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Improving Relationships with Food, One Culinary Group at a Time

November 12, 2013

For a young person with an eating disorder, cooking can be a very difficult task. It can be tempting to count calories or keep track of all the “bad” ingredients rather than focus on the actual process of cooking. Veritas Collaborative’s Culinary Program, however, strives to help young men and women overcome their fears of cooking by guiding them through the process – introducing the ways in which cooking can be fun, creative, and therapeutic.

Several times a week, patients don aprons and join the culinary staff in the open commercial kitchen for culinary groups. These groups are structured to provide hands-on experiences in a safe atmosphere where patients learn basic cooking and baking skills. With supervision, patients learn how to properly and safely use chef knives and other potentially hazardous kitchen tools, how to safely and effectively use kitchen appliances, and properly wash, cook, label and store food items.  By learning these skills in a supervised group setting, it is much easier for patients to feel comfortable as they explore new foods and create food projects with their peers.

A large part of culinary group is cooking or baking items that the patients will eat for their meals and snacks. This notion can be challenging for some patients because a common practice for people with eating disorders is to cook food for others and not eat the meals themselves.  In culinary groups, though, the patients are constantly surrounded by Therapeutic Assistants to provide added support as they eat the food they’ve prepared. Each patient is also encouraged to make recipe requests so that they are able to make foods they enjoy eating as part of their recovery process. Recently, patients made cinnamon rolls for breakfast and they eagerly measured and mixed the ingredients to form the pastries, commenting on the delicious smells.

At Veritas Collaborative, all nutritional content on wrappers, boxes, and containers is removed or covered, helping the patients focus on the cooking projects, not the nutritional information. By not concentrating on the caloric value of the foods, patients are more likely to be mentally present in culinary group so they can learn important culinary skills to help them in their treatment.

Mother Daughter Cooking

Another important aspect of the Culinary Program is to help patients focus on rebuilding relationships in the kitchen. Many families have traditions and special memories that stem from getting together in the kitchen during holidays or birthdays, but are sometimes tainted by eating disordered behaviors. In culinary group, patients are encouraged to work on projects with peers and focus on the positive feelings they have about each project, such as the pleasant aroma of brownies baking or the excitement of learning how to put “fancy” grill marks on chicken breasts for that evening’s dinner. By focusing on these positive feelings and emotions about food with their peers, the patients begin to reestablish enjoyable memories in the kitchen. Veritas Collaborative also has two private family kitchens where families can cook together in a safe environment before returning home. As each person progresses through treatment, having the families cook together helps to create new memories and practice skills that will come in handy once they’ve transitioned home.

The Culinary Program at Veritas Collaborative is an important part of eating disorder treatment. By involving patients in the kitchen, the young men and women become more independent, less anxious and fearful of food, and create positive memories and experiences that will carry over on their journey to recovery.

Written by Anna McClintock,