Healthy Lunch Tips From the Cooper Institute

Our interns are busy finishing up the last week of their internship. Elizabeth Johnstone attended a cooking class through the Cooper Wellness Program. Surrounded by mainly women, Elizabeth picked up on a few things from the class. Her report is after the jump.

Kathy Duran-Thal, a registered dietitian and long-time director of nutrition for the Cooper Wellness Program, is dumping about half a squeezy bottle of Dijon mustard on a giant filet of pink salmon.

“And if you don’t like mustard, please don’t be disturbed,” she says cheerfully, inbetween glops. “Because I would be very surprised if you were to report to me, oh yeah, I tasted the mustard and I didn’t like it, because it just creates a skin on the salmon and keeps it nice and moist.”

The blonde ladies across from me exchange dubious looks as Duran-Thal snaps on a surgical glove and massages the mustard into the fish. It’s a little after noon on Wednesday, and we’re seated at one of two round tables in the small kitchen-cum-dining room where Duran-Thal is cooking and serving what would turn out to be a very tasty lunch.

But this is no ordinarily delicious fare—or rather, it is, and that’s the point. Duran-Thal teaches this cooking class twice a month at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, which looks more akin to a private college campus than an athletic facility. The class, which is mainly for attendees of the center’s Six Day Wellness program but is also open to the public for a $65 fee, is aimed at convincing (or at least showing) people that cooking and eating healthily is not quite as hard as one might have feared. Thus, the dubious looks of Duran-Thal’s audience do not go unaddressed.

As we plow through our appetizers, Duran-Thal takes care to show us the labels of everything she’s using, from canned kalamata olives to Uncle Ben’s brown ReadyRice, so the program participants can recognize the packages when they do their shopping at home. This is to prevent unfortunate accidents like buying a similar looking package of chicken-flavored rice, which has a whopping 1020 mg of sodium…per serving. The brown rice only has 15 mg.

Still, the cooking demonstration gets a bit muddied when everyone tries to do too many things at once: eat, converse, and pay attention to what’s going on in the little kitchen. There’s a taco soup made entirely out of canned ingredients (save the avocado garnish), a salad topped with leftover berries from breakfast, slices of steak with a sauce made out of Smuckers jam—and of course, the salmon.

The kind, extroverted lady in workout gear to my right, Laura Hill (who happens to be the mayor pro tem of Southlake), leans over and tells me I have nothing to worry about. She’s been here for a few days already, and everything she’s eaten at Cooper has been incredible. That’s certainly good to hear, but that wasn’t what was weighing on my mind.

Out of the dozen women and the few middle-aged men (there was only one other college-aged person in attendance), there are issues like not having time for breakfast, deciding what to order at restaurants, or providing healthy meals for a busy family. Hill told me that after she lost a significant amount of weight, going grocery shopping was one of the hardest things she had to do. She still hates doing it.

Hill isn’t alone, Duran-Thal says, and she wishes that the stores would make things easier on us ladies—such as featuring a recipe a day and piling all the necessary ingredients together at the front of the store.

“It’s the woman’s job to try and figure out, more often than not, what’s for dinner… And it’s not that we’re not willing to put our family first. It’s not that we’re not creative. We’re just exhausted,” Duran-Thal says.

All the dishes Duran-Thal so carefully selected are geared towards, primarily, a busy working mom who doesn’t have the time, energy, or desire to navigate the labyrinth of their local supermarket. Organic, farm-raised, nitrate-free, low-fat, fat-free. Apparently, it’s a confusing world out there, though I’m tempted to say that using common sense would have taken the mystery out of which package of rice to buy. I suppose this is somewhat along the lines of Duran-Thal’s point. We women aren’t stupid, we can read the nutritional labels just fine, right? It’s just that usually we’re on the go all the time, and what we really need is for someone to tell us what to do so we don’t have to take the time to figure it out for ourselves. But sitting here, in the middle of the workday surrounded by people who look like they’ve just come from an aerobics class, taking time is exactly what we’re doing. We’re just not really exercising our brains.

Thus, the cooking class smacks of an odd, somewhat self-imposed sexism—or perhaps more accurately, a zen-like acceptance of the kitchen as our rightful female inheritance that reminded me of my grandmother. Despite the fact that she hated to cook (and that my grandfather was perfectly capable of making pork chops and sauerkraut on his own), she took on the role of executive chef and executed it with aplomb for over 60 years.

When I asked about the few guys who came to the class today, Cindy Bostick, the senior program consultant director of sales for Cooper Wellness, told me that male attendance has been down in recent years thanks to the economy and an unwillingness to take off work. But for the men who do come to the kitchen demonstrations, Duran-Thal hopes that the side benefit of learning how to cook will pay off during those business lunches.

“If they know how to cook, then they’ll know how to dine out,” Duran-Thal says. “If I make a statement like, ‘I’m making French onion soup, and normally, the onions are caramelized in butter. But we’re going to do it differently.’ They’re going to go, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

For all the Dallasites who love their restaurants, Duran-Thal did say that dining out is the biggest challenge for people watching their waistlines or managing their health. I assume she means for both men and women, because in this day and age, the power lunch should know no gender. As for me—I really love French onion soup. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give it up.