If you want to help your patients and clients enjoy healthier lives, being able to explain how to prepare vegetables in tasty and healthful ways is just as important as being able to explain why it's important to eat those vegetables in the first place.
I'm a self-taught cook, I own about 250 cookbooks and went to pastry school several years ago. That education and interest prompted a former boss — a physician — to regularly tell my patients that I was a "gourmet cook," which is not how I would ever describe myself. Yes, I can turn out a faithful rendition of Julia Child's Beef Bourguignon, but most days I'm about guerilla cooking: quick, easy, nutritious, tasty and with plenty of leftovers for brown-bagging, please.
I worried about what clients would expect of the RDN who's a "gourmet cook." Would they assume I was judging their cooking skills? Or, would they expect that I could easily teach them how to become more masterful in their own kitchens?
The truth was that while I've been cooking long enough to be comfortable experimenting — or even winging it — in the kitchen, I was often hesitant to explain culinary skills to patients. When a patient who has never roasted vegetables asks me how to do it, she wants a tidy explanation, not a rambling, "Well, sometimes I roast Brussels sprouts at 350 degrees, and sometimes I do it at 425, depending on if I have something else in the oven at the same time …”
Pastry school had the unexpected side benefit of boosting my cooking confidence (I realized that if I could manage to make croissants and soufflés, I could make anything I set my mind to), but that confidence wasn't something I could transfer to my patients. So, last year, I decided to take some actual cooking classes.
I started with a few skills-based classes and found I enjoyed upping my game by getting expert instruction on braising, making stocks and broths, and building flavor. I'm especially looking forward to an upcoming class on cooking without a recipe, since that's what I prefer to do at home. I'm also taking an online class with an emphasis on plant-based cooking.
In a video on knife skills, the narrator said that if you are what you eat, then you are what you cook — and if you don't know how to properly use a knife, then chopping and dicing vegetables will feel like a chore, and you'll be less likely to want to cook. Indeed.
What RDNs Should Look for in a Culinary Class
There are a few key points to consider when choosing a class. Do you prefer online or in-person? Online is more convenient, but in-person classes give you the pleasure of interaction and the ability to ask questions (of the instructor or of more-experienced students). Do you want demo-only or hands-on? An online class will be similar to a live demo class, in that any practicing will need to be done in your home kitchen, which can be an advantage if you are nervous about trying new things in front of strangers. Is the class focused on techniques that lend themselves to healthy cooking? A class that teaches the ins and outs of making rich sauces will be quite different than one teaching how to braise, stir-fry or stew.
Being comfortable in the kitchen makes it easier and more joyful to eat healthfully. When dietitians take steps to build or expand upon their personal culinary skills, they may become role models for patients. I frequently hear patients say, "You take cooking classes?" Yes! I explain that cooks at all levels can benefit from continuing education. I've even had patients decide to take classes themselves. Not only that, dietitians can always benefit from having solid, standardized culinary tips to convey to patients. It should be as easy for us to tell a patient how to bake a nice piece of heart-healthy salmon as it is to calculate their protein needs.