Abigail Perez wants to be the chef of a five-star restaurant in Paris, have her own team and cook breakfast and dessert all day.
But last Wednesday, Abigail, 11, settled for being team captain at her table. She and her grandmother, Carol Wallin, donned crinkly plastic aprons and gloves and stirred plastic bowls of chopped tomatoes and garlic with ribbons of basil.
They were joined by about 40 people for Baptist Health South Florida’s first interactive cooking class. The class was targeted toward proper nutrition for those battling cancer. An estimated one out of every three cancer deaths in the United States is linked to excess body weight, poor nutrition and/or physical inactivity, according to the American Cancer Society.
Wallin, a two-time cancer survivor, brought her aspiring chef granddaughter so the two can learn healthy eating habits to pass on to their family.
“I’m here to help train them and teach them more about eating in a more healthy way,” Wallin said.
Leading the event was chef Stan Hodes, Baptist’s executive chef of dining services. He’s been a Baptist employee for 25 years, and his team serves 15,000 meals a day to patients and employees. The hospital meals are properly portioned, lower in fat and sodium and sourced from local farms if possible.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that only one-third of your plate be filled with protein — the other two-thirds should be filled with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. And protein can come from plant-based foods, which are high in antioxidants, fiber and phytochemicals, and which studies have shown protect against cancer. Among the foods high in phytochemicals: broccoli, kale, cabbage, soy, cauliflower, garlic, onions, leeks, apples, berries, peanuts and green and black teas.
Hodes has a personal connection to the cause — his mother is a cancer survivor, his youngest brother died from cancer and another of his brothers is currently battling four types of cancer.
“I wanted to be there and hug him and cook for him every day, but I can’t,” Hodes said. “I felt a bit helpless, until I got involved in this project.”
As the class snacked on heaping mounds of bruschetta on crispy, whole grain toasts, dietitian Lucette Talamas talked about portion control and healthy eating.
“It’s not about avoiding certain foods, it’s about eating the right amounts,” she said.
The proper portion of protein per meal — four ounces, or about the size of the palm of your hand — left some skeptical.
“If you go to a restaurant and that’s all they served you, you’d think it’s a ripoff,” Talamas said.
She reminded everyone that whole grains and dairy, which form part of a properly portioned meal, also contain protein. Whole grains have an average of three grams of protein per serving, she said.
“The point is, we don’t need those 24-ounce steaks in one sitting,” she said.
Blending vegetables into starches (whole grains, corn, potatoes or yuca) is another way to bulk up a meal without overindulging, she told the crowd. Hodes backed her up by whipping up a dish of sauteed mushrooms, onions and farro — a nutty grain with ancient roots.
“Texture blending is a great way to avoid sugar, fat and salt,” he said. “It will give you the mouth-feel of a changed diet.”
Farro was new terrain for most of the crowd, so Talamas and Hodes tag-teamed to talk about the grain’s health benefits (fiber and protein) and flavor (nutty and chewy).
“What’s important for the kids here is to taste it. Well, for the adults too,” Talamas said.
Catherine Connor called the evening’s menu “my kinda eating.”
Connor, a 26-year breast cancer survivor, teaches exercise classes like Pilates and dance aerobics at Baptist Health.
She said she liked the huge twin projectors flanking the chef that gave the audience a closer look at his techniques.
“What you put into your body has an effect on what your body does,” she said.
After watching Hodes and hearing his cooking tips, Connor said she felt inspired to go home and try new things.
Harper Larson, 40, felt the same way.
After overdoing it on the Thanksgiving turkey when she was 8, Larson didn’t touch the stuff for nearly 30 years. But she nibbled at the broth-poached turkey meatballs Hodes prepared and said she was pleasantly surprised.
“It didn’t taste like poultry,” she said. “I loved it.”
Larson and her 10-year-old daughter, Halley, were there to learn more about healthy eating. They walked away with chef-tested, Halley-approved recipes and a half-pound of farro, a gift for all the participants.
“For me, it’s about my health,” Larson said. “So I can be there for her and her kids.”
Abigail was a fan of the farro as well. She said she hopes to add it to her repertoire. It’ll certainly be a more healthful choice than her specialty — eggs Benedict.
Team captains for the night received a gleaming white apron, and Abigail said she can’t wait to wear hers in the kitchen.
“I’m gonna end up getting food on it, but I can wash my own clothes, so, yeah,” she said.