Durham Dinners

The Durham Dinners project was a partnership between County Durham Housing Group and Wellbeing for Life.  We wanted to promote healthy eating as well as the improving practical cooking skills of the residents of County Durham.  Participants from across the county were encouraged to sign up to the free project to support them to learn to cook or enhance their cooking skills.  By taking part it was hoped that participant’s skills and knowledge would increase and in turn their confidence to continue with any behaviour changes they would make.

The project was marketed as both a cooking course culminating in area competitions and then a countywide grand final with a prize of £400 on offer.  The project was open to County Durham Housing Group tenants and the wider community and to encourage participation transport to and from the different venues was provided.

The 3 areas chosen to host the project were Belmont Community Centre in Durham, Woodhouse Close Church Community Centre in Bishop Auckland and the Pavilion in Peterlee.


Week 1 Sign Up and Food Hygiene

All participants completed a Level 2 Food Hygiene course on the first week of the course.  This meant that all participants completed the Durham Dinners project with a recognised qualification that could potentially be used if they were seeking employment or a change of employment in the future.  This also gave people a good start to the course whilst also improving their confidence to obtain a qualification.

Weeks 2-5

Over this period participants took part in a 4 week practical cooking course.  The sessions looked to increase the skills and confidence of people to cook healthier meals on a budget using every day, inexpensive ingredients.  Each session also covered a different ‘education’ topic

  • Eatwell Guide
  • Fats, Salt and Sugar
  • Food labelling
  • Budgeting/making meals healthier

A variety of different activities were used in order to facilitate the ‘education’ aspect of the course including:

  • Quizzes around Eatwell Guide
  • Fat, salt and sugar pots for particpants to visualise
  • Activities around identifying healthier options with regards to food labels
  • How to budget and make food swaps to make meals healthier

Participants were encouraged to work together in small groups to prepare recipes each week.  A discussion around what recipes participants wanted to cook was held each week to ensure they were cooking things they wanted to make.  This would hopefully encourage them to try the recipes out again at home.  To encourage this recipe sheets were given out each week for participants to take home.  Participants were also given homework each week.  Homework was a recipe sheet with ingredients included for participants to try out at home and feedback at the following session.  Again hopefully this would encourage people to continue cooking at home and would also cascade the healthy eating messages to other members of their household.

Area Competitions

Durham Dinners

Following the 4 week course an area competition was held in each of the locations for those that wanted to enter the competition.  People chose to either work in a group or individually.  A scenario was given to each participant for them to follow for the competition.  The scenario was chosen as it encompassed many aspects of the practical course and also to give participants the opportunity to show what they had learnt over the previous weeks.

Durham Dinners – Area Finals Scenario

The idea behind the last few weeks of the cooking course has been to show you how making small changes to recipes can make them a little healthier. The recipes we have used have all tried to increase the amounts of fruit and vegetables we use, reduce fats, salt and sugar whilst also sticking to a budget. Hopefully you have picked up a few ideas and tips along the way that you will carry on with once the course has finished. I also hope you’ve had fun whilst learning.

With this in mind, for the competition, we would like you to try and use some of the ideas and tips to either prepare and cook

  • A starter and a main course or
  • A main course and a dessert

The starter must contain at least 2 vegetables

Main course must be a healthier alternative utilising some of the messages I have tried to get across in the course so for example lower fat alternatives, bulking out foods using pulses and vegetables. The main meal must also contain at least 2 vegetables.

Dessert – must contain at least one fruit and again must be a healthier alternative.

The recipes must serve 4 people and all must be done on a set budget of £8.00.

All ingredients for the competition will be provided.

Below are the dishes that were produced at the different area finals.  All taking into consideration the scenario that was set for the competition

Belmont Course:

  • Chunky Vegetable & Brown Rice Soup
  • Masala Chicken Pie
  • Chilli Con Carne
  • Beetroot & Chocolate Brownies
  • Sweet Potato Soup
  • Enchiladas


Woodhouse Close Course:

  • Carrot & Coriander Soup
  • Chicken Risotto
  • Spaghetti Bolognaise
  • Lemon Raspberry Trifle
  • Curried Parsnip Soup
  • Chorizo Jambalaya
  • Baked chicken breast with mushroom rice and oven roasted vegetables
  • Pear & Apple Crumble


Peterlee Course:

  • Pancake Spring Rolls
  • Sweet & Sour Chicken
  • Tandoori Chicken
  • Keemar Curry
  • Carrot & Coriander Soup
  • Chicken Stir Fr
  • Chicken with Lime & Coconut
  • Lime/Lemon Cheesecake

The participants from each course worked really hard in the area final and they all produced some really lovely and healthy dishes.  Judging panels visited all three course locations across the County looking to taste the results to find the best cook in each group to go forward to the grand final.

Angela Stobbart (County Durham Housing Group Community Investment Team Leader said “the judges had an enormously difficult task at all three locations.  I think it’s safe to say there wasn’t a single bad, or even average, meal among them”

“Every single one of the participants clearly learned so much from the course and have already started to put what they have learned into practice in their own kitchens”.

Grand Final – Hamsteels Community Centre

The grand final of Durham Dinners took place at Hamsteels Community Centre on Thursday 8th November.  The same scenario used in the area final was used again for the final.

  • Pasta Arrabiata
  • Carrot Cake
  • Spaghetti Bolognaise
  • Lemon & Raspberry Trifle
  • Fish in a herb crust served with carrots and green beans and dill sauce.
  • Banana, strawberry and yoghurt.

Durham Dinners Grand FinalOnce again all participants gave a tremendous effort and produced some really marvellous creations.  The judging panel again had a very difficult decision to make in order to crown a winner and Michelle was crowned as winner of Durham Dinners with her healthy take on Spaghetti Bolognaise and low fat trifle.

Michelle said “I only used a small amount of lean mince but it was bulked out with lentils and vegetables”.

“Before the course I could cook a bit but I hated vegetables and I’d never used stock cubes before.  I’ve learned all sorts” Michelle added.

Durham Dinners Winner

Bill Fullen Chief Executive at County Durham Housing Group (and on of the grand final judges) said “Durham Dinners has been a brilliant way of getting healthy cooking and eating messages across.  I know that all of the contestants have taken so much away from the weekly sessions to put into practice in their own homes and pass on their new knowledge to the rest of their families”

Rod Brasington Chief Executive of Prosper said “This initiative was a superb idea to teach people about cooking healthier.  It’s also show that the classes were great fun as many of the participants have walked away with real friendships as a result.  It’s fantastic that a course like this offers both practical and social benefits wrapped up together”

Comments from course at Woodhouse Close Bishop Auckland

  • Loved the course met lovely people and learned so much
  • Loved the course would have loved more weeks . Allison was lovely!
  • Have really enjoyed doing this course and have done all my homework and have found I do actually like vegetables
  • Very good I have learned so much and have a qualification
  • Allison is lovely – very knowledgeable and approachable
  • Staff were very helpful with support and making us do our best as possible and showed us new things we can make
  • The staff were fantastic so friendly would highly recommend this service
  • Very informative – more courses would be good
  • Allison is an nice friendly supportive lady
  • I have even told my GP about attending this course and how it has made me feel a lot better. Longer than 6 weeks please
  • Allison has been amazing makes us feel at ease very helpful and kind. Has also helped us progress with other things to benefit myself
  • I am budgeting a lot more and not over cooking loads of food
  • I have felt more confident about trying new recipes
  • Trying new things at home
  • Yes I eat loads better now and this was a fantastic course
  • Brilliant course – more sessions please


Comments from Belmont Course:

  • I found the course to be very informative. Our worker, Allison is down to earth and understand what we needed to help us chose healthier and cheaper options.  Overall I enjoyed the course.
  • I have really enjoyed this course as much for the skills as the social aspect. Allison and Sean have been amazing and helpful – I have felt completely comfortable around the staff
  • Thoroughly enjoyed learning replacement items in food to make them better. Enjoyed going home and trying new recipes
  • Allison was great at compromising on recipes – taking all participants likes/dislikes/intolerances on board. The classes were always very informative and I felt I learned something every week.
  • Was great getting out to meet new people and cooking healthy


Comments from Peterlee:

  • Totally loved the cooking course learnt how to budget better on meal plans. Really hope to do more cooking courses
  • I have really enjoyed the course very informative and also fun. Hopefully the course will continue
  • Fantastic course, made good friends – learnt a lot and will use the skills learnt in my life going forward. Only complaint classes weren’t long enough need more weeks
  • This has been my first time out in mixed company for over 9 months – longer sessions please
  • This has really benefitted me on motivating me to get up, cook more for myself. I want to encourage people around me to try it as it has really benefitted me in many ways and I have met new people and mixed well.
  • Learning to cook healthy meals has been fantastic. Allison has been a great help to me with cooking techniques
  • The information given and help from everyone in the group was outstanding. Allison always made us feel welcome as a group and gave a lot of communication with everyone.
  • Great course – trying much more in the kitchen now – Allison is lovely and very good.