Kitchen classes convert patients to low-fat diets

Tasting is believing at this women’s center

Your overweight patients would clean up their high-fat diets in a heartbeat, except they fear their taste buds would wither in boredom from healthy food.

One way to banish that myth and to attract potential patients to your facility is to hold cooking classes.

When you say "let’s eat," and you show women a delicious low-fat meal they can fix in 20 minutes, you’ve got their interest, says Terry Guymon, RN, BSN, Women’s Health Center manager at Christ Hospital in Tinley Park, IL. (To find out how Christ Hospital built its demonstration kitchen, see related story, p. 36.)

Guymon says many of the students never learned how to cook "real meals." Instead, they prepare things like instant mashed potatoes and canned vegetables.

"They love learning that homemade soup isn’t that hard to do," Guymon says.

Co-designer and teacher of the cooking classes, outpatient nutrition services dietitian Anne O’Malley, RD, LD, wanted to avoid the problem she saw with other cooking classes: wonderful dishes that your average time-hungry cook would never undertake in her own kitchen. So O’Malley plans each three-week evening class around input from clinic patients’ dietary interests questionnaires.

Classes last three hours each. O’Malley notes that some first-time students return when they find out she is teaching a class incorporating suggestions from their class evaluations.

"They want leaner ways to fix things everyday normal people eat like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and corn," says O’Malley. "We don’t use fat-free products because they don’t taste good. We teach techniques that help the whole family eat better instead of mom making one meal for herself and another for the family."

That’s how the class titled "Pasta, Pizza, and Potatoes" started. "We showed them how to prepare these staples with tasty, healthful adaptations and have them on the table in 20 minutes," Guymon says.

The adaptations included ready-made sauce and pizza dough topped with low-fat mozzarella cheese and chopped, fresh vegetables. "When they sample delicious low-fat versions of everyday food, they get excited because they know their families will like them," says O’Malley.

Each session consists of a discussion and cooking tips like simple ways to dice, chop, or mix ingredients. The finale is a tasting of the evening’s subject matter. If it’s a fast-cooking food, like the low-fat pizza, O’Malley cooks her demonstration product on the spot. If it takes longer, like baked potatoes, she prepares one batch before class so it’s ready to serve at tasting time.

Fifteen to 20 attendees sign up for the yearly course. They pay $15 to $60, depending on the featured foods. The program attracts mainly 35- to 50-year-old women with careers and families.

The center markets the classes through calendar listings in Christ Hospital’s 200,000-circulation direct mail magazine. That draws most of the participants, Guymon explains. Other attendees sign up after seeing posted notices at the center.

Aware of the dismal long-term outcomes of weight loss and diet programs, O’Malley and Guymon intend to find out whether students in their classes have maintained healthy cooking habits since they started in the demonstration kitchen in March 1996.

This year they are tracking participants’ cooking and eating patterns through telephone interviews at six-month intervals.

Meanwhile, verbal feedback during the classes indicates participants adopt the new techniques and share them with friends. They also report their families like the more wholesome diets.

O’Malley’s first classes covered electric wok cookery and were taught from a table in the women’s center meeting room. The opportunity to build a demonstration kitchen arose early last year when the center expanded.

The kitchen stands between the new meeting room and the clinic, with entries from both. Guymon says building the large meeting room adjacent to the kitchen was a win-win solution. Hospital staff often use them for retreats and special meetings, which saves $100 to $400 in fees the hospital normally would pay for local hotel meeting facilities.

Corporate groups also are starting to rent the facility. Rental rates are comparable to what local hotels charge for partial- to full-day events, notes Guymon. "With hospital and corporate meetings during business hours and cooking classes in the evenings, it’s a multipurpose facility," she says. "Our hospital administration is pleased with the arrangement."

While the classes generate enough money to cover the cost of supplies, their greatest value is in the exposure and new patients they bring to the center. "Women who first come to the center for cooking classes are often surprised to learn that we have full health care services. They are surprised to learn how many of the community’s doctors use our facilities. Those are the most important benefits of the classes."