Being able to plan, cook and prepare meals, learn more about what ingredients and nutrients are in food, and gain confidence while shopping and cooking, can be invaluable for those living on a budget.
For community chef Kay Miller of Guelph, one way to encourage people to 'eat better' is to give them tips and tools at monthly food skills classes.
At the start of each month, Miller prepares her next meal plan at Hope House where participants can learn about healthy food preparation and valuable cooking skills.
“For me, it’s about building community, strength, and confidence around food,” Miller said. “We started classes because people really want to learn basic skills, they want be able to stretch their dollar, and learn how to make more kid-inclusive meals.”
Miller began offering the food skills classes in November of 2021 at the Hope House collective kitchen.
“The food skills is the newest program. I was here for a few months before we initiated classes. They had originally started as a branch of the Better Food Company.”
The Better Food Company is a social enterprise created by Hope House to help build community through ‘better’ food. All proceeds from the sale of ready-to-eat meals support Hope House’s work directly.
“We have a lot of interest groups and outside organizations that support us. So, in terms of our classes, we’ve split things up a bit, and we now offer two classes,” Miller said.
One class is community based, a drop-in, where anyone is welcome.
“The second class is still fairly new. People can come out on the second Tuesday of each month for a more group centred class,” Miller said.
“We’ve received great feedback from participants. Just about everyone who has attended a class, has come back. They really enjoy it.”
From the start, Miller says, the goal was to try to make classes as barrier-free as possible.
“The demographic that we were trying to reach, many of them were unable to attend because they did not have access to a computer or to the internet to be able to sign up for classes,” Miller said.
“We still wanted to offer structure, so we added the second class as well. The first class is now just a walk-in, and this seems to be a lot easier for folks to manage because they can just come out.”
During the community-based classes, there's usually about 20-30 people participating.
“We’ve done a lot of testing in terms of finding out what best suits the community, which is why it took a while to get a more formal concrete concept for the classes. So, we are really happy with how it’s gone.”
Every month, with whatever new products come in from the North Field Food Farm, along with Hope House dietician Molly Roberts, Miller decides what the next feature meal will be.
“Last month, it was greens, and how to make a nice hearty dinner salad. We did a tabouli salad and a steak, blue cheese and pickled onion salad for meat lovers. We’ve also made pesto. That was all about finding new ways to preserve fresh herbs,” Miller said.
“We often swap expensive ingredients on a recipe for cheaper ingredients. That way, meals are more accessible but still healthy for folks.”
At the end of the day, Miller says it’s about being affordable, and healthy.
“There are alternatives, so not just getting the most out of your dollar, but also how not to waste those dollars when planning meals,” Miller said.
“We did a holiday special too, and that was making a meal for 8-14 people for only 40 bucks.”
Miller is always open to discuss new ideas when it comes to food.
“We just made egg rolls and that was fun. We had twenty different fillings. The idea was to get people more confident with pairing flavours. Trying something new, can be tricky. But people were just grabbing the egg rolls. It didn’t matter what kind,” Miller said.
“We keep the classes really fun and very lighthearted, but with some sort of base objective.”
Feature chefs have also joined classes and produced their own meals to share.
Anyone interested in taking part in a community class, is invited to sign up on the Hope House website.
Miller has worked in the food industry for over 18 years.
“I graduated high school at 17. I didn’t have the money to go to school. I had to save up. So, I just got jobs in kitchens and supported myself. I never liked cooking. It took me several years until I actually began to enjoy it,” Miller said.
“I’ve worked all over Guelph. I’ve worked in fine dining establishments, including some very high-end restaurants, and I was happy doing that until COVID-19.”
That’s when Miller says she had an epiphany, an opportunity to reflect on where she was putting her time and energy.
"I wasn’t where I wanted to be, so I switched gears, taking the non-for-profit route,” she said.
For Miller, it came down to sharing the importance of nutrition to those who need it most.
“There’s those who can afford going out for meals. But what about the others in need of good nutrition? Why is there such a divide? If the only thing in the way is money, then it makes more sense to be to putting all my time and effort into making these nice gourmet healthy meals for folks that don’t have that huge salary and really need the nutrients,” Miller said.
“And by increasing knowledge in preparing food, in the end, this will lead to longer and healthier lives."