WILLMAR -- Janessa Zenker shifts her 8-month-old son on her hip and listens attentively to tips on how to make a casserole and a dessert from scratch.
After handing her baby off to another young mother in the room, the 18-year-old high school senior takes on the assignment of making pudding for a simple triple-layer dessert. Lilly Dunham, a petite high school junior who has an 18-month-old son of her own, is nearby browning hamburger for the tater tot hotdish.
There's a definite buzz in the room as the group of teen moms begin cooking.
Most have just come from their high school or college classes. When the two-hour Kitchen Kamp is over and the meal they have prepared is eaten, they will go home with a new kitchen utensil, a couple recipes and the skills needed to make a meal for themselves and their young child.
Teaching teen parents how to cook nutritious meals from scratch in order to improve health and make food dollars go further is the goal of the once-a-month Kitchen Kamps, said Nancy Winter, a nutrition educator with the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Kandiyohi County who leads the sessions.
"They're teaching us new recipes and different ways to make it," said Zenker, who's raising a child and finishing her senior year in high school.
Organizers say that "100 percent" of the participants report they cook more nutritious foods after attending Kitchen Kamp, which should lead to better personal health and impact school performance for the moms and their children.
Participants also use fewer local resources -- whether the food shelf, food vouchers or community meals -- after learning basic cooking skills, said Winter, who conducts five Kitchen Kamps a year, including sessions for a group of Somali women in Willmar.
The seven lessons in the curriculum cover topics like food safety, how to read recipes, how to make healthy food choices and how to spend less money by buying groceries to make meals from scratch rather than purchasing convenience foods.
They also get hands-on experience chopping, cooking, stirring and baking to make a meal that's shared at the end of the class.
Marian Millan, who is 18 and pregnant, said she had not really cooked before coming to Kitchen Kamp. She was quite pleased that she had learned how to make chili during a previous session.
While the young mothers ate the tater tot hotdish during a recent session, Winter gave them some quick tips on how to make a casserole by using four basic pantry items. And she told them how to "cook once and eat twice" by making foods one day that can be used in a new recipe the second day.
They were also advised to remove the labels from the soup cans they used to make the hotdish and give the labels to schools for a fundraiser, and they were reminded to recycle the soup cans.
Before they leave each cooking session, the participants receive a kitchen item, such as a crock pot or measuring cups, so that they can put into practice what they've learned.
But the curriculum goes beyond academics.
"It's so much fun," said Dunham, who was the first to volunteer for a cooking task during a recent Kitchen Kamp session and was either humming, singing or chatting animatedly with others in the group while she browned hamburger.
"We wanted to make it fun," said Winter, otherwise it would be difficult to keep the girls coming back. "We had so much we wanted to teach them."
No one knows better than Morgan Lara the difficulty in getting teen moms to participate in programs.
She was 15 years old when she had her first child.
Now in her mid-20s, Lara works with the Community Teen Moms program of Lutheran Social Service in Willmar and organizes speakers or education events and gets them to Kitchen Kamp.
Most teen moms "already know they made a mistake" and "don't want people telling them what to do," Lara said.
But once they come to Kitchen Kamp, they stay, she said.
The girls are given incentives if they bring another teen mom to the group and they can get elective credits at school for attending.
But as the young moms tossed out ideas for the foods they wanted to learn to make at upcoming sessions, it was the clear their excitement would be enough to keep them coming back.
... in a box or italics
The Kitchen Kamp program is a collaboration of several entities including the Extension Service, Heartland Community Action Agency, Lutheran Social Service Youth Program, Kandiyohi County Family Services and Kandiyohi County Public Health.
Grants from the Women's Fund of the Willmar Area Community Foundation, United Way and PACT for Families are used to purchase groceries for the meals and kitchen equipment that's given to the participants.
The Kitchen Kamp for teen moms is held at Heartland Community Action Agency's downtown Willmar office.