Move over, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “I want children to cook. Cooking is becoming a lost art, and children want to learn it,” says Erin Fletter, the Sticky Fingers owner who titles herself Food Geek-in-Chief. “We love hooking kids into cooking and healthy eating at an early age. The kids have so much fun, and so do we.”
Sticky Fingers instructs kids as young as two years old and as old as high school seniors. Programs include before- or after-school classes as well as cooking camps, birthday parties, or alternative child care at events such as weddings or family reunions. “Food is such an integral part of everybody’s being, and preparing food together is a perfect way to create memories with families and friends,” says Fletter.
Sticky Fingers teaches kids to prepare healthful food; and what’s more, each class includes side dishes of lessons in other academic subjects. Measuring ingredients, students learn fractions in a hands-on way. Preparing Mexican food, students will speak some Spanish. Making vegetable sushi, kids will study Japanese culture. “You can teach anything through cooking,” Fletter says. “For each class, I create a 10-page lesson plan for chefs to follow. I incorporate safety, food knowledge, kitchen techniques, vocabulary, foreign languages, math, science, world geography and food facts about nutrition or food origin. Sticky Fingers is all inclusive and all encompassing.”
Each class includes a different menu. “Kids never repeat recipes. It’s always fresh and always fun,” says Fletter. “Every child gets a child safe-plastic knife and learns how to handle a knife. Each new recipe builds upon skills taught in a previous class. Sticky Fingers features plant-based foods. The kids cook everything from scratch. And Sticky Fingers exposes kids to culinary variety and ethnic cuisines. “We specialize in interesting recipes kids enjoy, global recipes, food typical American kids are not exposed to from other world cultures, things that push the envelope,” Fletter says. Sticky Fingers students learn not only to cook different food, but also to enjoy eating unfamiliar foods. The recipes Fletter whips up for Sticky Fingers typically please even the most finicky youngsters with the most discerning palates. The proof is in the pudding.
“If children make it, they eat it—even the most picky eaters,” Fletter says. “Kids are way more adventurous in eating if they’re preparing the food and know what’s in it.”
The mother of three daughters, Fletter is no stranger to issues with kids and food. When Fletter moved to San Francisco as a young mom, she tuned in to the Food Network and started cooking. “I’d go to the markets and buy food every day and prepare it for my family,” she says. “I really got into cooking and nutrition.” Then her daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age two. “I focused on food in a different way, looking for the best things for her. Every bite of food she eats she had to consider,” Fletter says.
Consequently, Fletter empathizes with other parents and kids suffering from food allergies or other nutritional challenges. “Childhood allergies are a massive problem, but it’s really important for kids with food allergies to feel included and to participate,” she says. “I get phone calls from parents of kids in therapy for eating issues, and they see remarkable results with Sticky Fingers. Children are eating different things, trying different things. We even have children that have a gag reflex for certain textures. Even the most picky eaters benefit from being in the kitchen.”
To keep Sticky Fingers safe for all kids, Fletter maintains a 100% nut-free policy.
“We also accommodate celiac disease. I’m so proud and excited that parents let their child with food allergies participate in our classes. We have kids that can’t wash their hands with soap that contains gluten or they’ll have a terrible reaction, but we can still teach those children and make sure the entire class is gluten-free. We can do the same thing with eggs. We do kosher classes,” says Fletter. “A major emphasis is working with all kids.”
That includes children in underserved neighborhoods. Sticky Fingers keeps community service on the front burner, aware that educating a child about nutrition can benefit his or her parents, siblings and extended family, too. “We provide community outreach so kids can help parents,” Fletter says. “We see a trickle-up infiltration. We get calls from parents saying their child is requesting kale at the grocery story so they can make kale pesto. It warms my heart. We’re bringing in the entire family and informing them by getting the child excited about food and sharing that with the family. It still makes me burst out crying and gives me gooseflesh because I want families cooking together.”
Fletter’s enthusiasm is shared by her 30 instructor chefs in Colorado. “All of our chefs have amazing backgrounds, most with teaching certificates and culinary school, and all with the love of teaching children and the love of food,” says Fletter. Sticky Fingers has expanded like bread dough since Fletter bought the company in 2011. Fletter transformed Sticky Fingers from a bricks and mortar kids’ cooking school into a mobile cooking school and spiced up the curriculum. The Sticky Fingers staff carry a mobile cooking kit, enabling them to travel to a variety of locations, whether the facility has a kitchen or not. “Three years ago in the fall, we were teaching in six schools. Now we’re in over 90 schools across the Front Range, about 30 established summer camps, and we just launched in Chicago,” Fletter says. “We’re in schools, libraries, everywhere—but never in a kitchen. We’re mobile, so we go wherever kids are. We don’t need to cook in a kitchen because we have mobile cooking kits that go with all our chefs.”
Sticky Fingers classes run from one to two hours and average about $20 per class.
“It’s a different way of looking at child care. It’s healthy, creative and educational,” Fletter says. “Before school when parents drop off children early, our class is preparing breakfast. After-school enrichment classes are our most popular.”
Despite their name that might suggest otherwise, Sticky Fingers also instructs kids in table manners. “We teach table etiquette, how to set a table properly. We get involved in the whole idea of cooking and dining together because it’s so important,” Fletter says. “Studies show that children get higher test scores if they have at least one sit-down meal together each week with their family.”
Fletter practices what she preaches: “I sit down with my family every night. It’s incredibly important. We’re not making homemade gnocchi every night. Sometimes we just throw together pasta, but I always have my kids in the kitchen making a simple salad dressing or something. It’s our time to connect and talk and download the day. So many childhood memories with loved ones or friends or families or at holidays are formed around a dinner table.”
Sticky Fingers Cooking
BIO: Colleen Smith is the author of Glass Halo, a novel set in Denver, and Laid-Back Skier. A longtime contributor to the magazine, she also writes for The Denver Post, Examiner.com and AXS.
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