Cooking Classes For Eating Disorder Patients

An Interview with Carey Garrett, M.S., R.D./L.D.

What is the purpose and clinical rational for cooking classes? Like meal therapy, cooking classes are a way to learn something by experiencing and doing–experimental learning.  In individual nutrition sessions and nutrition group–we learn, process, and plan things intellectually and sometimes emotionally.  Many of our patients are full of intellectual knowledge about food and food preparation, but cooking together in a casual, but controlled setting, can begin to disseminate the fear and negative emotions associated with food in general or certain kinds of food.  A secondary purpose is to teach cooking skills, learn more about food and experience a healthy relationship with food.    

Describe a Cooking Class at Walker Wellness Clinic at Cooper Aerobics Center.

Most of the classes I have led in 2011 have had 3-5 patients participating.  We cook in the “Cookery” at Cooper Aerobics Center Guest Lodge.  The kitchen resembles a home kitchen, except that there are mirrors for larger classes where and instructor would demonstrate preparation.  When we have small groups of less than 5, we all cook together, just as you would with friends at home.  We make 3-4 dishes–usually an appetizer, salad or soup or side dish, an entree and a dessert.  I choose the menus based on what I know will be appropriate for the current patients participating, but will also challenge them and encourage change and recovery.  We use recipes from the Walker Wellness Clinic Cookbook, the internet, and from the patients–their favorite recipes or ones they would like to try.

Why is cooking effective with the eating disorder patient population?

  • Cooking is therapeutic;  it can be artistic and fun and when you experience all those benefits while doing it with others–it makes relationships stronger, which helps people be well and get healthier.
  • The classes give us an opportunity to discuss, appreciate and reduce anxiety associated with normal food ingredients (i.e. oils and eggs) or discover new ingredients (i.e. we all learned what fenugreek is last week!).
  • All of the classes have been a positive experience, even if the food does not turn out perfectly (or at all).  So we are creating positive experiences with food that will override negative associations.  Brain research shows that creating these new “roads and thoughts” in the brain really can stop people from going down the roads and thoughts that lead to illness.

Clinical observations and experiences noted:

  • Many patients do not taste or sample the foods while they cook.  Normal eaters and cooks do sample and taste.  I taste and sample while we cook and encourage them to also…with clean spoons.
  • The patients share tips and techniques with one another–so we are all learning from one another (i.e. a new way to cut an onion or use fresh garlic)
  • Many patients come to the first class very concerned, hesitant and even a little resistant, but almost everyone is comfortable after one, maybe two classes.

Criterion to meet before enrolling:

  • Be willing to engage and participate.
  • Be willing to try all things prepared in cooking.  Patients can choose the portion sizes they want or need to meet their meal plan, but all patients must taste each dish.
  • Be a current patient or alumni patient from The Walker Wellness Clinic.

How are cooking classes at Walker Wellness Clinic different than cooking classes elsewhere?

  • Most eating disorder treatment facilities do not offer cooking classes.
  • Cooking classes offered in hospitals or health facilities are often focused on teaching people to cook with less fat, sodium and lower calorie.  These kind of classes could trigger patients with eating disorders to continue eating from a set of rules, instead of eating mindfully and intuitively eating.
  • Classes offered through cooking schools are usually much larger and less hands-on or experimental.
  • The Walker Wellness Clinic at Cooper Aerobics Center endorses and often refers to Cooper Wellness Program, which offers cooking classes that teach others how to incorporate healthy eating habits and foster healthy lifestyle changes.