To some, ground beef, kidney beans, mixed vegetables, and crushed tomatoes are random ingredients. But to the residents at South Brunswick’s Citizens for Independent Living (CIL) program, those ingredients come together to make beef minestrone soup.
For the past two years, participants in the CIL program received training from volunteer Linda Fekete, the program’s Director Linda King, and other volunteers, on how to cook inexpensive homemade meals for themselves, Fekete said.
Take one or two tenderized chicken breast cutlets, coat them lightly with mayonnaise, dip them in bread crumbs, add homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, put it in an oven heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and 40-45 minutes later you have homemade chicken parmesan, she said.
“Mayonnaise takes the place of the frying fat and helps the breadcrumbs adhere to the chicken,” she said. “Unlike the chicken [parmesan] that’s breaded and fried, they’re losing all the extra fat calories. Instead of frying, you’re baking.”
Fekete, a retired South Brunswick High School home economics teacher of over 30 years, gathers with the program’s participants, primarily comprised of adults with developmental disabilities, every Thursday evening, and teaches them how to cook a complete meal.
“Normally, most of our participants over the years have relied heavily on frozen dinners, which have a high salt content, and a lot of things about them aren’t very healthy,” King said. “Plus a lot of them are expensive. So the other goal that we have is to try to come up with good healthy, decent foods that will meet their budget.”
Turkey meatloaf, French onion soup, stuffed pepper soup, spaghetti with homemade meat sauce and garlic bread, and white chicken chili are just a few of the recipes CIL residents have learned over the past two years, Fekete said.
It’s also about meal preparation and nutrition, Fekete said.
“It’s [about] planning meals that they have the skills to make,” she said. “And one of the goals is instead of having them buy T.V. dinners, they’re going to make their own healthy T.V. dinners.”
But there’s more to a meal than throwing a bunch of ingredients together, Fekete said, noting she teaches them not only how to cook, but how to prepare ingredients.
“Over the past two years, we’ve been building skills,” she said. “It’s the spicing, the peeling, the cutting, the sautéing, it’s the baking — all those things are things they’ve been doing.”
The CIL also has its own garden, where residents grow fruit and vegetables they use to make things like pickles, assorted jellies and jams, and fresh spices and herbs, Fekete said.
Aside from cooking and growing the majority of the food they eat, volunteers also go shopping with residents, she said.
“So when we’re finished, they will have recipes they can cook, they will have shopping lists that will be affordable, and will know how to put the whole package together — which is hard,” King said.
The CIL is working toward compiling their recipes into a cookbook for residents, complete with picture-based recipes for those who have trouble reading, Fekete said.
The CIL was started in 1984 and currently houses 23 residents with disabilities ranging from autism to blindness, King said.
It obtains the bulk of its funding through individual donations, and also receives money from a block grant, she said.
“At the CIL we are providing an opportunity for these individuals to live like everybody else — a normal life,” she said. “They are like everybody else.”
Those interested in volunteering at the CIL are encouraged to contact Linda King at 732-355-0620.