With a stronger-than-ever national focus on what kids are eating, we’re looking at how local culinary instructors, educators, chefs and parents are getting children excited about cooking and making smart food choices. Starting this month, we’ll bring you weekly tips, recipes, dining-out ideas, hands-on activities and more.

With school back in session and a growing number of parents and children interested in packing healthy, tasty and easy-to-make items in lunch boxes, The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis, recently hosted a cooking class filled with great recipes for doing just that.

“Kids now are so much more adventurous with what they will eat,” says one of the chefs on hand during the class, Simone Faure, executive pastry chef at The Ritz. “Parents are more informed about nutrition choices for their kids. Because parents are making healthier choices themselves, kids are starting earlier to make healthy choices with their own foods and thus their palate goes beyond just the chicken nuggets.”

The class was broken down into two areas of focus: spreads, dips and snacks and sandwiches. This week, we’re bringing you recipes for the former, and next week, we’ll deliver recipes for the latter.

Faure’s Cool Cucumber Raita is one example of a dip that can be enjoyed with potato and pita chips, as a spread on a sandwich or with crackers. The ingredients can be combined ahead of time and used throughout the week.

The “beautifully colored” yogurt dip with an Indian heritage “is like a party in a bowl,” Faure says. In fact, it could be used as a party dip, she says. “It’s light, healthy and delicious, and it’s super easy.”

Faure says Cool Cucumber Raita is “classy, yet accessible and approachable” and is a great alternative to the famous 7-Layer Bean Dip. “That’s been done. It’s delicious, but we’ve all seen it,” she says.

Chopping vegetables and helping prepare the food gets kids thinking about healthy choices regarding food, Faure says. “Take them to the grocery store with you,” she says. “Get them involved in the kitchen.”

What to do with picky eaters who aren’t interested in moving past the old standbys? Even chicken nuggets can be made healthier at home, Faure says, with gluten-free Rice Krispies and panko bread crumbs. She says to roll the chicken in pesto sauce prior to the healthy breading to “get more greens into your kids.”

Recipes from the class to try at home:

Cool Cucumber Raita

Red Bean Hummus

Exotic Granola

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