Rx: Cooking Classes

Imagine going to see your physician for an annual checkup, during which you find out you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and need to lose 20 pounds because you’re overweight (according to your BMI or body mass index).  Your physician writes you a prescription for an antihypertensive, atorvatstatin and…cooking lessons??

Integrating teaching kitchens into hospitals was the overarching vision of the "Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives" conference I attended last weekend.  Organized by Harvard Medical School and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, it was a preliminary gathering of physicians, dietitians/nutritionists, food service directors and culinary professionals to discuss ways to combat the current obesity epidemic of this country.

This was an interesting concept because I agree that people are becoming more and more detached from food.  So much of the food and drink we consume are pre-prepared or packaged for convenience, which makes cooking seem like such a time-consuming chore.  Apologies for the terrible insult for those "foodies" out there (‘How dare you call cooking a chore!’), but for some households, cooking at home is not convenient, not fun and simply not done.  It is precisely this sector of the poplation that would be targeted by the teaching kitchens program.  Learning some basic cooking skills in a hands-on environment would hopefully encourage people to continue these practices at home.

Although I think this is a great model with a lot of potential, my main question is: Why hospitals and not schools?  Many people only visit their health care professional when they’re sick–why wait until the disease is diagnosed?

I believe that good nutrition and plentiful exercise are key ways to prevent health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity.  And prevention (the mantra of public health) should start early; it should start in the schools.  I still remember my Home Economics class in junior high school where I learned the basics of cooking and sewing–now they are merely electives or not offered at all.

Reassuringly, there are schools that are integrating food and cooking programs into their curriculum.  One example is the Edible Schoolyard program in Berkeley, California where junior high school students grow, harvest and prepare their own organic produce. Bon Appetit has even supported a few school gardening programs like East New York Farms! and Collective Roots Garden Project.

As a registered dietitian, I’m very excited that the importance of nutrition and physical activity for good health is recognized and being encouraged in all aspects of healthcare, food service and culinary industries.  For me, this conference was a great forum for fruitful discussion yet also spurred many challenging questions.  What are the main barriers to healthy eating?  Is it lack of money, time, or skill?  How can we change the problems of the "systems" (i.e., healthcare, education, economic) to integrate healthy lifestyle behaviors throughout our lives?  I know there is no easy answer but I’m eager to do my part to help figure it out.   

-Katherine Kwon, MS, RD, Communications Project Manager