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Sunday Talk: Get Your Kitchen in Shape promotes healthy cooking

Last Modified: Saturday, September 14, 2013 8:20 PM

By Bobby Dower / American Press

"Get Your Kitchen in Shape” is a program sponsored by the Partnership for a Healthier Louisiana and designed and hosted by the Nutrition and Food Science Program of McNeese State University.

Eljeana Quebedeaux, director of the Didactic Program of Dietetics at McNeese talked with the American Press about the program which is underwritten by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation when referencing.

What is the idea behind the ‘‘Get Your Kitchen in Shape’’ class? Is it a class or a lecture series?

Eljeana Quebedeaux: It’s not a lecture. It’s hands-on. We want to engage and allow people to experience. The whole objective of this class and the whole idea of the class is to allow people to not use that excuse, ‘‘I don’t know how to cook something healthy. I only know how to cook it the way it’s not healthy.’’ We want them to have hands-on experience for an understanding of what principles are involved when you want to cook healthy.

How important these days is it to cook healthy?

It’s important for the quality of life, it always has been. A lot of people don’t realize that what we put in our mouth is impacting not only our quality of living now, but definitely chronic. They are definitely getting some research showing some things even in child nutrition and even in the womb, how it can affect us later with chronic diseases.

There’s a national epidemic of obesity. So we are trying to address that. How can we still have tasty and healthy food? What’s the old saying? If it tastes good, it’s not good for you. Let’s change that. That’s the whole concept because healthy really does taste wonderful.

Along those lines, how does that particularly pertain to our diet and our culture here in Southwest Louisiana?

Last year we did eight sessions and our whole idea is, Southwest Louisiana, what are we eating and how can we make healthier choices. So we did Mexican, we did Cajun twice, we did Italian of course — all those things that we like in Southwest Louisiana.

This year we’re going to take four of the things that we like in Southwest Louisiana: one’s going to be more of a Italian-type of dish. That’s going to be our first one. Our second one we’re going to look at Mexican again. Our third one we’re actually going to look at soul food. I know that some people think that soul food and healthy can’t go together, but we believe that there are some foods out there that can be very healthy soul food. Cajun culture food is definitely going to be the fourth one.

Is it hard to break the habit of cooking mustard greens, which are healthy, but some cooks are going to start it out with a few pieces of bacon in the pot?

Let’s talk about that. I love doing that with my students.

We had some mustard greens and we steamed them. Steamed, I get a portion of that and it’s probably about 25 calories. However, it was really interesting because then I had another student who was very experienced at making those mustard greens with the bacon, the sausage — all those things we think about when we think about mustard greens in the South. She cooked that up and we got her recipe and I said, ‘‘OK, now we’re going to do a nutritional analysis on this.’’ And what we found out is if I have the same amount of portion of hers, it’s going to be 200 calories versus 25 of steamed. I don’t need to tell you that the steamed didn’t get eaten. This one, we had enough ingredients that she made it again and the college students ate it up. So, yes, there’s a taste factor.

But again what fats are we putting in there? If we do have bacon, what if it’s a little leaner? What if we don’t put as much fat in there? What if we do a few tweakings that says, “Yes, this is good’’, yet at the same time we’re also saying, ‘‘It feels good, too’’.

So in a sense, it’s not so much of cutting everything out, it’s more of reducing and adaptive?

Yes, exactly. Very well put. We really want to stress now in Louisiana and through the summer we’ve been able to use fresh fruits and vegetables, and this program really stresses using fruits and vegetables. We will use as long we can in the season use as much fresh as we can. However, as we go into the colder seasons, it’s not the season for fresh fruits and vegetables. We’ll have to work with the frozen and the canned fruits so we’re going to be talking about that and when you talk about vegetables, canned vegetables, you are talking a lot about sodium and some preservatives.

Sodium is the big one. Now they are canning, and packaging abilities have improved so that we see canned, no salt added. So we use them and we talk about lowering our sodium.

Cajuns and Southwest Louisiana like our sodiums. We are not any different than anybody else but we do like it in even more amounts. So we are trying to learn ho to cut back on those and provide some sodium alternative. There are a great array, without naming any certain brand, there is an array of Creole seasonings out there and some of them are adjusting now to reducing sodium, if not having it at all. So we present some of those and sometimes even have samples of those and use those.

What are the mistakes that cooks make and consumers make when it comes to food in Southwest Louisiana?

Sodium is one I just addressed.

The second one is fat and it’s very interesting because I’ve had this happen several times in my classes that we’ve already done. I say, ‘‘OK, here’s the recipe.’’

‘‘Well, where’s the fat? Don’t I have to saute onions in fat?’’


I had a chef came in and said, ‘‘You’re doing what? You are not adding butter before you do all of this?’’

And I said, ‘‘No, you don’t have to. Or less of that.’’

A lot of the Cajun cooks have learned to say let’s pour the oil or make sure there’s a layer of oil in the pan when all you need is a tablespoon or two. So, I would say those are two areas that we address almost every time.

The third thing is adding those fruits and vegetables. When you look at the fast food or even fried at home, think of the color. All of it is brown or white. Nothing usually has much color to it unless food coloring has been added.

What we’re trying to do is give you that natural color back in there with fruits and vegetables, getting us to when I sit down to a plate, it’s colorful.

And then we also talk about the portions of those. That’s another big key. If I’m going to have meat, we usually have meat in Southwest Louisiana with rice, with the meat on top of the rice. Where’s the vegetables? Maybe there’s a little bit or there’s mustard greens and if you didn’t put in the bacon and all that, yeah, that might need to be a smaller portion. But we need to have more fruits and vegetables on our plate. That’s the anti-oxidants, that’s the vitamins and minerals, that’s what makes us feel good, the fiber, all of those things.

As you counsel people, do you ever say that it’s OK to fall off the wagon once a week or once every two weeks and have what we would consider more of a traditional meal?

Let me put it this way: We get in the mind set that there is good food and there is bad food. There’s definitely a spectrum and continuum of this isn’t so good for you and this is even better for you. I think we can put all foods in our diet or whatever foods we want. There is some rules of exception for that. But for the general population, we can have in moderation of some of those things if we are getting it in balance.

Let me go back to the cooking class. What was the start of the coursework that you are doing?

This is with the Dare to Be Healthy Program and grant with the Partnership of Southwest Louisiana. It is one of the initiatives that is there. The idea was born out of hearing a speaker quite a few years back at a National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and they were talking about helping people understanding the concept, having them taste. Sometimes when you have some conversation with somebody, they look at you like, ‘‘That’s not going to happen.’’ And yet if you go, ‘‘Come in my lab setting and let’s practice this, let’s taste this,’’ it can make a lot of difference. And we’ve seen it. It’s been exciting to see. I can give you story after story on that from this summer.

I wanted to bring in the community and helping them see that. I want to see students beginning to get an understanding as well of, ‘‘Hey, nutrition isn’t just about how the food goes in the body. It’s also about how can I get people to consume the good food that makes them feel better or prevents chronic disease.’’

So, we actually this summer had the dietetic interns come in and they are actually helping out in each of the kitchens to promote nutrition and helping the cooking as well. Now this time around it will be the undergraduate students who will be involved in that. So it will be part of their curriculum and it is within a course that they are doing as part of an assignment.

For this program, when do you get started, how many weeks do you have and where to you meet and at what time?

We did it this summer eight times. So we have another eight this year, starting this month in September. We will go and probably finish up in May this time. What we’re doing this time is we’re going to have four that I’ve shared with you. Those four we will take on the road in the spring. The four that we do now will be in our lab here at McNeese as it was this summer. But we will take it on the road to different communities.

So you are looking at four this fall, but four more this spring in the outlying communities?


When do you start this month?

On (Tuesday), the 24th from 5:30 to 8:30 (p.m.) and it’s a time for family. We really want to stress that too, is that it’s family. But it’s here in Gayle Hall.

How many people can you handle and normally what is the class size?

We can handle, we have six kitchens, we could do 36. The best is we’ve had 28 in there.

How do people register?

They can call (475-5700) or email ( or better yet, go do the website ( and there’s a place that you will be able to register there.

Can you make kale taste good?

Yes, we can. (laughter). ...

Let me backtrack. A minute ago, you said something about families, this is not a class just for the wife to attend?

No, I really want the whole family. It’s an outing, it’s like going to eat out except you get to have fun before and engage.

That’s another thing. A lot of our families nowadays do not sit down together to eat a meal. They are having to run everywhere, but the other thing is they will run through the drive-thru, pick up something and they might even eat it in the car on the way home.

One of the things we want to encourage because that also has been shown in research that those who sit around the table and eat meals together, the children tend to have less issues with obesity. It not necessarily going to end all obesity, but the statistics show us that.

We want to encourage that and one of the things that is very challenging knowing as a mom myself, is when you have little kids and you have been working all day and you are already mentally maxed out and you pick them up from the day care and they are bouncing off the walls or school, whatever they are doing, and you just want to go home and prop your feet up and so you think, ‘‘Let me run through the drive-thru or pick something up quick’’ when it could be a very teachable moment for kids and engaging the child. There have been some Cajun cooks who have some excellent Cajun principles that promote health that haven’t been able to pass them on because no one was there to pass it on to.

One of the first classes, we had a family of six come in and beautiful children, not wild, not crazy. The parents came (tired) in. They had been at work all day and they had just picked the kids up from school. They weren’t sure what was going to happen. The kids were going, ‘‘What’s going on? What are we going to do?’’ We engaged them. Salad spinners are awesome little things. We were promoting vegetables. And they had a blast. That allowed the parents to begin to see what we were doing with them as well as to allow them to do what they need to do.

The other thing that has been very fascinating through the summer is that a lot of parents don’t allow kids to have knives. Well, its just like anything else, it’s a tool that you work with. And yes, they need to be washed and shown how to use them. So once you can, it’s pretty interesting how young they can learn those skills. And of course that is very important with fruits and vegetables. Using the scissors can be useful too.

We talked obesity is almost epidemic in Southwest Louisiana, but it is particularly alarming when you see the rate among children. Food is a factor, but exercise also is too and we have a lot of children that come home and sit at the computer and don’t go outside and play for a variety of reasons. How can this class and what they learn help in terms of being a lesson that is being passed down to children?

I’ll try to address that two ways. First, we became a society and the paradigm is changing, but we became a society who allowed others to prepare food and we just consume it. When you talk about the calorie expenditure, someone fixes it for me, I don’t expend much calories except to eat it. Where we once walked down to get it at the local restaurant, we now drive there. So that in itself when we start expended energy and having fun that can make a difference.

And of course, anytime parents can spend quality time, to me that’s a teachable moment. Kids don’t want things, they want time and it’s so important that we understand that. And this is a way we are nourishing their physical bodies and at the same token we are showing that quality time and love.

What is a misconception either about this program or diets and food consumption?

I think I’ve hit a lot of the myths, but there is one other thing that we try to deal with and that is the cost, that eating healthy is costly and in reality some of our best nutrition, nutrient rich foods are the least expensive. Cabbage is a very good example. You go in there and of course there are some things you are throwing away but there’s a lot of good there.

It takes time to prepare but how much time does it take to stand in line to be in the drive-thru of a restaurant? Think of that time. I remember several years ago, the same idea, Mexican food. I could prepare a meal faster, I could even go to the grocery store and pick up the stuff and go home and prepare a meal that was better for all of us at home probably faster than I could drive to the restaurant, go through the drive-thru and come home. And I could do better nutrition-wise — I could lower the sodium, lower the fat, I could put in some fresh veggies, all of that. And then fruit. And at that time there was no fruit at fast food. ...

What didn’t we cover?

Family friendly quick meals are what we’re looking at. We will actually have a meal prepared within an hour with the whole family helping out. And there are guidelines we try to stay within our meal between 500 and 700 calories. We try to stay within the guidelines of choose my plate and the dietary guidelines of 2010 of 25 to 35 percent fat, watching the saturated ones, 45 to 65 percent carbohydrate and 10 to 25 percent protein.

We also look at the sodium. We try to keep it under a thousand milligrams and we’re even try to keep it lower, down between 700 and 800 milligrams per meal. Fiber, we can consider that too, because when you are adding more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, you should be adding more fiber. We’re also talking about low-fat dairy. Those are the things we talk about, alternatives to dairy.

We also talk about equipment used, helping to see what equipment can help them prepare healthy meals, like the salad spinner, a blender — especially if you decide smoothies are your thing to get some of these nutrients — knives, cutting boards, a food processor, all of those things you can use.

Getting your kitchen in shape helps get you in shape.

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