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SABOR: 'Coqui the Chef' Creator Chef Tania Lopez Educates Kids About Healthy Snacks, Quality Foods

First Posted: Aug 15, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
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Tania Lopez

Photo : Tania Lopez

"SABOR" is a food & wine and lifestyle series that savors Latinos' zest for life and passion for home and family.  

Wendy, the Nold, Jack Box, the Colonel and Ronald McDonald are prominent mascots that have long promoted unhealthy foods. However, Coqui the Chef, the pint-size Puerto Rican sensation, is an educational tool that helps children and families to learn better habits to lead healthier lives. Chef Tania Lopez, the designer of Coqui, created the health-conscious frog as a vital symbol to improve health through cooking and nutrition classes.

Lopez had a difficult childhood that was marked by malnutrition and illness. She was asthmatic and anemic, and spent a great deal of time at hospitals due to her condition. Also, because her parents constantly worked, they didn't have time to offer her the right nutrition, and she wasn't well taken care of.

"My relationship with food, at the time, was strained," Chef Lopez told Latin Post. "I was unfamiliar with good, healthy food being around me, like you hear about in Puerto Rican culture. I didn't have that. However, I did get that from my grandmother when they would send me to Puerto Rico for two months. My grandmother would feed me many types of food, and she would grow her own herbs, and I could feel how connected she was with the food. I loved it, and loved how she spent time in the kitchen because she wanted her family to have the right food. She always asked us if we were hungry, if we wanted something, and she made it for us. That's one of the best things I remember about food."

When Lopez had children, she wanted her children to have strong relationships with food, so she moved to Puerto Rico. There, she was able to enroll her children in their native heritage and she was able to raise them as a stay-at-home mother, which is difficult in New York. In Puerto Rico, she learned how to cook from women in her neighborhood and she made her own baby food, which is something she missed when she moved back to New York as a single mother. Her return to New York meant that she had to work long hours, and she begun to repeat her parents' mistakes.

However, when Lopez was laid off, it allowed her an opportunity to look at the health and nutrition of her children, and it became her mission to change things. That was the case even though she often had to venture outside of the Bronx when she needed healthy food for herself and her children. She later enrolled in culinary school, travelling from the Bronx to Brooklyn to attend. At that time came an initial understanding of what Coqui would come to represent.

"There's something we have to talk about, and teaching your children about food at an early age is important. Teach them to demand quality and not quantity. In the Bronx, we have a lot of food, but it's not good food. I want to make sure that our new generation gets what they need. They have to stay healthy; we want them to live long, and we don't want them to die young. Obesity and diabetes is taking over," said Lopez.

"We have Tony the Tiger for Kellogg's; we have mascots for so many fast food and we have that silly guy for McDonalds. They have their mascots, but we don't really have a mascot for healthy food, or I haven't seen one yet. I thought having a frog that's native to the Puerto Rican, and loved by the Puerto Rican people, would be inspiring. Also, we're not only promoting healthy living, we're also telling people, 'Hey, pay attention to our sweet little frogs that are dying out. They also need help.' We're doing two things at once. We're creating awareness for healthy living, rain forests and frogs."

The idea of Coqui came to Lopez when she was in a bad situation. In a dream, a frog climbed inside of her, promising that everything would be okay. Years later, when conceptualizing a mascot for her food advisory program for children, Coqui returned to her and a graphic designer helped to bring him to life.

Today, children in the Bronx can attend classes led by Coqui the frog. The courses, which work to pique the interest of children, involve many levels of creativity. Children use food to create faces, and they craft tiny apple frogs. They also discuss, smell and taste herbs because it expands their awareness, so they don't become bored.

"In our cooking classes, we talk about nutrition, we talk about recipes, we talk about measuring cups, and we talk about combining foods. We combine fruits and vegetables to make something really tasty like a salsa or a dip or a smoothie," Lopez stated. "They can use a safety knife on whatever they have in the fridge, and just cut it up. We tell them that they can make their own healthy snacks without cooking. That's part of mission, which is to combine something that they like together, and it's still healthy."

According to Lopez, learning to cook is an amazing experience, it's like therapy and it's like music. In fact, "if you need a break from the world around you, try cooking -- it's like music. You're in there playing your instrument."

Chef Lopez's future goals involve her and her alter ego, Coqui, and having a cooking show for kids. The series will involve a Coqui the Chef puppet hosting the show, which will also feature a kid chef and a celebrity chef. The platform will help Lopez and Coqui to continue to share message about the importance of healthy practices in the kitchen. Also, Lopez would love to partner with organizations, churches and organizations willing to have classes in their centers, which will help to connect Coqui with the community.

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