Multicultural community kitchen invites ESL moms

Judy Venable, a Seattle-born ESL teacher, is delivering a free cooking program called ESL Cooking for Moms for immigrant mothers seeking to improve their cooking skills and conversational English.

Participants of the class have the opportunity to practice their English, cook delicious and nutritional meals, learn about community resources and make friends –
all while their children learn and play under the supervision of childminders.

“What’s great about this program is that kids get to go spend time with other kids while mothers get a break and can really focus on learning the English they need to know for daily living and to raise their families,” says Venable.

Funded by Vancouver Coastal Health’s Smart Fund, ESL Cooking For Moms is one of many programs run by Family Services in New Westminster, Vancouver and Richmond as part of Community Education and Development Services.

Cakes, casseroles and composting

Judy Venables, participant Abby Wang and daughter. | Photo by Katy Thompson

Participants Jessica Feng and Jen Zao reading from a cooking verbs worksheet. | Photo by Katy Thompson

Though actively involved in local family literacy programs in Greater Vancouver, Venable has also taught ESL internationally. ESL Cooking For Moms allows Venable to combine her love of food with her teaching experience in a unique way.

Although she has ideas for the curriculum, Venable always asks her students what they want to learn. Mothers are particularly interested in learning to prepare baked goods their children always ask for, as well as quick and healthy main dishes such as casseroles and meatloaf. For the class’s first cooking lesson, they made banana muffins.

“We make things that are simple, easy and nutritious,” says Venable.

Also of interest to mothers is discussing ideas for their children’s lunch boxes. In future sessions, a nutritionist will visit to talk about healthy eating using the Canadian Food Guide and a dental hygienist will check the children’s and mothers’ teeth. Venable also plans to discuss food preparation and safety, grocery shopping, composting and recycling and cooking vocabulary with her class. According to Venable, the combination of a specific theme and hands-on activities helps English language learners better remember words and concepts.

“I’m not good at cooking, but when I had my children, I wanted to provide healthy food for them,” says Abby Wang, a program participant who moved from Beijing to Canada in 2009 to pursue an MBA at Vancouver Island University before having her children, now ages two and one. “Through this program, I’m not only learning cooking skills, but also about cultures. I’m broadening my scope of knowledge.”

A multicultural, multipurpose kitchen

Judy Venables, participant Abby Wang and daughter. | Photo by Katy Thompson

Judy Venables, participant Abby Wang and daughter. | Photo by Katy Thompson

While many immigrant mothers want to learn English, some ESL programs can be difficult to access because they do not include childminding. ESL Cooking For Moms overcomes this obstacle by providing free, onsite childcare for participants’ children.

“It’s very helpful,” says Wang of the childminding service. “Otherwise I couldn’t come.”

Jen Zao, a participant who relocated to Vancouver from Shanghai in 2013, explains that the program is also good for her daughter, as it allows her to practice English as well.

Participants have the opportunity to improve their English while making meaningful social connections with other mothers. Venable notes that in addition to providing a lesson in cooking, the program provides a time and place to share information with others, building a community with friends and support systems. The kitchen creates a comfortable setting to learn and socialize.

“They like to share their own culture and learn about the culture they’re now living in as well so that they can become a part of that,” Venable says.

As Canadians, the class participants are now immersed in a new culture that includes all those who surround them.

“All the students come from different countries. It’s a new experience,” says Zao.

Venable says that her main goal is to help immigrants feel more comfortable using English, cooking for their families and trying new things, because a lack of confidence is often the biggest hurdle to overcome.

“I used to think cooking was very hard, for professionals, but then I realized that it’s not that hard. The instructor made it simple; I feel more confident,” says Wang.

ESL Cooking for Moms

Tuesdays from 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. April 14 to June 16 East Richmond Community Hall 12360 Cambie Rd.

For more information about multicultural community kitchens, visit