Melissa Elsmo

“What’s my goal when I’m teaching kids to cook?” repeats Cheryl Knecht-Muñoz before replying with a laugh, “My hope is that these kids won’t be eating baked beans out a Frisbee when they grow up!”

Knecht-Muñoz, owner of Sugarbeet Schoolhouse, studied fine art before finding her way to restaurant work and eventually becoming a sommelier. She followed her natural passion for food and wine for years before becoming a mother and channeling all that love for cooking into her family.

“I have always been attracted to the process of cooking and the art of food and power of agriculture,” says Knecht Muñoz, “but cooking with my own children reminded me of the importance of putting hands on food a very young age.”

And cooking with her own children inspired Knecht-Muñoz to partner with a group of women who love food and kids as much as she does to bring the cooking classes at Sugar Beet Schoolhouse to life.

On the first snowy day of November I managed to talk my way into observing a preschool cooking class where Knecht-Muñoz taught a darling crew of kiddos how to make a heaping batch of homemade cheese crackers.

One word: adorable!

Little bitty students take turns mixing dry ingredients as Knecht Muñoz enthusiastically suggests they stop when the mixture looks like “dry sand.” 

“Where does flour come from?” asks Knecht Muñoz earnestly as she inspects the dough.

“From cows?” asks one child.

“From flowers!” exclaims another.

Knecht-Muñoz reminds them with a smile that they know “flour comes from plants that grow in the ground” before passing out teeny-tiny rolling pins. As the children roll and cut the cheesy-dough she asks if the children “find cooking relaxing” and tells them “they are nailing it.” As the crackers bake in the oven, Knecht Muñoz reads Tomie dePaola’s, Strega Nona, and the room begins to smell like melting cheese and butter. 

Like I said, adorable!

Catering to pint-sized chefs between 2 1/2- 5 years old, pre-school cooking classes at Sugar Beet Schoolhouse are designed to be observation based rather than recipe driven in order to maximize the hands-on experience for young learners and help them trust their own instincts in the kitchen. Classes, hosted in an cozy, book-filled classroom, are designed to build kitchen skills, but most importantly cultivate a comfort with food among all children. According to Knecht-Muñoz the classes are especially beneficial to children who have sensory issues with food.

Additionally, Sugar Beet Schoolhouse offers after school cooking, baking, and homesteading classes (think book binding and sewing) for middle school students. Older students reap developmental benefits from cooking together and Knecht-Muñoz and her team of teachers ensure there are plenty of leadership opportunities for regular attendees. 

Twelve year old, Cat Nickles, can’t get enough of the cooking classes at Sugar Beet Schoolhouse and her mother thinks they have big benefits, too

“Cat enjoys being in the kitchen with her friends and I love that I don’t have to worry about cleaning up,” says Nickles’ mother, Julia Huff, “but more importantly, reading recipes and cooking lead to improved executive functioning skills.”

As a CPS pre-school teacher, Huff knows the value of taking a recipe from start to finish at any age. She credits Sugar Beet’s cooking classes with helping Cat and others her age with developing organizational and practical life skills they will use for years to come.

 “Cheryl has a lot of background knowledge,” say Huff of Knecht-Muñoz, “and she spends time talking about the the science and method behind making fancy cupcakes or anything else on the menu.”

Knecht Muñoz wants the Sugar Beet Schoolhouse to be a community asset. In addition to continuing her cooking classes for kids of all ages, she has plans to expand her community outreach to pre-school programs this year and intends to open up the schoolhouse as a community cooking school for adults. She is looking forward to introducing Sri Lankan, Mexican, and Filipino focused classes in the coming months, but wants her “community skill sharing project” to be driven by input from people in the community who love to cook.

“I am always open to new ideas,” says Knecht Muñoz, “and if anyone has an idea of how to put this kitchen to good use they should email me anytime!”

Other Details: Pre-registering for classes is encouraged to ensure Knecht Muñoz has enough ingredients on hand for her eager young bakers and cooks. Classes typically run in 4-6 week blocks, but Sugar Beet also offers summer camps and one-day-only classes on days when D97 classes are not in session. Visit their website for more details.

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