Skip to Content

From Chicken Wings to the West Wing

One school’s culinary program mixes good food and fun.


By Meredith Barnett

Culinary Science teacher Liela Razik gives a few pointers to senior Gina Eichert, who whipped up a sweet potato soufflé for the class’s Thanksgiving feast.

There's plenty cooking in Atholton High School's culinary science kitchen.

It's where students concocted a Buffalo Chicken Wrap last year that won Howard County, Maryland’s Top Chef Contest, a competition that challenged high schoolers to craft a delicious, nutritional recipe for school cafeterias.

Since the contest aligned with the goals of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, the Atholton champions were invited to visit the White House in September, and their spicy creation was added to cafeteria menus across the county.


Getting Hungry?

Discover Atholton's award-winning spicy buffalo chicken wrap recipe, plus a recipe for foccacia bread.

“The experience was great for them,” says Liela Razik, who’s led the school’s culinary program for four years. “We had lessons about flavoring food and how to make recipes healthier. Then they really got into it!”

Recipe Contests Yield Tasty Rewards

Recipe contests like Howard County's are starting to catch on. Across the country, schools, districts, and wellness organizations are using healthy competition to boost students’ enthusiasm for nutritious eating. And, thanks to the recently passed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s new federal guidelines and funding for school meals, interest in healthy lunchroom fare is on the rise.

“Every kid wants to be a winner! [Contests] are a popular theme,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association. “You see ‘Iron Chef’ on TV. These school contests are, in part, inspired by these food competitions. Kids see that and want to get involved.”


No canned sauce for this class! Seniors Adam Brown and Susan Kim stir whole cranberries into boiling syrup to make fresh sauce for Thanksgiving.

To capture kids’ attention, these programs have to get creative. Some, like Vermont’s wildly successful Junior Iron Chef competition, and Bethlehem Central School District’s Farm Fresh Contest, invite students to hatch recipes using local, seasonal produce.

The rewards are sweet. The USDA’s Recipes for Healthy Kids challenge provides thousands of dollars to the winning recipe creators, and middle school victors of the national Healthy Kids Challenge have a chance to work alongside a chef to prepare their recipe at their school.

Lessons from the Kitchen

But for students, like those in Razik’s classes, winning is just the icing on the cake. The most important lessons arise in the kitchen as they’re dicing and slicing their way to nutritional know-how.

Every day, Razik’s high schoolers crowd around the kitchen-classroom's long, gleaming tables for her lessons on seasonal foods or tweaking recipes to use less oil or butter.

“We’ve learned about different cooking techniques,” says senior Gina Eichert, an aspiring cupcake shop owner. “The other day, we did a bain-marie.” (That's a hot water bath, for culinary novices.)

These nutritious lessons stick because they’re tasty. Many students say once they have prepared dishes like veggie pizza in class, they have more confidence about cooking with their friends and family.

“Now that I’m in here, working with people my own age, I’m a lot more interested in trying new things,” says junior Madi Granahan.

In this classroom, experimentation is encouraged, with Razik insisting that students put their own spin on recipes. It was this spirit of creativity that allowed last year's team to perfect their wrap for the Top Chef contest. Working within strict parameters (the dish had to have less than 750 calories and 150 milligrams of sodium, all for under $1.22), Razik and her students tinkered with their wrap over the course of several weeks, adding crisp romaine lettuce and cheese to counter the unique, spicy sauce, which has appeared in other lunchroom dishes because it’s so well received.

Some cafeteria staff members helped the students with taste-tests for the wrap. It’s one way to spark student interest in nutrition, says Mary Wise, a food service worker at Atholton.

“We always try to give the kids samples, and when we’re having a new item on the menu,” she says.

Challenges like this show students the value of healthy eating by involving them in the decision-making process, Razik says.

“It had to be able to be replicated and clear,” she says. “We couldn’t use something the school cafeteria didn’t have access to. It made [students] aware of how hard it is to meet those guidelines.”

The stakes for this year’s contest are higher—Razik's classes will have to devise a week's worth of healthy dishes, with even stricter cost boundaries.

Schools don’t need a culinary science program like Atholton’s to enter these contests, or start activities that make nutrition more accessible. The key ingredient? Providing ways for students to dig in, tasting and smelling how appetizing (and easy) healthy nutrition can be.

Check out the video below for a look inside Kazik's culinary science classroom.