Manicotti, Pop Tarts, and Motherhood

By March 8, 2024March 14th, 2024Blog, The Power of Cooking

Left to right: Nonna, Mom, and Selina (15 years old) holding decorated turkey cupcakes for the holidays.

Written by Selina Preyer-Blakney, RDN, MS, Education Director

I can still remember the faint aroma of flour and how the smell became sweeter when it was mixed with eggs and water to become dough. I can feel the stickiness beneath my hands, and the taut and smooth texture that it took on once you kneaded it. I can hear my Papa’s voice as he handed me my first rolling pin and told me never to wash it. It’s strange, but I have no taste memory. I’m sure we made something delicious that day, but it’s the experience that I remember most, the power of cooking.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. In my family, good food was always the center of our world. Holidays were filled with antipasto, home-made manicotti, warm hugs, and the thunder of laughter. I always ate three meals a day. Well, sort of. It was the 90s, so Pop Tarts were considered an acceptable breakfast. But my mom took pride in the fact that she always had a hot cooked dinner on the table for us. Typically–not always–it was balanced, and 90% of the time it was homemade. But I knew, even at a young age, that was not the norm.

Growing up in urban New Jersey, the local McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s were within one block of each other and all within walking distance of my school. Most of my friends frequented these joints daily and, as my mom proudly tells everyone, my brother and I almost always opted to come home instead. That’s not saying I wasn’t down for a Whopper Jr. from time to time, but sitting around a table and sharing a meal with my family was not something I wanted to miss.

In the world we live in today, where cheap and convenient foods are marketed to parents and children alike, my dream is for every child to have an experience like mine. Now that I’m a mother myself, I realize what a challenge it was for my mom to make sure we were always fed,  and fed well. High quality food is expensive, time is limited, and the exhaustion of motherhood often sets in at around 5pm when the coffee wears off.

When I discovered The Sylvia Center, I saw an opportunity for every young person and family we work with to have at least one healthy and positive food experience per week. Through our programs, students learn about healthy alternatives to highly processed and fast foods, exploring new ingredients as they learn to cook with confidence. And I get to see the real impact this has on families. I see the look of relief on a parent’s face when they know they don’t have to think about what’s for dinner, and the excitement on the child’s face when they know they get to cook with their favorite adult in the kitchen during our family classes. I see how our students’ perspectives on food change, as they learn how to read a recipe, go grocery shopping, and prepare delicious meals. Our programs not only equip our students with the tools they need to feed–and nourish–themselves, but also show them just how powerful cooking can be, for themselves and their communities.

I’m so grateful to have had a childhood where I never worried whether or not I would eat, and eat well, especially because my mom had to make sacrifices to make sure it happened. I truly believe in the power of cooking, and that organizations like The Sylvia Center can make real change, one meal at a time.

Until next month, be powerful in the kitchen!

Selina Preyer-Blakney, RDN, MS, Education Director