Bless Your Spoon: Teach kids that it’s healthy if color is on the plate
Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 14, 2019
By Stephanie Williams Dean
Describing herself as an extravagant cook, Christie Ponjican is visually attracted to color. Also drawn to food from different ethnicities, she enjoys experimenting with ingredients, dreaming up new menu ideas, and creating colorful meals.
“I need certain colors on the plate. That way, I know my kids are getting their healthy portions,” said Christie.
The wife and mom’s daily schedule includes cooking three balanced meals a day. For her family, she makes healthy choices while staying away from processed foods and sugars.
“My husband tells me it’s OK to be simple, but I love the preparation and presentation so much — it’s a passion of mine.”
Christie, 42, had no history of cooking as a child. Culinary skill wasn’t something her mother taught her. When the couple was first married, they ate out a lot, but she learned to cook after their children were born. The young mother recognized she needed to learn her way around the kitchen and know how to cook.
About three years ago, Christie encountered a serious health challenge. She ended up changing her lifestyle and eating habits. She is gluten free now. She and her husband went on a diet and were strict with their food choices.
“My husband was earnest about going on the ketogenic diet. We’ve never been overweight, but we lost pounds and felt healthier.”
Later, Christie became a stay at home mom and was able to focus more of her attention to creating healthier meals.
“It had its beginnings in my desire for my children and me to be healthy. I could do it because I could be home to cook three healthy meals a day.”
The change took place after Christie was scheduled to have surgery for the health issue. A family emergency came up, so the operation was canceled. It was then that she decided to look at other ways to improve her health. She’d never thought the wrong diet might be contributing to her health issue. A gluten-free plan combined with Pilates exercise was suggested by a cousin, and as a result, she never feels bad anymore.
“I stay away from flour, but sugar is something I could have a better handle on. Chocolate is my definite go to when I’m feeling stressed out. Trader Joe’s has an amazing Belgian chocolate pudding. I have pretty good self-control overall now, but I allow myself a spoonful or two. I do feel a little guilty though when I indulge.”
As far as meal prep, after Christie had kids, it became important to have them alongside her in the kitchen. When son, Brentley was 3, he was already making pizza dough.
The family eats all their meals together. It’s rare they ever go through fast food drive-thrus anymore. As Christie’s life changed, the seed idea of teaching kids how to cook was planted.
“This passion has flowed out to cooking classes because I saw the difference in my own life.”
The couple’s daughter, Faith, wanted to start a book club. Because Christie had started a junior engineers club for Brently, she wanted to do something for her daughter who loved to read and cook.
Protective of what her daughter reads, Christie added, “I like others to have input, but what if my daughter is reading books I don’t want her to read?”
It was Faith who came up with the idea of using a cookbook for the book club and having a hands-on class.
“I just take their ideas and run with them, and they’re incredibly successful,” observed Christie.
She located a kitchen for classes at Hillsdale United Methodist Church in Advance and got started, putting the word out through her connections with homeschooling groups in the community.
In the classes, kids are introduced to herbs and spices that they’ve never heard about or tasted before, which is rewarding to Christie. While participating hands-on, she sees their eyes light up and confidence build. Light bulbs go off, and there’s a shift in the way the child thinks. The kids feel like they’ve accomplished something significant.
“It makes my heart warm. If we teach them while they’re young about healthy options, they have a better opportunity to stay away from the food not good for them. I’m teaching them healthy meals.”
But it’s not just about the food. Some amazing life lessons can be taught from a simple cooking class. Christie uses an Instant Pot for her classes which reflects how people feel the pressure inside like pressure building up in the pot. You have to wait and take time to calm down. With an Instant Pot, you allow the pressure valve to be released at the appropriate time. All the steam has to dissipate inside — and then the kids see what they’ve created — a delicious meal.
Christie has found that the class is an excellent place to teach self-control. People need to find space to be quiet and sit. These kids are connecting with her on a deep level regarding what causes them to feel pressure.
Wanting to try something new, Christie bought her first Instant Pot two years ago at Christmas.
“Cooking three meals a day made me feel like I was in the kitchen all day long. I had other things to do, so I bought another Instant Pot and now have two — it’s a really quick way to make delicious meals. I could prepare more at one time.”
Christie uses her Instant Pot at home at least three times a week. By making more food at once, the cooker saves time throughout the week.
“If you don’t release the steam, which is about 20 minutes, you’re totally done. It cooks food much faster so the meal can be completely cooked by the end of the class — ready to take home for lunch or dinner that day.”
The cooker makes at least six serving sizes so the kids can take any leftovers home for their family. It takes one meal off the parents “to do” list.
“Life lessons aren’t all the kids learn — geography, measurements, and maps — it’s incredible the amount of knowledge kids have not been exposed to before and how much they can learn when cooking,” she explained.
Christie came up with recipes that kids are interested in preparing such as soups and salsas. They had no idea that ingredients such as wine can go in a dish. The students have everything they need to prepare a complete meal.
“I chose the Instant Pot for its safety. From the time the lid locks, you can’t open the lid until all the steam has escaped.”
Christie doesn’t instruct kids around open flames and hot burners. Hesitant to take kids younger than nine years old, she feels like five students are her limit right now. She’s very particular about safety and the kids developing active listening skills but hopes to teach more students.
While the children are well behaved, they have to listen carefully to get so much accomplished. They are busy cutting veggies, chopping onions, and measuring spices. They don’t take a break and stay busy the entire class. The kids glove up, clean the spaces, put out their cutting boards and knives, and get ready to begin. Christie provides measuring cups, bowls, and everything needed. They learn about organic food and pesticides, and what they’re putting into their bodies, and how it affects their health. Then the students clean up everything.
“The kids have acclimated so quickly and fast to the kitchen. It’s been amazing to watch,” said Christie.
She uses kid-friendly knives found on Amazon. They look like big chefs knives, and they cut well, but the blades can’t hurt anyone. She refers to herself as the “safety police.”
“There’s a lot more interest, and I’m working on figuring out the process of growing the class to meet the demand.”
With four students in her class now, the next class will start in two weeks.
Christie gives all the credit to her husband, Dan, who is her greatest supporter. They will celebrate 20 years of marriage this July.
“He’s the one who believes in me, and I think that helps me believe in others. My husband wanted me to be well. He helped open my eyes to the nutritional side of things. He has pushed me forward in some really cool ways.”
Christie and her husband not only parent their two biological children, but are foster parents, and she is a volunteer guardian ad litem to four kids, helping represent what is in their best interest.
Christie believes her own life experiences directed her down this road, giving her a passion for children.
“I think that’s why I’m always trying to increase a kid’s self-esteem and self-worth. They need to be encouraged to accomplish something — and need to be believed in.”
She felt an immediate connection with the kids, and it’s amazing what they share with her about pressures they feel. The students have helped make her more aware and understanding of the needs of children.
“We can be so busy that we don’t have time. Stop and take the time to work hands-on with your kids. We miss opportunities to teach our kids.”
Christie suggests letting kids help you in the kitchen. It takes time for parents to teach children. Being present and mindful is often a hard thing to do. Sometimes her kids want to make things, and she’s busy. But if possible, she’ll set a task aside for a few minutes and help her child create something.
“There’s going to be a mess, but kids can learn how to clean up. Take time and learn patience. It’s our role as parents to teach them. Everything we do is teaching them something. Helping out gives kids a sense of accomplishment and makes them feel part of the family. We want to have an impact on their becoming contributing citizens who can make a difference.”
For the overall health of the family, creating a healthy home where children can talk and share around the table is essential. You can learn about each other’s days and feelings.
Talking about her childhood, Christie noted, “I was raised at a time when we all ate dinner together.”
Last year, Christie and her family hosted an exchange student from Croatia. She was a 17-year-old girl who had never eaten dinner with her family. The girl’s mom worked until 9 p.m. every day, and her dad was absent. Bread was her meal.
While living with Christie and her husband, she was so surprised they all ate together as a family. The student began to assist, helped prepare meals, and learned how to make scrambled eggs and a shrimp meal.
Over time, the young girl opened up and shared meaningful things about her life. It was at the dinner table where they got to know her.
Christie provides her students with cookbooks that contain all class recipes. She encourages students to take them home and prepare meals. Her students have learned the nutritional value on all the tasty vegetables they’ve been chopping, and Christie hopes the knowledge will be reflected in their future food choices. Kids can be a catalyst in their own families if they feel empowered to create change.
Hopefully, the information provided will give parents some ideas on what can be created together if interested in spending more quality time with children in the kitchen.
Teaching the skill is one thing, but today more than ever, spending time with your children is critical. Kids can learn nutrition, but time is all you have now, and then you no longer have it. Kids grow up quickly, and they get busy. The day comes when they have less time for mom and dad. We have a small window in time to make a difference in our kid’s lives.
For more information, email Christie at
Christie shares some class recipes for you to try at home.
Instant Pot Chili
• 1 pound ground beef
• ½ pound spicy, ground sausage
• ½ pound regular ground sausage
• 1 can petit diced tomatoes 14.5 oz.
• 1 can kidney beans 15 oz.
• 1 small can tomato sauce 8 oz.
• 1/2 onion diced
• 1/2 bell pepper diced, optional
• 2 tsp chili powder can omit or increase
• 1 tsp garlic powder (instead of spices you can add
1 packet of chili seasoning)
• 1/2 cup water
• 2 tsp Lawry’s salt (omit if using chili seasoning packet)
Set instant pot to saute and brown meat, add onions and bell peppers if desired. Cook until onions soften a bit. Drain if desired. Empty cans of beans, tomato sauce, water, and diced tomatoes on top (do not drain cans before adding). Add seasonings (or packet of chili seasoning from the store — suggested) and stir the top layers gently leaving most of the meat on the bottom.
If you have a bit of time to let it simmer hit the chili/beans setting and adjust the time to 20 minutes, this will make beans a bit softer. If you are in a hurry, set it to manual, pressure, high for 15 minutes. The beans will be a bit more firm this way but still soft. Do a natural release. Serve by itself with cheese or on top of rice or potatoes.
Sausage Lentil Insta Soup
• 1 pound Italian sausage (or turkey sausage)
• 1 chopped onion
• 1 stalk chopped celery
• 2 large chopped carrots
• 1 small chopped zucchini
• 6 cups chicken broth
• 2 (141/2 ounce) cans diced tomatoes, undrained
• 2-3 garlic cloves
• 1 tsp. salt
• 2 cups dry lentils
• Black pepper
• Red pepper flakes
Brown sausage; drain off fat. In a large instant pot combine all ingredients. Season to taste. Set instant pot for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve.
Instant Yummy Tortilla Soup
• 5 cups chicken stock or broth
• 14.5 ounces (1 can) diced tomatoes undrained
• 1 medium onion, diced
• 4 cloves garlic finely minced
• 2 teaspoons chili powder
• 2 teaspoons cumin
• 1 teaspoon paprika
• 1 teaspoon coriander (ground)
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1.5 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast
• 14.5 ounces (1 can) black beans, drained and rinsed
• 2 cups frozen corn kernels
• 1 tablespoon lime juice
• 1/4 cup chopped cilantro (optional)
Optional toppings: tortilla chips, diced avocado, shredded cheese, sour cream or guacamole.
Add the chicken stock, tomatoes, onion, and garlic to the pot. Place the chicken breasts on top, and sprinkled the spices on top of that. Last, add the black beans and corn on top and do not stir. Place the lid on, lock it, and cook the mixture on manual high pressure for 5 minutes. (Note: It will take several minutes to build pressure). Let the pressure release naturally for about 10 minutes (do not use the quick lever for 10 minutes). Then quickly release the rest, using the release lever. When the pot has depressurized, remove the chicken and shred it with two forks.
Homemade Restaurant-Style Salsa
• 1 15-oz can diced tomatoes (do not drain)
• 1/4 cup cilantro (loosely chopped)
• 1/4 cup red onion (roughly chopped)
• 1 lime (juiced with pulp)
• 1 serrano pepper (seeded; roughly chopped)
• 1 clove garlic (roughly chopped)
• 1/4 tsp. cumin
• Salt and pepper to taste
Put in food processor and pulse until perfect consistency. Serve with chips.
Loaded Baked Potato Instant Soup
• ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1½ cups diced yellow onion
• 8 cups peeled, diced potatoes (3 large russets)
• 1 cup raw cashews
• 6 cloves garlic
• 6 cups chicken stock
• 1 tsp. kosher salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
Heat olive oil on saute mode of Instant Pot for 5 minutes. When the oil is hot, add onions and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the potatoes, cashews, garlic, and chicken stock. Stir to combine. Cover and switch Instant Pot to soup/stew mode, making sure vent is closed. Once the cycle is complete, either let pressure release naturally or switch the vent open to release it quickly.
Chicken Marsala Instant Pot
• 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts, cubed
• 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
• 1 tablespoon garam masala
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
• 15 ounces canned tomato sauce or puree
• 5 cloves garlic minced
• 4 teaspoons garam masala
• 1/2 teaspoon paprika
• 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
• 1 cup heavy whipping cream, added last
Combine all marinade ingredients (minus the chicken) in a bowl and mix well. Add chicken chunks and coat with the marinade. Let sit in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Select the saute mode on the pressure cooker for medium heat. When it has reached temperature, add chicken chunks (along with any marinade sticking to them) to the pressure cooker. Saute until the chicken is cooked on all sides, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the saute mode. Add all of the sauce ingredients except the cream to the pressure cooker, over the chicken, and stir. Secure and seal the lid. Select the manual mode to cook for 10 minutes at high pressure. Use the quick steam release handle to release pressure. Select the saute mode on the pressure cooker for low heat. When it has reached temperature, add cream to the pot, stirring with the other ingredients. Simmer until the sauce is thickened to your liking, a few minutes. Serve with rice. Garnish with cilantro.