David Tiesma rolled gooey date-pecan balls in coconut flakes as Chef Werner Absenger stopped by and asked if they were good.

Tiesma hadn’t tried one yet.

“How can you make sweets and not taste it?” Absenger said, scooping up a spoonful. “Oh, that’s good. That’s fantastic.”

Cooking lessons―with a fun, tasty and hands-on approach―form the core of a new Culinary Medicine program for the new doctors in Spectrum Health’s residency program.

Ten pediatric and internal medicine residents are taking part in the first two-week class, which aims to boost their nutritional knowledge, culinary skills and ability to educate patients about healthy diets.

“Culinary medicine blends the art of cooking with the science of medicine,” said Leanne Mauriello, PhD, a health psychologist and director of behavioral science and lifestyle management for Spectrum Health. “It brings dietitians, physicians and chefs together to educate about the powerful influence food has on health and disease.”

The classes teach a practical approach to food preparation that fits in with busy lives and modest budgets.

“This is not gourmet cooking,” Dr. Mauriello said. “This is about how you can cook in an easy, convenient, low-cost and delicious way for maximum health benefits.”

Meals with a purpose

Culinary medicine targets the crucial role that diet plays in preventing chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Nearly half of American adults have at least one chronic disease, Dr. Mauriello said. But lifestyle can prevent 80 percent of chronic disease.

The elective class aims to fill a gap in the education of residents. In four years of residency, new physicians typically receive only about 19 hours of education in nutrition.

The culinary medicine program provides four cooking classes, each three hours long. The residents discuss a hypothetical patient’s diet and illness, and then learn how to prepare dishes that could be good additions to the patient’s diet.

The program also includes lectures and dialogues about nutrition and ways to help patients make lifestyle changes. The residents visit local organizations to learn about barriers to health and resources available in the community. And they also spend time with dietitians, learning tips such as how to read a food label or modify a recipe to include healthier ingredients.

In the test kitchen recently at the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the students worked in teams to create a host of dishes, including tomato and white bean bruschetta, oven-fried chicken tenders, banana-nut oatmeal cookies and broccoli bites with buffalo sauce.

Tiesma worked with Courtney Myers to make the date-pecan balls as well as quinoa lettuce wraps with spicy peanut sauce.

As she minced a red pepper with rapid-fire chops on the cutting board, Myers showed a familiarity with kitchen tools. She and her husband, also a resident, enjoy shopping for groceries and preparing meals together.

She liked how the class expanded her repertoire of healthy, easy-to-prepare dishes.

It helps “not only to just better care for our patients but to better care for ourselves, to try some new recipes, to see what we can learn and what we can share,” she said.

Although he doesn’t consider himself an avid cook, Tiesma said he took the class for personal and professional reasons.

“The fact that a lot of our chronic diseases stem from an unhealthy American diet gave me a real sort of impetus to learn more about nutrition,” he said. He wanted “to start the changes with myself and my own family and then to be able to give patients practical tips and encourage them along their journey to being healthier.”

The residents have responded enthusiastically to the lessons, said Kristi Artz, MD, the lead physician for the Culinary Medicine program.

“They were a little cautious and tentative the first day, but now they really get in there,” she said. “I’ve been hearing about the recipes they have been making at home and the new ingredients they have tried.”

An emergency department physician at Spectrum Health, Dr. Artz said her interest in nutrition stems in part from seeing the effects of unhealthy diets in patients who suffer crises such as kidney failure, heart attack or stroke.

“I often see them at their worst moments,” she said. “It’s very important to me to figure out ways to talk about prevention.”

Taste is key

As the residents chopped, stirred and baked, their instructor, Werner Absenger, PhD, moved through the kitchen, encouraging, advising and demonstrating techniques.

The director of the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College, Absenger enjoyed helping the residents discover recipes that are both nutritious and delicious.

“We bring them into a kitchen lab and show them how easy it can be to eat healthy―and that healthy eating does not necessarily mean it doesn’t taste good,” he said. “That’s a myth we are trying to dispel.”

The residents’ class is part of a comprehensive Culinary Medicine program that Spectrum Health has launched using a curriculum developed by the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University.

The program will also offer cooking and nutrition classes to the community, Dr. Mauriello said. And courses will be offered to health care professionals as part of their continuing medical education.

She hopes the combination of education and hands-on lessons will reach a wide range of professionals and patients.

“All the information out there about diet and nutrition can be really confusing,” she said. “To get trusted information from Dr. Absenger and Dr. Artz is really powerful.”

After they finished their recipes and wiped down the counters, the residents plated each dish and presented it to the class. They discussed the ingredients, nutrition and how it could fit into a patient’s diet.

And then they filled their plates with samples of each dish.

Jenna Slaughter, a resident in pediatrics, said the class gave her ideas about ways to balance carbohydrates with protein and fiber.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I really enjoyed these recipes.”