Kids cooking in school
Kids from Raymond Elementary School making quinoa pizza bites

All over Maine, kids are getting out of school for the summer. Hungry kids. Coming up with healthy food choices, especially snacks, can be a challenge. So we turned to an expert for some ideas. Her name is Chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, S.N.S. and she’s the School Nutrition Coordinator for School District RSU #14 in Windham and Raymond.

Chef Sam shared a yummy recipe for quinoa pizza bites — a quick, easy meal or snack. She also threw in her own oven-roasted tomato sauce recipe that she prepares with local tomatoes. And she answered a few important questions for us.

Why is quinoa so good for you?

Quinoa is a great gluten-free grain option that is a great source of protein for kids and adults. From a nutritional standpoint, it has a lot of great qualities that will keep our kids’ bellies full and bodies nourished. It is a complete protein and high in fiber, so keeps you fuller longer! Also, with the growing number of allergies in our school system it is a gluten-free grain we can offer to all kids!

Do kids really like quinoa?

Quinoa has a unique texture, which is the barrier for some kids. However, once they try it properly seasoned and with delicious added flavors (like our quinoa bites or our roasted butternut squash and quinoa salad), they actually like it!

For kids, it is all about getting exposed to a certain food at a young age. If this food is regularly offered then they don’t see it as “different or new.” In our school district we like to expose kids to new foods, and then they go home and tell their parents. We have parents email us to say thank you for introducing quinoa to their child. They were hesitant to spend the money on it at the store without knowing if their child would like it. That is an important role for our district and for school lunch.

Do you have any hints for home cooks about buying and cooking with quinoa?

When picking quinoa, just make sure you check whether or not it needs to be rinsed. Rinsing before cooking removes a bitter taste that quinoa can sometimes have. Only rinse what you are going to cook because quinoa is technically a seed and once you water it and leave it, it will start to sprout!

When cooking quinoa, I find it helpful to use a pot with a lot of surface area. That way you don’t get overcooked quinoa on the bottom and crunchy quinoa on the top. It is super easy and fast to cook. Bring quinoa and water (2 parts water, 1 part quinoa) to a boil, turn to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit for 15 minutes before fluffing with a fork! Quinoa is ready to absorb any flavor you add — from orange zest to lime juice — so have a yummy dressing ready to add to it!

student in cooking club
A hard-working member of the cooking club at Raymond Elementary School

Tell us about your school gardens and the cooking club.

Our school gardens are a learning tool for our students, from math and science to applied technology and, of course, nutrition. Kids plant the seeds, harvest the produce and deliver it to our kitchens. Then they see the produce on our salad bar. It is truly full circle and student-driven. Students are also composting and enhancing the hoop houses through science.

Our cooking club is an after-school program that offers kids the chance to cook and eat healthy nutritious meals. If they cook it, they will eat it. (A very true motto.) Usually, the things we cook in the cooking club are on our menu so kids are able to see, touch, feel, smell these new foods, and then recognize them on our school menus. Cooking Club is a grant-funded after-school activity that is very popular with the kids! It is also an opportunity for us to connect with kids and learn what they may or may not like about our school lunches and how we can improve school lunch for them.

Student making quinoa pizza bites in school
Assembling quinoa pizza bites at Raymond Elementary School

Quinoa Pizza Bites with Marinara Sauce

(Makes 12 bites)


  • 1 cup cooked quinoa
  • ½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese + 2 tablespoons of cheese
  • 1 egg
  • ½ teaspoon salt (to taste)
  • ½ teaspoon ground pepper
  • 3 tablespoons of marinara sauce
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3 teaspoons Italian seasoning
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • Marinara Sauce, for dipping


  1. Mix ½ cup uncooked and washed quinoa with ½ cup water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil first and then lower heat. Cook the quinoa for about 15 minutes until fluffy. Remove from heat and let sit for 15-20 minutes. Fluff with a fork.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  3. Grease a 12 mini muffin pan (don’t forget this step!)
  4. Mix all of the ingredients together.
  5. Put a tablespoon into each muffin tin, packing them in.
  6. Bake for 12-15 minutes.
  7. Remove from oven and top with remaining 2 tablespoons of cheese. Broil for about 1 minute (please watch them, they burn easily).
  8. After broiling, allow to cool on a wire rack for about 15 minutes and then remove from pan.
  9. Serve with Marinara Sauce or Chef’s Sam’s Oven Roasted Tomato Sauce.

Chef Sam’s Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce

(Makes 3 cups)


  • 18 ripe Roma tomatoes
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 small onion, diced
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper (fresh cracked – medium grind)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning


  1. Preheat oven to 400. Toss tomatoes with garlic, onion, olive, salt, and pepper. Lay flat on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Place in oven and bake for 30-35 minutes.
  2. Remove from oven and puree with an immersion blender. Add sugar and Italian seasoning. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Opportunities for families to access free lunches over the summer

Around the country, many families struggle to keep their children fed all year round. During the school year, they may depend on free or reduced-price lunches and sometimes breakfast to get the nutritious food they need to learn and grow.

Summer can be especially difficult for families in need. For instance, according to the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine, summer is one of their most critical times because donations tend to decrease at the same time the need increases.

“There are an estimated 196,000 food-insecure people in our community, including 1 in 5 children who go hungry in summer because meals are not availaible.”

Good Shepherd and other food banks are always looking for support, which is one way we all can help out.
In the summer months, Maine offers the Summer Food Service Program to ensure kids are getting the healthy meals they need.

For information on different programs across the state, check out Summer Food Rocks.  The site has a mapping tool to help people find nutritious free meal programs for children and teens 18 and younger.