Junior Iron Chef competitions offer multiple benefits for students and community

As home economic classes fade from school curriculum, clubs and competitions fill the gap to teach students culinary arts.

Home economics, once a mainstay in classrooms around the nation, is now rarely offered in the classrooms of the 21st century. With increasing interest in community food systems and specifically farm to school nutrition education, Junior Iron Chef competitions provide excellent educational opportunities.

Junior Iron Chef competitions are modeled after the popular Iron Chef competitions where celebrity chefs prepare 4-5 course meals using an ingredient revealed just prior to the competition. The meals are then judged by a panel of food critics and one chef is declared the winner. Junior Iron Chef competitions operate in a similar manner, but may also offer an increased focus on local agriculture, promotion of culinary arts, nutrition education and team building.

In Northwest Michigan, students at Leland Public School recently competed in a Junior Iron Chef competition with financial assistance provided by the Joan Rajkovich McGarry Grant. Two teams of fifth and sixth grade students, along with their volunteer coaches, decided on a menu plan, gathered the necessary ingredients and practiced several times over a month-long period. On the evening of the competition, each team had one hour to prepare their meal. The coach chefs were not allowed to help in any way other than to provide verbal instruction. Teams were judged on taste, nutrition (adherence to USDA’s My Plate), marketing (verbal presentation and menu), visual presentation and plating, and use of local foods. While both teams produced delicious multiple coarse meals, there could only be one winner. The first team’s menu included roasted asparagus with poached eggs and pancetta, bacon–wrapped filet mignon over mashed potatoes and parsnips topped with roasted kale, and baked local apples with crème fresh in a pastry cup. The second team’s menu included squash and rutabaga soup, chicken piccatta over cous cous with stacked scalloped sweet potatoes, and an apple turnover with local appples. The event was organized by the school’s farm to school coordinator who served as a judge alongside the food service director and two other members of the community.

Over the course of a month, the students learned to work together toward a common goal while learning more about cooking and nutrition. The event was a great success and could be replicated in other schools around Michigan.

If you are interested in starting a Junior Iron Chef competition in your school district, contact a Michigan State University Extension Community Food Systems Educator in your region or read more about the Michigan Junior chef competition.  

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