Appal-TREE healthy cooking classes bring a full cooking experience to Harlan Co.

Published 7:22 am Saturday, October 5, 2019

One of the social media hashtags for the Appal-TREE Cooking Class series is Move Over Martha Stewart. And it’s likely that Martha would be impressed as class members chop up fresh vegetables for homemade salsa, make chicken tortilla soup and throw a pizza party, to name just a few of the adventures in this eight-week cooking class.

Another hashtag for the series could be Almost Too Good To Be True as participants receive not only recipes and instruction on healthy and affordable cooking, but also share meals with classmates to try the week’s featured menu, take ingredients home to make the meal for their families and receive cooking equipment and financial compensation for completing research surveys. “How great is that?” said Karen Lambright, a substitute teacher with two granddaughters who took the class in 2018. “It is one of the best things I did all year.”

The cooking classes are part of the Appal-TREE (Appalachians Together Restoring the Eating Environment) project, a joint community-university project to improve diets in Knott, Letcher and Harlan counties. A grant from the National Institutes of Health, awarded to the University of Kentucky in partnership with Community Farm Alliance, supports this effort to develop, implement, and evaluate efforts to improve access to and consumption of healthy foods.

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The idea for the cooking classes came from the community during focus groups and 20 interviews with over 100 community members. Area residents consistently told the Appal-TREE team that they wanted to know more about how to make healthy food their families would enjoy. The project’s Community Advisory Board recommended a hands-on approach to the classes that allows participants to create a meal kit they can take home so they can easily prepare a meal for their family. Debi Sexton, Appal-TREE field director with Community Farm Alliance, said, “Getting to taste the recipes in the class and then take food to make the meal for their family means they are more apt to try the recipes. They come back the next week and tell us what they tweaked and how their families responded to the meals.”

The classes are taught by Becky Pigman, owner of Icing on the Cake. Learning knife skills is a key part of the series. Pigman says, “The students say ‘teach us to chop like they do on TV.’ After eight weeks you can see a big difference in knife skills. There are some impressive dice cuts.” One of the classes Pigman enjoys teaching most is how to cut up a whole chicken. “Each student gets a chicken to cut up for soup and a baked chicken dish. Most people have no idea how many parts a chicken has! If you cut up the chicken yourself, it’s about $1 a pound. If you buy it pre-cut, it’s at least $3 a pound.” Students report back to Pigman that they are saving money and eating healthier as a result of taking the class. “They tell me they are eating more fruits and vegetables and making healthier snacks and main dishes. Maybe not 100 percent of the time but there is improvement.”

A grocery store tour is also a part of the series. Sexton said, “The group meets with the butcher to learn about the most affordable cuts of meat and with the produce manager to learn how to shop for the best fruits and vegetables. Then they go up and down every aisle and learn where to look for a bargain and how to figure out what is healthy. At the end of the tour, everyone gets to purchase some healthy items at the store. ”

Lambright said, “At 62, I thought I had made just about everything but I learned some great new recipes through this class. We made a cornbread that had cottage cheese and a whole lot of fresh broccoli. The broccoli gave it a great texture and the cottage cheese made is moist. It was some of the best cornbread I’ve ever had.” Lambright and her grandchildren are also fans of a flatbread pizza topped with zucchini and onions. “My granddaughters like McDonald’s so you wouldn’t think they would like that pizza but they did.”

Miranda Fields, teacher and pre-school director at Harlan County Christian School, attended the Appal-Tree cooking classes in 2018. Though she was already an experienced cook, she learned some new things that were helpful in saving money. “When you have leftover vegetables, put them in a bowl in the freezer and when it fills, make vegetable soup. I had never done that before.” She also learned how to tell when a pineapple is ripe so you don’t waste money on a bad buy. “You pull one of the middle leaves and if it slides out easily, the pineapple is ripe and will have good flavor.” Miranda also liked getting the cooking tools like knives and cutting boards. “I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn some new things about cooking and get ideas for saving money.”

Cathryn Forester, Appal-TREE field director, said the participants also like the community connection created by the class. “People made new friends and are sorry to see the series end. Some sisters took the class together and there was a mother and daughter-in-law pair. Both of those teams put their food together for a meal for their extended families.” Forester also noted, “Recipes don’t get passed down through the generations as frequently as they once did. Students and parents have long commutes to school and work. It’s just harder to have a family meal than it used to be. The central part of the family meal has been disrupted. These classes help people begin to rebuild that.”

Some early analysis of results from this research project suggests that participating in the cooking classes has a positive impact on knowledge and attitudes about healthy eating, as well as dietary behavior. For example, data suggest that after coming to the cooking class participants ate more salad greens and vegetables and cut back on chips, candy and chocolate. The Appal-TREE team looks forward to learning more about the impact of the classes as the program continues, so that the successes experienced by southeastern Kentuckians can be shared across the United States.

The cooking classes are open to anyone who cooks for children under 18 years old. For more information about how to sign up for an upcoming Harlan County class, contact Cathryn Forester at 606-909-0199 or

A favorite Appal-TREE Cooking Class recipe:


Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Serving Size: 12


½ Cup of Margarine, melted

1/3 Cup of Onions, chopped

1 teaspoon of Salt

¾ Cup of Cottage Cheese

1 ½ Cups of Fresh Broccoli, finely chopped

4 Eggs, Slightly Beaten

1 Package of Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix


Melt margarine in large bowl—place to the side.

Beat eggs in a small bowl—place to side.

Add onion, salt, cottage cheese, broccoli, and eggs to bowl with melted margarine. Stir.

Add muffin mix to broccoli mixture. Stir.

Pour into a greased 13X9-inch pan. Bake at 400 for 20-25 minutes. Cut into squares.