Deconstructing a “Hot Pocket” To Teach Kids About Nutrition

Last week I volunteered, as I do every month, with a group of fourth grade students at an economically disadvantaged elementary school participating in Houston’s Recipe for Success program.

For this lesson, celebrity chef Monica Pope demonstrated for the class in a graphic way some of the ingredients in a processed Hot Pocket.  

For example, Hot Pockets contain L-cysteine, which is commonly derived from human hair or duck feathers, so into a bowl went a handful of feathers.  Another ingredient is BHT, used also in cosmetics and jet fuel, so a bit of lipstick was added to the bowl.  You can imagine what the bowl looked like at the end of the demonstration.

Afterwards, the kids made their own “hot pockets” consisting of a pita triangle filled with sauteed kale and diced tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and shredded turkey and arugula tossed in a vinaigrette.  The kids prepared all the ingredients, including the vinaigrette, and both the kale and arugula came from the school’s own garden.

Virtually every child dove right into their creation with enthusiasm, undeterred by the strongly flavored (and maybe unfamiliar) greens and vinaigrette.  (One of the children in my group did surreptitiously flick the kale out of his hot pocket before sitting down at the table, but he was the exception.)  This, of course, is what school garden advocates have been saying all along – if the kids can grow it and prepare it, they’re far more likely to eat it.  And if even a few of these children think twice about eating processed junk like a Hot Pocket (and maybe even share that message with whoever shops for their families), then I consider the session a success.

More on my experiences with Recipe for Success next month.

On a related note, in preparing this post I stumbled upon this artist’s poster, which depicts a Hot Pocket’s ingredients in graphic form.  Stylish, but still scary:

copyright Justin Perricone

[Ed Note:  I’ve learned that Chef Garth Blackburn was the original creator of this lesson plan for Recipe for Success. Want to give credit where it’s due!]


  1. Cathi says

    I hope each kid went home with a photograph of the bowl of feathers & lipstick, etc, to show Mom (or whoever in the household is the primary food shopper)

  2. says

    Love it. LOVE it. And for what it’s worth, I make homemade “hot pockets” pretty frequently for the kids’ lunches — it’s one of those “DUH” moments when you realize how simple they are to make, and how many different healthy fillings you can put inside. What I’m realizing, though, is that I’ll have to be pretty conscious as they get older to point out to them the difference between Mommy’s hot pockets and the ones their friends are eating, so they don’t just think that the processed version is OK. That’s a twist on the conversation I hadn’t considered before!

  3. Stephanie says

    BLECK! I am so guilty and busted! There must be 3 boxes of those stupid things in my freezer… do you think I can take them back to the store!
    (Yes, in MY freezer! We all get lazy now and then!)

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Not YOU, Stephanie!! Just kidding, of course. No one should feel shamed on TLT! But I have found that readers and commenters have opened my eyes about a lot of things, and I considered myself pretty well informed re: food before starting this blog. It’s great that we can all learn from each other. – Bettina

  4. says

    One of the things I love about this exercise (and Jamie Oliver’s infamous chicken nugget demo) is that it teaches kids that there’s a lot of “crap” and unnecessary ingredients in processed and packaged food products. I think that in general, if kids (and adults) can see what’s in something and then see and taste how easy and delicious it can be when made without, it’s a great educational experience. Kudos to the organizers of such an activity for that!

    On the other hand, the scientist in me is a bit frustrated with the chef’s choices of items to represent the food additives. Just because an ingredient used in food preparation “is used in a non-food” like cosmetics doesn’t make using the ingredient itself in food a bad thing. Just because an ingredient is derived from something we wouldn’t ordinarily eat (like duck feathers) doesn’t make it poisonous to the body or unhealthy. Think of the many soaps, shampoos, and moisturizers that use oatmeal, which is good for the skin. I doubt very much your chef would have squirted her morning shampoo into the bowl to represent oats in an ingredients list. Think of the many healthful items we derive from molds and odd plants (aloe, vitamins, sweeteners, penicillin, or natural thickeners like Xantham gum, guar gum, and arrow root). You wouldn’t see your chef tossing tequila into the bowl because tequila is made from stevia and so is the artificial sweetener on the list.

    I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of harmful “crap” in our processed foods–we most certainly do and I commend the chef for wanting to point that out to the kids. What I do find fault with is equating something that’s IN lipstick to lipstick itself and more or less drawing the conclusion for the kids that their food is filled with lipstick and duck feathers. That’s not teaching the truth–that’s using scare tactics. :-(

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Justin: I had the exact same thought when the lipstick and feathers went into the bowl — it felt a little misleading, and it’s not fair to leave kids with the possible impression that they’re actually eating those substances when they eat a Hot Pocket. But then I reflected on how hard it is to teach young kids about the benefits of whole foods versus processed, especially when processed foods are so well-engineered to appeal to most kids’ palates. I decided that, on balance, I was OK with the demonstration because of the net result. But I totally take your point and am glad you raised it here. Thanks for commenting! – Bettina

    • Matt Bramanti says

      I agree. It’s a scare tactic (against antioxidants, of all things), and Siegel justifies it by pointing out that, hey, the kids were disgusted at the end, so mission accomplished.

      By the way, did you know that kale contains nitrogen, just like dynamite does? And that yummy-looking cheese has multiple ingredients in common with the Indonesian tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands.

  5. Mark W says

    This article is awesome, I am always researching the different things they put into processed foods, it never ceases to amaze me. I used to eat Hot Pockets, and I was always sensative to processed foods. One day I ended up eating 2 or 3 and that night I woke up super nauseaus and ended up actually passing out from them!!!


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