.

By Kelsey Tsipis

Ewan Toscano is used to seeing his favorite chefs create culinary masterpieces everyday on his favorite TV show Barbecue University. He listens eagerly as the chefs describe how to make swordfish kabobs or roast chicken feet over an enormous open-pit grill.

But on earlier this month, Ewan became a head chef in his own right.

Ewan and his ARC supervisor, Taylor, as they prepare their nutritious meal. Credit: Kelsey Tsipis

Ewan, who is 23-years-old and has autism, was the “head chef” at a healthy cooking class designed for people in the community with mental illness. The class is sponsored through the Arc of Orange County, a non-profit organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Health and Wellness Nutrition Class, which meets every Tuesday at the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont is part of the center’s goal to promote healthy living habits among those with mental illness.

Sherry Anscher, the cooking class’ coordinator, says while it’s important for everyone to learn healthy cooking habits, it’s especially important for those with developmental disabilities.

“A lot of times they don’t get enough exercise or they’re not as physical as the ordinary person,” said Anscher. “Our folks have the added challenge of transportation for things like fitness classes. And if they do get there there’s always the question as to if they will they feel comfortable. So healthy eating habits are really important.”

Taking tips from his favorite celebrity chefs, Ewan, alongside his Arc supervisor Taylor Bunch, described to a roomful of peers and Arc employees how to prepare the menu for the day. Although he’s only been a member for a month, Ewan knows each classmate by name and greets each of them prior to cooking the meal.

“He’s extremely outgoing and friendly,” said Bunch. “He would be happy just talking to everyone the whole hour of class.”

The cauliflower macaroni and cheese Ewan and Taylor prepared for the healthy cooking class. Credit: Kelsey Tsipis

Ewan decided to make a variation on his favorite food – macaroni and cheese – by substituting finely diced cauliflower for the noodles.

Each person in the class contributed to the making of the meal — some sliced cauliflower while others set out utensils and got beverages for each of the 15 participants.

With Taylor’s guidance, Ewan carefully measured and added pepper and garlic salt to the creamy cheese sauce. Then, once the cauliflower was done boiling, they drizzled the sauce over the cauliflower in baking pans and then put into the oven for ten minutes.

For dessert, the class collectively made a sweet raspberry dip with low-fat Greek yogurt and fresh raspberries.

“It’s a very hands-on class in order for everyone to realize that cooking isn’t just about preparing the food, it’s about the cleanup and preparation too,” said Susan Chandler, the Director of Volunteer and Social Programs at the Arc. Chandler, who has worked with the cooking class for five years, said several of the participants live by themselves and cook their own food so the ingredients lists are always provided after class.

“A lot of times we do recipes they can duplicate at home,” said Chandler. “That’s important to encourage a healthy lifestyle.”

In the past the class has made fruit crepes, grilled cheese on wheat bread, grilled shrimp and trail mix.

Once a month the class also prepares individually wrapped desserts for the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Meals-on-Wheels program. For August, the class made and delivered 36 Rice Krispie treats.

Ewan and a friend after his first public cooking debut. Credit: Kelsey Tsipis

“We started that under the philosophy that everyone, regardless of their ability or level of independence, is capable of making a difference,” said Chandler. “And everyone should be involved in giving back to the community.”

As the class wrapped up and all of the empty plates were thrown away, Ewan was noticeably proud, yet humble about his head chef debut.

“It was good,” he said, with a smile.

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