Culinary Literacy: Growing Literacy Skills through Kitchen and Cooking Programs

Who is PLYMC? 

  • The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County (PLYMC) is a 14-branch, county-wide system in Northeast Ohio that serves as a cornerstone institution for rural and urban communities.
  • PLYMC's service area encompasses approximately 225,000 people, highlighting the significant impact and reach of its programs and services across the region.

What is Culinary Literacy? 

Culinary Literacy is culinary based programming aimed at community members of all ages. It is designed to simultaneously increase literacy, bolster kitchen confidence, encourage the preparation of wholesome foods, and promote engagement in family mealtimes. These efforts collectively contribute to lifting the community's overall physical, mental, and emotional well-being. 

Examples of Programs: 

Basic White Bread   

Full Kitchen Kitchen Cart  Meeting Room
Patrons can mix and knead bread on day one. The dough can rise in coolers overnight. On the following day, patrons return to bake and take home their loaves. During the kneading process, a slideshow can be presented that explains the yeast process and guides through all the steps of making bread. Patrons can mix and knead their dough. Dough can be taken home for baking. Loaves can be made ahead and baked in the kitchen cart oven for sampling.   Patrons can mix and knead their dough, which they can take home for baking. During kneading, a slideshow can be presented explaining the process of yeast and outlining all the steps of making bread. 

Outcome: Patrons learn how to properly measure flour, determine when enough liquid has been added to dough, and tell by touch if dough has been kneaded long enough. They will understand how yeast works and why bread rises. With this knowledge, they can confidently try other yeast recipes. 

Budget: This is one of the most inexpensive cooking programs, even if you choose an enriched dough (butter, eggs, milk). Cut costs further by having patrons bring a one-gallon plastic storage bag or another container to transport dough home. 

Spin-off program ideas: Cinnamon rolls, pizza dough. 

Knife Skills  

Full Kitchen Kitchen Cart Meeting Room
Patrons can prepare vegetable stir fry or soups and cook them using induction cooktops.  Patrons can prepare a green salad with vegetables or work as a group to prepare vegetables for a stir fry.  Patrons can prepare a green salad with vegetables, an herb sauce such as chimichurri, or a homemade salad dressing. 

Outcome: Patrons learn how to care for knives, select a quality chef knife, practice proper knife safety, and use optimal cutting techniques that reduce fatigue and, when practiced over time, increase the speed of food prep.  

Budget: This program is inexpensive when fresh vegetables are in season and recipes can be easily broken down.  

Spin off program ideas: Leftovers can be used for additional practice, open workshops, or website material. 

Grilled Peaches with Whipped Cheese* 

Full Kitchen  Kitchen Cart  Meeting Room 
Patrons can prepare their peaches themselves, and the instructor can use a kitchen torch to finish the brûlée. The whipped cheese can be prepared in advance and portioned out, or patrons can prepare their own with variations, if desired.  Patrons can prepare their peach for grilling and make whipped cheese, customizing it with variation options. The instructor can grill/sear the peaches and operate the kitchen torch for the brûlée topping.   Patrons can prepare their peach for grilling and make whipped cheese, customizing it with variation options. Patrons can grill/sear the peaches using a grill pan and induction cooktop, while the instructor operates the kitchen torch for the brûlée topping. 

Outcome: Patrons learn that "whipping" adds air and volume to ingredients. Grilling peaches and torching sugar are eye-catching exercises that showcase how heat changes food. 

Budget: Peaches in season are inexpensive, and the cost of the whipped cheese is controlled by limiting variations. This program requires a kitchen torch and a way to sear or grill the peaches. 

Spin off program ideas: How to make crème fraîche, and similar programs for other stone fruits. 

Blind Taste Test 

Full Kitchen/Kitchen Cart/Meeting Room 

Begin with a slideshow about taste buds and how they work with other senses. Once completed, patrons will move into a team activity to test what they’ve learned. 

In pairs, one person is blindfolded and does the taste test while the other person records their answers on a score card. Then, they switch roles. Provide trays of tiny samples that exemplify sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors. Ensure there is enough sample variety so that the trays are not identical, preventing the second partner from knowing the answers in advance. As a final exercise, lead a discussion on how individual flavors can be successfully combined to balance each other out (e.g., lemons and sugar).  

Outcome: Patrons learn about how taste buds work, flavor profiles, and are introduced to the concept of flavor pairing. 

Budget: It is helpful to have disposable 2-ounce portion cups with lids, which can be prepared in advance and stored in a cooler until the program begins. Besides the cups, you’ll need various items for the game, such as sun-dried tomatoes, honey, shredded cheese, pickles, olives, etc. 

*Partnership Program 

Best Practices 

Safety First - Clear and Consistent Safety Practices & Guidelines 

  • Verbal & written instructions before classes begin
  • Consistent program procedures that put patrons at ease & ensure safe learning environment 
  • Hold harmless agreements signed by patrons before every program
  • Check with your local health department or governing body to determine what permits or licenses are required for your location

Program Planning and Execution 

  • Determine how to conduct the class in a safe and organized manner  
  • Identify & focus on one skill that you want patrons to learn from the program 
  • Equitable classes that reflect the needs of the community as well as more elaborate ones 
  • Establish an attendance and tardiness policy 
  • Establish a reminder system to ensure patrons know when the program is taking place, what they need to bring, and any accommodations or allergies we may need to be aware of

Resource Management   

  • Depending on your budget, determine how much you’d like to spend per program 
  • Determine when to prepare something in-house vs. buying items, i.e., pie crust for a pie making program 
  • Choose recipes that utilize fewer ingredients 
  • Knowledge of seasonal produce & market prices 
  • Ask patrons to bring disposable items to cut down on cost 
  • Work in teams depending on the cost of ingredients

Positive Culinary Experience 

  • Whenever possible, ensure patrons have the chance to sit and eat what they've prepared or at least try a sample at the end of class. That final positive experience is what will stick with them, and it is strong enough that it has the power to overshadow any other encounters during class, including potential negative ones. (Ex: failed dough, sunken cake, etc.) 

Speed Bumps 

  • Registration issues  
  • Limitations in registration software 
  • Programs filled up very quickly 
  • Repeat patrons that limit others from attending


  • 70 programs in 2023 
  • 795 patrons attended 
  • $68.71 per cooking program 
  • $6.05 per person

*Community Partner Programs – 20 programs | 283 attendees | $0 cost to PLYMC 

Types of Culinary Literacy Learning:

  • Knife Skills 
  • Measuring  
  • Following Directions 
  • Math – Conversions 
  • Shapes - (e.g., 1/8” dice vs. julienne) 
  • Science – Understanding how different ingredients work (e.g., why yeast and baking powder differ, even though both can make bread) 
  • Literacy – Reading a recipe from start to finish and understanding which tasks must be done in advance before beginning 
  • Mise en place – Building independent activity, logical thinking, and memory training 
  • Time Management – Calculating how long each dish takes and adjusting prep and cooking times so that all dishes are finished simultaneously


Gradual Equipment Acquisition: 

  • Purchase smallwares over time instead of making bulk acquisitions initially. 
  • Anticipate evolving needs and adapt space and infrastructure accordingly. 
  • Start with essentials and gradually expand based on program requirements and feedback.

Flexible Infrastructure: 

  • Plan for potential future additions or modifications to infrastructure. 
  • Allocate space and ensure proper electrical setup for potential equipment expansions. 
  • Maintain adaptability to accommodate changing needs as programs develop.

Program Development: 

  • Begin with basic program offerings and adjust based on experience and participant feedback. 
  • Learn from each program to refine offerings and identify unanticipated needs. 
  • Emphasize flexibility and responsiveness in program development to optimize resources and meet evolving demands.

The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County’s Culinary Literacy Center Facilities: 

  • Fourteen hands-on learning stations. 
  • Commercial hood, gas range, and flat top. 
  • Double convection ovens. 
  • 2 reach-in coolers. 
  • 1 under-counter freezer and 1 drawer-style freezer. 
  • 1 large ice machine (for event space rentals). 
  • 1 under-counter commercial washing machine. 
  • 3-bay sink. 
  • Lots of shelving and racks. 
  • 3 handwashing sinks and 3 food prep sinks.

Smallware Planning: 

  • Assess smallware needs based on intended program offerings. 
  • Consider equipment requirements for recipes. 
  • Prioritize items with versatile uses to maximize space efficiency. 
  • Ensure compliance with local health department regulations regarding equipment, supplies, and food storage


What’s Next:

  • Grow Towers – Make the connection from growing to eating. 
  • More Ethnic Diversity in Programming 
  • Develop More Community Partnerships 
  • Connect with Local Chefs, Bakers, and Business Owners in the Food Service Industry  

Articles & Publications: 

Greater exposure to ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, especially cardiometabolic, common mental disorder, and mortality outcomes. These findings provide a rationale to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of using population based and public health measures to target and reduce dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods for improved human health. (Published Feb 2024. 

Regularly sharing meals with family members can decrease a child’s chances of engaging in substance use, violence, and other anti-social behaviors later in life. (Published May 2009 

Children who help with meal preparation learn math, reading, science, creative art, cultures/history, nutrition/health, social skills, and physical development. (Nevada Extension Office,of%20cooking%20terms%20builds%20vocabulary) 

Individuals who learned cooking skills as a child spend more time cooking and are less reliant on convenience food or takeaway. ( 

Sharing meals with the family has been shown to improve nutrition and keep aging adults physically and mentally healthier than dining solo. (

More Culinary Program Ideas:

International Falafel Day with Mercy Health*


Grilling Sauces - Alabama White Sauce


Homemade Dressings


Knife Skills - Mirepoix


Homemade Yogurt 


Vegan Grain Bowls


Teens Can Cook! - Homemade Mac & Cheese


Spicy Salmon Sushi 


Biscuits & Gravy


National Pi Day*


Luck of the Irish - Colcannon


The Universal Muffin Recipe: One Recipe, Endless Flavors


Lattice Love: Homemade Pie Crusts


Pizza Bowl: Score Big in Flavor!


DIY Valentine Pop Tarts


Souper Soups


Gourmet Toast


Hot Cocoa Bombs


Homemade Gifts: Peanut Brittle


Homemade Gifts: Caramel Popcorn


Holiday Baking: Chocolate Chip Cookies


Mastering Thanksgiving: Pumpkin Pies


Mastering Thanksgiving: Old-Fashioned Bread Stuffing 

Mastering Thanksgiving: Gravy and Mashed Potatoes 101


Stepping Out with Healthy Cooking - Pumpkin Fettuccini Alfredo*


Roasted Veggie Galette


Homemade Glazed Donuts


Indigenous Peoples Day – Fry Bread and Wojapi*


Pastelitos - Grab Your Passport and Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month


National Family Meals Month – Pizza & Salad*


Make Your Own Sourdough Starter


Homemade Fast Food - Fish Tacos


Tomato and Cheddar Pie


Culinary Teen Camp - Penne with Quick Tomato Sauce


Beat the Heat: Instant Pot Risotto


Caribbean American Heritage Month – Rice & Beans with a Mango Salsa*


Culinary Foundation Series - Quick Tomato Sauce


Stepping Out with Healthy Cooking - Soul Food*


Pride & Pizza


Seed to Table: Growing Parsley for Delicious Chimichurri


Eating Healthy on a Budget*


Hocus Pocus Hullabaloo - Potions & Edible Spell Booook! 

Jewish Heritage Month – Knish*


Culinary Foundations - Icing on the Cake


Earth Day - Buddha Bowls


National Pecan Day - Pecan Crusted Chicken


Culinary Foundations - All You Knead to Know About Bread


Bread Club - Chocolate Chip Hot Cross Buns


Wild Mushrooms, A World of Wonder at our Feet


Chicken Pot Pie


Culinary Foundations - Poultry Perfection


Culinary Foundations - The Budget-Friendly Potato


Culinary Foundations - Egg-cellent Eggs


Celebrate Lunar New Year – Chinese Dumplings


Culinary Foundations - Basic Knife Skills


Charcuterie & Grazing Table Workshop


Cooking For a Low Sodium Diet*


Blue Paw Mysteries


Meal Prep Basics*


Cooking for One or Two*


Hispanic Heritage Month - Colombian Cheese Arepas



*Partnership Programs