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updated: 4/15/2014 12:52 PM

Cook of the Week: Elgin lunch lady balances nutrition, treats

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  • Christina Hernandez of Elgin decorates butter cookies for customers of her FanCThatEvents cookie shop on Etsy.com.

       Christina Hernandez of Elgin decorates butter cookies for customers of her FanCThatEvents cookie shop on Etsy.com.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Christine Hernandez prepares meals for school children during the week and in her freetime decorates butter cookies for her FanCThatEvents decorative cookie shop on Etsy.

       Christine Hernandez prepares meals for school children during the week and in her freetime decorates butter cookies for her FanCThatEvents decorative cookie shop on Etsy.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
By Sally Eyre
Daily Herald Correspondent

As the manager of food services for an Elgin school district, Christina Hernandez is responsible for more than 20,000 meals a day. Of course she has a little help; state guidelines, nutritionists, parents and even an advisory council made up of students, offer valuable input for the carefully orchestrated meals that must find a balance between being healthy and good tasting.

"It's a little challenging. We're a nucleus that creates and suggests meals in order to meet the different standards. We're also trying to circumvent excessive waste, which is why we value the students' and parents' opinions so much."

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When it comes to her own home cooking however, Christina likes to rely on her own creativity.

"I like to try different things -- those that are not too hard to source products -- I like to experiment and push outside the envelope," said Christina, a big fan of ethnic cuisines.

"I gravitate toward Italian comfort foods, Spanish tapas or South American styled dishes."

Blame it on her job, but Christina is also very concerned about nutrition. "Working at the schools has really opened my eyes and has influenced me in my cooking at home. I'm eating a lot of brown rice," she laughs.

Christina is an avid vegetable gardener. Christina has a summer garden every year where she grows a variety of tomatoes and other vegetables. She is excited that several schools in her district have implemented gardens that the students tend and harvest.

"The freshest food you can get is by far the best tasting food you can get. Nothing compares to it," she said. "We need to reduce the urban desert. Some kids don't realize that milk comes from cows!"

For those fruits and vegetables that she doesn't grow, she tries to go organic.

"Sometimes it's a little pricey. I'm hoping organic foods become more accessible and the prices become more reasonable."

Christina has very fond memories of baking cookies with her mother when she was young.

"I always felt so proud and accomplished." In fact, she loved cooking so much that she filled all her electives in high school with cooking classes. She even managed to finagle her way out of the sewing portion of home economics, so she could take more cooking classes. After she graduated from college with a degree in hospitality, she still hadn't had enough of cooking and went on to Kendall College to earn her culinary degree, all while gaining valuable experience in the restaurant business. Christina has worked the front and the back of several restaurants, as server, manager, bartender and cook. She's also enjoyed a stint at the cooking specialty store, Sur La Table.

Many of our Cooks of the Week can be easily divided into two categories, cooks and bakers. Christina however fits in both categories.

"Ironically, I like to bake even though it is such a science. I do a lot of butter cookies and cakes for friends and family as a sort of side hobby. I make breads and muffins, things I can keep well in the freezer and pull out when needed with a 'guess what we're having' for guests."

Christina enjoys entertaining, coming up with fun party themes for the food.

"I don't like to be the only one cooking however, so I usually have everyone brings one dish, like with a Spanish tapas party, it becomes a feast when everyone brings something!"

One thing is certain, for a party like that "circumventing excessive waste" is not a concern!

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