"We learn new things every time we come here," says Donelle Tedder, student of the Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF) Teaching Kitchen at The Children's Hospital of San Antonio. "Yeah, the best thing I could cook before was cereal," jokes her sister Dalia.

CHEF Program Director Maria Palma meets with students for final thoughts after a cooking session. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

CHEF Program Director Maria Palma explains that the family dynamic of the classes is purposeful. "It's all centered around healthy food," she explains, "But it's really about family bonding and growth together." When families participate in healthy cooking together, they develop good habits that improve the health of the household.

"Man I put all this hard work into it. That means it's going to taste twice as good," says Donelle. When she was diagnosed with "new onset" diabetes, her doctor referred her to the CHEF program to make sure she had the tools to maintain a healthy diet.

Today she, her mother Debbie, her sister Dalia and two other families are making burger bites and trail mix, just two of many healthy recipes they've learned at CHEF. The instructor for this lesson, Maria Palma, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and former nutritionist for the San Antonio Food Bank.

CHEF Program Director Maria Palma demonstrates how to prepare spinach for a healthier version of burger bites. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Chef Program Director Maria Palma demonstrates how to form a meat ball for burger bites. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

The CHEF team at the Children's Hospital Teaching Kitchen includes Medical Director Dr. Julie La Barba, Nutrition Education Specialist Celina Parás, Program Coordinator Rebecca Vance, and Chef/Program Director Maria Palma.

This all started in 2015 when, in response to skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates in the community, the Goldsbury Foundation and The Children's Hospital of San Antonio partnered together to create a childhood nutrition initiative.

Nutrition Education Specialist CHEF Celina Parás (left) is recipient of The Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year Award by the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio 
CHEF Medical Director Dr. Julie La Barba speaks on the CHEF Program's successes in celebration of The Innovation Award for Healthcare Provider Training and Education by the Alliance For A Healthier Generation on March 20, 2018. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

"We landed at Culinary Medicine - that is, blending the science of nutrition with the art of cooking," says CHEF CEO Suzanne Mead Feldmann in an interview with the Alliance For A Healthier Generation. Thus the CHEF program was born, with several classes open to the community around the city. In 2017, the teaching kitchen was opened on the campus of the Children's Hospital to patients and their families who were referred by their doctors.

"Young children take pride in preparing a meal," says Maria, explaining the concept of the program. She admits nutrition is daunting at first, but she tries to overcome that by inspiring confidence in her students. 

Freddie Montenegro (right) and his father exchange burger bites during a CHEF class on May 7, 2018. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

Take Freddie Montenegro. He came here today with his dad, Fred. "I like hands on learning," says Freddie. His favorite subject at school is math, and he sees many connections between mathematics and cooking. Measurements and ratios are now his favorite part of the classes and have inspired him and his dad to cook the meals they've learned at CHEF in their home.

Chef Program Director Maria Palma demonstrates how to mix lean ground beef with fresh veggies. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

Cooking was already one of Caroline Steele's passions according to her mother, Julie. The advantages of CHEF to them are the opportunities to be creative with alternative options through "healthier substitutions that are filling," as Julie puts it. Today, Maria shows the class how adding carrot, spinach, and onion can not only make ground beef stretch further, but pack it full of nutrients.

Dalia Tedder, Donelle's sister, says it's not only the patients who benefit from the class.

I started coming to encourage my sister," she explains, "now I come because it's such an awesome learning experience.

Dalia Tedder CHEF Participant
CHEF Student Donelle Tedder grades carrots with her sister Dalia. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

After completing the six classes included in the program, Maria says many families ask their physician to refer them again. While all improvements cannot be attributed solely to CHEF, she says, physicians have reported cases of BMIs (Body Mass Index) stabilizing and cholesterol dropping in patients enrolled in the classes.

"Families are saying 'This is making a difference in our household, in our lives', and they want to continue to experience that," she explains.

Though only a few years old, the CHEF program is already being recognized at the state and national levels. Earlier this year, Chef Celina Parás was awarded the Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year by the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the CHEF program won the Innovation Award for Healthcare Provider Training and Education by the Alliance For A Healthier Generation.

Nutrition Education Specialist CHEF Celina Parás is presented with flowers during the CHEF Celebration Event at the Children's Hospital. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio 

But CHEF's success is most clearly seen today when the families settle in to enjoy their creations and begin discussing each other's days. Chef Maria sums it up best: "It's about families enjoying themselves in the kitchen."

CHEF students enjoy a moment during a cooking session. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
The CHEF team at the Children's Hospital in Downtown San Antonio. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

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