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Nutrition and Cooking Immersion: A Personal Experience

by Cheryl Kain

On September 13, 2009, I got into my Toyota Solara convertible and drove four hours from my Cape Cod home to Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I would be spending the next five days in the Nutrition and Cooking program there, immersed in a healthy lifestyle and learning new ways to approach my food choices. I had no idea what to expect and was excited by the possibilities. While my approach to eating and nutrition has drastically improved in the past two years, I wanted to learn more and perhaps find the “missing piece” that would change my habits forever. The following is excerpted from a daily journal I kept during the program, and reveals the very real and surprising changes it brought to my life and the lives of other participants.

Introduction: Food Culture and Philosophy

My classmates seem very serious and intent on learning. Kripalu Nutritionist John Bagnulo, who has a doctorate in nutrition, talks about the difference between our ancestors’ diet and ours. This makes it easy to see clearly what a healthy diet looks like. A woman named Jen confesses her favorite food: cake. I can so relate. The ice has been broken.

Both John and Deb Morgan, Executive Chef at Kripalu, have an infectious sense of humor; there is a nice energy in the class. John’s excitement about yams and blueberries is contagious. We are all here because something is not working…

Day 1: Fruits and Vegetables: Nutritional Icons

We introduce ourselves. Our backgrounds and reasons for taking the program are diverse. There’s a recent PhD, an attorney, two restaurant owners, some registered and former dieticians, and the rest of us self-described “nutrition buffs.” A few people have severe allergies and gastrointestinal issues. Many of us struggle with some degree of sugar addiction. John asks, “How many people here like to cook?” Four hands slowly rise. More than half the class hopes to have more interest and less fear around cooking by the end of the week. Many of us think we eat healthfully, but want to learn the whole truth. Some of us are stuck in food ruts, and most of us are too busy to spend hours in the kitchen.

Making Friends with Vegetables

We applaud the vegetables! It turns out that menu planning and meal prep, such as cutting veggies the day before, are essential tools for making cooking easier. Cooking may be an art, but it’s an accessible art, available to all of us, and surprisingly therapeutic and calming. It turns out prepping is less of a chore than you’d think, and even fun. It is mesmerizing watching Deb prepare and cook. I’m looking forward to the hands-on part of the program.

Deb makes a stir-fry and we pass around roasted pumpkin seeds that taste like popcorn. I can feel that a new way of thinking is creeping in—for example, busting the myth that plant foods are boring and bland.

Day 3: Grains and Beans: Recession-Proof Nutritional Gems

On my third day of eating like this, I feel fifty percent better than the day I arrived. Upon awakening, I don’t feel as if I’ve been hit by a truck. I sprint, rather than drag, up the stairs. My skin is clearer. It is worth noting that I have not been eating miniscule portions. I eat until satisfied, and my pants feel looser. How can this be?

Someone asks about eating five smaller meals a day. John advocates three meals a day, not five small meals. Constant eating is counterproductive to weight loss. I have an “aha” moment.

We’re eager to learn every detail. I think we are looking at a complete overhaul of not just our food, but our thinking. Healthy eating is so much more than steamed vegetables and brown rice.

Nutritious, Easy Meals

I’ve noticed that many of our group members’ complexions look radiant. I swear that people are friendlier and less intense! I think eating daily greens has something to do with it, and staying hydrated not only by drinking water, but also through our vegetable intake.

Deb talks about how food can impact the way you think. We all cook together and then eat the samples, which smell, look, and taste amazing. The best part is that it is so easy. Even the meat eaters in the group marvel at how fantastic this healthy food can taste.

We enjoy a menu of Indian Rice with Cashews and Raisins, Coconut Chickpeas with Vegetables, braised greens, mango chutney, cucumber raita, chai tea with soy milk, refried beans served several ways, salsa, guacamole, and vegetables with kale and “fakin’ bacon.”

Field Trip to Markristo Farms

This beautiful three-acre farm in Hillsdale, New York, now in its twenty-second year, grows a few crops on a large scale; everything is certified organic. They specialize in salad greens like arugula, radicchio, and spinach.

Walking down the rows of flowers, broccoli, cauliflower, Japanese eggplant, tomatoes, and Napa cabbage, I bite into a piece of arugula, peppery and buttery. It is leagues tastier than the bagged variety I buy in the supermarket.

We sit down to a beautiful, farm-grown meal, seated in their greenhouse, with linen tablecloths and fresh flowers. It is a new experience to enjoy food knowing exactly where everything comes from, each step of the way. There is a deep sense of nourishment—smelling the air, seeing where the produce is prepared, and talking with farmer Martin Stosiek and his relatives and employees. We love the salad with edible flowers and the eggplant with Romesco sauce. The meal and company are outstanding.

Menu Design

Learning how to stock our pantry and plan menus is enlightening. I’ve rarely planned my meals, and everyone admits to making poorer food choices after a tiring day at work. We plan a two-week menu rotation, using a “menu map.” We write each meal idea on a separate page.

I share a lunch recipe for Red Lentil Apricot Soup, and everyone has creative ideas. We swap recipes and browse Deb’s many cookbooks.

It feels good to have a plan for eating for two whole weeks. I imagine how much creative energy will be saved by eliminating the daily angst, “What am I going to have for dinner?”

Day 4: Protein Perspectives: Meats, Fish, Poultry, Nuts, and Seeds

We talk about how what we eat affects our hormones and mood, which both improve with good nutrition and gut health. We’re laughing often, and people seem lighter and more easygoing than they did even a few days ago.

After only three-and-a-half days here, I find it easier to focus when I write, and my anxiety level has come down dramatically. One morning, I walk in the woods, and sit on a rock alongside a creek, just listening to the water trickle by. I know in my gut that nutrition and stress relief are the main reasons for the new way I feel. About mid-morning, I feel my energy flagging. I do the simple yoga pose called Legs up the Wall instead of reaching for a sugary snack. Immediately, my energy perks up.

Hands-on Cooking Workshop with Deb and John

We each choose a different station to man—salad, soup, veggie burgers, sushi, smoothies, or stir-fry. I man the panini station with Sarah. One of our creative sandwiches incorporates cheese, spinach, and fresh fig. Of course, we sample everything. Veggie-grain salad, fruit smoothie with almond butter, and my favorites: Sesame Tofu Stir-fry and Summer Rolls with Peanut Sauce.

None of the food takes long to make. We gain so much confidence! The myth that healthy cooking takes hours in the kitchen is busted. I promise myself that I will explore many of these delicious recipes at home. I deserve to eat well and enjoy it.

Closing Session

We learn that digestive enzymes can help with gluten sensitivity, leaky gut, or skin conditions like eczema. Our plates should contain fifty percent veggies, twenty-five percent grains, and twenty-five percent protein.

We share what we learned this week. Violet tells us that being at Kripalu has allowed her to enjoy eating greens like Swiss chard and kale. Several classmates have had much less severe digestive troubles. Some folks who had done little more than boil water before are now experts at menu planning and cooking.

We talk about what we will leave behind at Kripalu. I am letting go of the “I can’ts.” I ate greens every day this week and loved them. Someone else left behind caffeine; another, sugar. We all agree to strive to eat our daily greens and beans.

The Afterlife

Two and a half weeks later, I’m receiving inspiring e-mails from the other participants. We all seem to be having so much fun experimenting in the kitchen. There is lots of improvement in gut health, less bloating and better digestion, and Jen has lost ten pounds without changing her activity level. Overall, we are experiencing ease in implementing the changes we learned into our daily routines. It is exciting to hear how empowered people sound, taking charge of their food and their health.

Most noticeable is the sense of fun and satisfaction. There is nothing punitive or depriving about this new way of life. On the contrary, most of us have more energy and optimism.

I have lost a few pounds, and am enjoying my food more than ever. Finally, the health I have been dreaming about for so long is a reality. Wendy sums it up, “I feel empowered in the grocery store because I know what is good for me and how to cook it. I feel much more in control now and, as corny as it may sound, I feel like a winner. I am reclaiming what is rightfully mine: my body, my mind, my soul. I am finally nourishing myself, and it feels fantastic!”

Cheryl Kain is a freelance writer and yoga teacher who lives on Cape Cod.

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