The best place to launch a healthy lifestyle? Your kitchen
Because we all have to eat.
When I saw the brochure for the Harvard Medical School Lifestyle Medicine conference, I was intrigued, and determined to attend. Why? Because how we live can either spur on or help prevent some of the biggest threats to health like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease.
The conference started with Culinary Health Education Fundamentals coaching. Its purpose is to teach providers like me how to teach patients about nutrition, and to help us identify and address barriers to eating healthy. Dr. Rani Polak, the Director of the Culinary Health Education Fundamentals (CHEF) Coaching Program at the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, led these sessions.
Dr. Polak is a physician and trained chef. He reviewed extensive research showing that home cooking is key to a healthy lifestyle. For example, studies show that the more meals people prepare at home, the more fruits and veggies they eat. But since the 1960s, people have been preparing food at home less often, and relying on fast food a lot more.
Many people know they need to eat more healthfully, but don't know where to start. They lack confidence and skills, and don't think they have the time to prepare meals at home. If these are barriers to eating well, then doctors should be able to inform, motivate, and help patients make reasonable and practical goals for better eating. We need to help patients plan, shop for, and prepare healthy meals — and understand that they can do this. It takes more than handing them a list of healthy foods and recipes.
How to overcome common barriers to healthful cooking at home
Doctors as well as their patients can benefit from Dr. Polak's tips and tricks, for example:
Make shopping for fruits and vegetables more convenient: community supported agriculture groups and farmer's markets are great, but canned and frozen is fine.
Plan meal preparation with an eye toward efficiency: cook in large batches, and freeze extra cooked ingredients separately so that they can be re-purposed in different recipes.
Look for shortcuts: use quick-cooking orange lentils or even no-cooking-needed bulgur as a nutritious base for a meal.
Keep it simple and start every meal with a vegetable: leftover roasted or grilled veggies can be served as an "antipasto."
For anyone (including doctors) who is intimidated by the kitchen, or beginning home cooks, Dr. Polak offers some advice as well as two beautiful recipes.
There are endless possibilities for healthy homemade soup. To keep it easy and convenient:
Always make more soup than you need, and freeze the leftovers in meal-sized portions. Then, on days when you are busy or the cupboard is bare, you can heat it up, serve with whole-grain bread or a salad, and enjoy a great meal.
You do not need to defrost frozen soups prior to reheating, just run the frozen container under hot tap water to loosen it from the edges, then dump the contents into a pot and heat it right up.
If you don't have an ingredient, it's okay to leave things out, or substitute with what you do have. By improvising you can discover new combinations you enjoy, and each success helps you build confidence.
Pamper your kitchen with a grill pan, which is a basically a "frying" pan with elevated ridges that duplicate the effect you get on your outdoor grill. This is an amazing tool that can help you prepare quick and impressive food. Grilled veggies are super-healthy and tasty! To keep it easy and convenient:
Let your grill pan heat up for a while before you set food on it, just as you do with your outdoor grill. The hotter it is, the better "grill" taste and marks you will get.
To prevent sticking, lightly brush or spray food with a vegetable oil that can get hot without smoking, like canola.
Try Dr. Polak's Grilled Vegetable recipe as an appetizer or side dish. I used yellow and red beets, zucchini, and summer squash, but the list of possibilities is nearly endless (eggplant, peppers, Brussels sprouts, you name it).
Additional online resources
From the Institute of Lifestyle medicine and collaborating partners, a curated list of basic nutrition, kitchen organization, meal planning, and recipe links:
Rani Polak, MD, is Founding Director of the Culinary Health Education Fundamentals (CHEF) Coaching Program at the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, am. He is also a Research Associate, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School. Follow Dr. Polak on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn: