With retired teachers Sooney Viani and Trisha Mullinnix at the helm, kids will learn practical culinary skills, eat healthful fare and feel like part of "a cooking family."

A new series of Ashland cooking classes welcomes "kids in the kitchen." Kicking off with this week's lesson in making muffins, the Saturday sessions are an expansion of Ashland Food Co-op's popular summer camp, which has hosted 8- to 12-year-olds for a week of cooking each June since 2007. With retired teachers Sooney Viani and Trisha Mullinnix at the helm, kids will learn practical culinary skills, eat healthful fare and feel like part of "a cooking family."

"We just hope it whets their appetite," says Mullinnix.

She and Viani were themselves students of the Co-op's community classes for adults before taking charge of last year's summer camp for "young chefs." Thirteen campers spent four days slicing, dicing and building confidence with an 8-inch knife by week's end, Mullinnix says.

"Whatever their skills were, we fine-tuned them and took them further," she says.

Campers prepared their own snacks, with particular enthusiasm for fruit parfaits and chocolate-dipped strawberries, and took daily field trips to the Co-op, either to shop for ingredients or learn the store's workings. This year's camp, which costs $125 for Co-op owners or $150 for the general public, runs June 14 to 17 and includes a field trip to Willow-Witt Ranch near Ashland.

Standing alone, the Co-op's monthly classes are not meant as prerequisites for the summer camp, organizers say, but give parents a tool for planning weekend activities and grants kids who couldn't otherwise attend in the summer a chance for culinary exploration.

"I think there are lots of kids out there that would like to spend more time in the kitchen," says Viani.

At the Co-op, they'll spend time baking sweet and savory muffins, cutting out heart-shaped sandwiches and cookies, designing their own pizzas, treating their skin to a healthful breakfast and, finally, planning a seasonal Mother's Day menu. March and April classes are aimed at 11- to 14-year-olds while the others are open to ages 9 through 12.

Kids will leave every class with recipes to prepare at home, but cooking isn't the only practical skill to be learned. Viani and Mullinnix also plan instruction in nutrition, as well as reinforcing reading with recipes and menus and math skills with measuring. Chemistry also comes into play when kids consider what replaces an egg's moisture in muffin batter, Mullinnix says. The first class also indulges kids' creativity with time to decorate their take-away boxes for muffins.

Also in Ashland, the new chef at Allyson's Kitchen is catering to younger audiences. Skye Elder plans "Kids Cooking 101," from 3 to 5 p.m., Sunday. Cost is $45. Call 541-482-2884 for more information or to register.

Father of a 12-year-old daughter, Elder says he wants to immerse students in the cooking process and in healthful foods like fresh veggie pizza, apricot-honey-oat bars and berry zinger. Parents, he says, can boost kids' enthusiasm for meals by describing where ingredients come from rather than lumping them together as "dinner."

"We talk in specifics about food — always," he says.

Executive chef at Ashland's The Black Sheep, Elder also hosts Allyson's long-running "Confident Cooking" series, which is so well-received, Elder says, that a male student in his 30s asked to sign up for this week's kids class.

"I guess if you feel like a kid, that would be OK."

Reach Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or slemon@mailtribune.com.