Why clients who are comfortable with cooking their own meals (with real food) stand a better chance of overcoming their dietary challenges.
Have your clients ever asked:
"What should I cook for dinner?"
"How should I prepare it?"
"What if I have to cook a healthy meal for my family?"
A 2012 study found that 52% of Americans believed that doing their taxes was easier than figuring out how to eat healthfully (Matthews 2012). Imagining some of your clients in the kitchen might seem scary, but think of all the benefits that come from knowing how to prepare a home-cooked meal: fat loss, improved health, sustainable energy, family togetherness and the value of teaching cooking skills to the next generation.
What if teaching clients how to cook became part of your training? What if a cooking class could help you recruit new clients into your facility? What if a teaching kitchen program could add dollars to your bottom line and create buzz in your community?
Putting a kitchen inside your gym can make all that happen.
Before you start envisioning eggshells on the floor and flour all over your machines, consider what we have learned at my business—Avenu Fitness & Lifestyle in Houston. We began teaching quick cooking classes on a simple folding table with a plug-in skillet and a blender smack-dab in the middle of the training floor.
It wasn’t anything fancy, but we wanted food front and center in our business. We wanted to help our clients begin thinking real food first and training second. We wanted to skip over all the protein bars, shakes and supplements and teach people how to prepare healthy, home-cooked meals on a realistic budget with respect to both money and time.
Letting Go of the Status Quo Gym Model
A lot of trainers are tiring of standard solutions for fixing our broken relationship with food. Yet if you look around the industry for examples of gyms winning the long-term food battle, you’re likely to come up short. The more you search, the more you find the same answers: supplements, bars, shakes and fixed meal plans. Some gyms offer a “free nutrition consultation,” but few pay much attention to the long-term educational process required to change behavior and get people eating real food.
Time and again, fitness professionals’ biggest frustration comes down to our clients’ diets. We know clients can’t improve their fitness, burn fat and enjoy great health without getting food right. We know that when they eat better, results come more quickly and we look like rock stars.
So if food behaviors are so vital to the long-term success of our clients, our careers and gyms everywhere, why don’t we teach more about real food—the right way to prepare it and the right way to eat it?
Ask gym leaders this question and you’ll get responses like these:
- “We need quick fixes.”
- “We keep food logs and take pictures of meals.”
- “Most people don’t have time to prepare food.”
- “Most clients are overwhelmed by the idea of what healthy food is, so we just keep it simple.”
- “People are too busy. The best options for fat loss are bars and shakes.”
Ask individual trainers, however, and more vulnerable and truthful answers emerge:
- Some don’t know enough about real food to teach.
- Some feel uncomfortable talking about food, because their own food habits are not the best.
- Some give clients a computer printout to follow because it’s easy.
- Some feel they can’t legally talk about real food in their state.
- Some say they are paid to burn as many calories as possible and don’t have time to talk about real food.
We faced these issues at our gym and figured out that when it came to maximizing our clients’ investments and delivering the long-term results they wanted, we had to do something about their relationship with food. Namely, we needed to teach them to make their own.
Planting a New Seed
Those of us who know how to cook typically learned by helping our parents in the kitchen when we were growing up. We picked up on little pointers, burned some toast, learned how to eyeball a measurement and prepared recipes passed down through the generations. Developing a comfort level in the kitchen requires practice—spending time there planning, preparing and serving meals (and washing the dirty dishes!).
As time passed and life became busy, we lost the confidence our parents gave us while teaching us the basics. When we stopped trying to cook, the kitchen became daunting and confusing, so we began looking for the easy way out.
After realizing this, I had a eureka moment.
If we could recreate a kitchen environment inside our training facility, we could teach our community how to feel comfortable again with breaking out pots, pans, knives and measuring cups—the true keys to lasting health and fat loss. We could empower people with basic skills for preparing real food. We could teach simple meals, along with tips and tricks a professional chef would use.
Our program started with a simple folding table. After a few years of successful mini-classes and positive feedback, I took the plunge and dedicated 300 of our gym’s 4,500 square feet to the creation of a simple kitchen environment. It looks and feels as though you just walked into someone’s kitchen at home. It’s an environment that delivers more value, more connection and a unique experience that has changed our community for the better and, most importantly, for the long term.
The benefits we have experienced along the way are wide-ranging:
- sustainable fat-loss nutrition habits
- renewed hope among clients that they don’t have to train for hours if the food is right
- more people talking openly about real struggles with food
- a tripling of food-coaching sessions
- real-food challenges and recipe sharing within the community
- in-house lunch-and-learn sessions
- 15- and 30-minute meal-preparation sessions
- partnering with chefs to teach cooking lessons inside homes so clients see what’s possible with their current setup
- a new profit center with classes and coaching
- a great lead-generation and feeder program for introducing new clients to our facility
Bonus: Our story has been featured in multiple industry magazines and local newspapers, and has opened the door to consulting with businesses and fitness facilities around the country.
How to Build Your Kitchen
You don’t have to be a certified chef or have a bachelor’s degree in home economics to build a successful teaching kitchen program in your facility. You don’t have to stress out over expensive permitting from the city, build-out delays or budget excesses. There’s no need to fret over installing gas lines or dredging concrete to run a water line through the middle of your gym floor.
Building a teaching kitchen can be as simple as setting up a table, cleaning out a break room or repurposing a juice bar area. If there’s no space in your current facility, you may want to host lessons at your home or at a client’s home. And if those options are out of the question, you can rent space from a restaurant or a commercial food-preparation kitchen and teach your lessons there.
For our setup, we use only plug-in skillets, burners, warmers, mixers, slow cookers and, occasionally, the microwave. Sometimes we prepare the ingredients during a class but have the finished dish waiting in a warming tray (it’s what your favorite cooking show does, right?). This simple setup has allowed us to teach everything from slow-cooked recipes to quick-and-easy 15-minute meals.
Six Steps to Finding Great Teachers
The key is to find chefs, farmers, foodies, RDs and clients who are great cooks, have the heart of a teacher and are willing to teach rather than tell your clients what to do. That teacher mindset makes the lessons invaluable, especially because clients can begin applying what they’ve learned in their cooking classes later the same day.
Here are six steps you can take to discover unique food teachers in your community:
- Ask clients. The best way to build community is to allow clients who have a passion for simple healthy cooking to teach a lesson. They can also encourage their friends to come!
- Ask your favorite healthy restaurant. If it’s your local farm-to-table venue, ask to speak to the chef. If the chef is unavailable, a sous-chef will typically be able to fill in.
- Schedule a session with an RD. Like trainers, registered dietitians have different methods of achieving the same results. If you walk through a series of sessions with an RD, you can see if this one teaches or tells, and whether the approach aligns with your philosophy.
- Search www.localharvest.org. Discover local farms and scheduled community food events. If you find a farm you like, call up and ask to visit so you can see the farm operating. If they give you a 2-hour tour, sign them up. They have a heart of a teacher.
- Visit a local farmers’ market. Get to know the farmers, their personal stories, their vision for what they are trying to do. Find a farmer you like, and ask to visit the farm.
- Start a “food mastermind” group. After you meet all these people, bring them together and spend time figuring out how everyone can collaborate. Farmers are always looking for chefs. Chefs are always looking for local food. RDs are always looking for healthier options. Simply schedule a 2-hour window and facilitate a conversation.
Build the Relationship First
It’s vital that you take the time to truly get to know the farmer, RD, chef and other foodies. Over a few years before our kitchen was built, I had developed a business relationship with a local chef who was a “healthy eating specialist” at a local grocery store. We referred clients back and forth, collaborated on small videos, and hosted food and fitness challenges along the way. We developed mutual respect. My clients enjoyed the way this chef took time to teach the basics, breaking down complicated steps into small, bite-size ones.
After we established our kitchen, she was a natural choice to bring in and begin teaching our cooking classes. She also has clients invest in having her come to their homes and teach them how to demystify their own kitchens—showing people what they can do with their current setup. This has naturally added another revenue stream for our facility.
The more we establish relationships, the more the real-food movement will grow. But fostering relationships, not only between you and your team of teachers, but between these teachers and your community, takes leadership on your part.
Plant Your Own Seed
As you think about adopting the teaching model, don’t expect overnight success. It takes an investment of your most precious asset: Time. But a year from now will come regardless of whether you decide to waste, spend or invest your time. What would a teaching kitchen do for you? For your clients? For your business?
Don’t overcomplicate the process of implementing a teaching kitchen into your facility. Simply start small with the basics, within your current setup, and then challenge these basics in imaginative and creative ways.
We can continue to provide nutritional quick-fixes for our communities’ immediate needs, or we can challenge what’s possible within a gym and build a sustainable, healthy future by teaching people about real-food behaviors. Let’s first discover our purpose for creating a teaching kitchen, and then go out and have fun changing lives for the better by teaching people about real food in our own kitchens.