Our intuition and our training as fitness professionals tell us that what our clients are eating is just as important as what they’re doing in the gym. Yet we may find that some clients have gaps in their knowledge about preparing healthy homemade meals. Organizing and hosting a cooking class can be a fun, engaging way to help clients overcome their apprehension in the kitchen and to inspire them to prepare more meals at home. Here are a few hints to get you started.

Choose a Theme

A theme provides a starting point for planning, and it brings purpose and intention to the class experience. The theme you decide on depends on your clients’ needs, goals and knowledge. Are your clients cooking novices, with little or no culinary proficiency? A class focused on recipe nomenclature and basic knife skills might be most constructive. Are the holidays approaching? Consider a “recipe makeover,” with healthy versions of traditional holiday favorites. Are hectic schedules and time keeping your clients from cooking? Structure the class around quick, healthy dishes they can prepare in a hurry. Other theme ideas include healthy cooking on a budget, in-season produce and ethnic foods. The sky’s the limit here. As long as the class meets a need for your clients and they can see value in it, you have a “recipe” for success.

Consider Your Objectives

A defined list of objectives will serve as a compass to guide your planning and preparation. Write objectives from the standpoint of what participants will be able to do after they’ve taken your class; goals should be specific, action-oriented and measurable.
Objectives for a beginner-level cooking class—in which, for example, participants make a layered salad—might read as follows:

Upon completion of this class, participants will be able to

  • hard-boil an egg;
  • use the proper knife and technique to chop lettuce, tomatoes and onions; and
  • use the proper knife and technique to mince dill and garlic.

Pick Recipes Wisely

What recipe you choose to prepare is one of the most important considerations when you’re planning a cooking
class. Furthermore, the space you have available and the number of participants will make certain recipes easier to make
than others. Consider these key factors when selecting your recipes:

Where will the class take place? Teaching in your own home can work for small, intimate groups, but if you plan to host a larger gathering, you may need more space. A little networking can go a long way here. Get to know local restaurant
owners, cafeteria managers or caterers, and see if they will rent their kitchens for an hour or two. You might also try an
Internet search for “commercial kitchen rental” to see if anyone nearby specializes in renting kitchen space.

How much oven capacity and counter space are available? Determine approximately how many students can assemble and work comfortably in your space, and cap your class at that number.

What cookware and utensils are needed to prepare the recipe? Have all the necessary equipment out and organized
in advance, so you don’t waste valuable class time rummaging through drawers and cabinets.

How much baking time does the recipe require? If you need a substantial amount of baking time, consider having a fully baked version available for participants to eat at the end of class. This way, they’ll have a chance to taste the finished product without having to wait for it to come out of the oven.

Determine How Your Class Will Flow

Once you’ve chosen a recipe that’s appropriate for your space and equipment, think about how to structure your
class. Examine your recipe carefully, and consider what type of class structure will work best for it. Here are three options:

You Guide; They Take Turns Helping

One option is to keep the group together the whole time. You explain and demonstrate each step, while the students watch and take turns helping. This format works well if you have a group that’s small enough for each student to assist with at least one step and an area of counter space that’s large enough for everyone to gather around (such as a kitchen island).

Each Student Makes One Batch

Another option is to have each person make a small “batch” of the recipe from start to finish. You could demonstrate the key skills at the beginning, then have your students go to separate workstations and prepare the recipe individually (or in teams of two) while you circle the room to provide assistance and answer questions as needed. This approach works best when equipment is not a constraint, such as when the group is small and you have enough cookware and utensils for each student (or team) to have a set.

Small Groups Have Specific Taks

A final option is to divide the participants into groups of two or three and assign each group a specific task or step within the recipe. For instance, one group might grate cheese, while a second group sautés vegetables, a third group cooks pasta and a fourth group minces fresh herbs. You’ll need to set up workstations ahead of time, each equipped with the ingredients and tools needed to complete the particular task. Once each group has finished its respective piece, the entire group reconvenes to assemble the final dish. This is a great approach for large classes, because it moves the preparation along at an efficient pace and it minimizes the need for multiple sets of cooking utensils and other equipment.

Do Some Prep Work

Be prepared for your students. Get out all your ingredients, utensils and supplies ahead of time. Set up each workstation
and equip it with the necessary tools. Type and print a copy of the recipe for each student. You might also consider measuring and prepping some of the ingredients ahead of time, especially if your recipe is long or involved.

Take Advantage of Teachable Moments

The clients who come to your cooking classes clearly have an interest in eating more healthfully, so take advantage of opportunities to weave in nutrition education. This can also be a great way to keep students engaged during some of the more mundane parts of the cooking experience. While waiting for water to boil to cook quinoa, for instance, you might explain that quinoa is rich in high-quality plant-based protein, heart-healthy fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants (Vega-Gálvez et al. 2010). Or, while garlic and onions are sautéing in a skillet, you might mention how these ingredients help support a healthy immune system (Bachrach et al. 2011; Kyung 2012).

Food safety is another key message to incorporate. Before you even begin your class, demonstrate proper hand-washing
technique and have all students wash their hands thoroughly. Keep raw meat, eggs, poultry and seafood separate from other foods. If you’re cooking meat, poultry or egg dishes, teach your students how to use a food thermometer to measure internal temperatures.

Keep It Versatile

Rather than send your students home with just one recipe, why not inspire them with ideas for several variations? Mention how your recipe could be tweaked to change its characteristics. For instance, if you make a stir-fry you could season it with ginger, coconut milk and curry for an Asian feel or, alternatively, with basil and oregano for an Italian inspiration. That same stir-fry could then be served over brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain pasta, rice noodles or couscous. Or it could be wrapped in a whole-grain tortilla for a travel-friendly sandwich. The possibilities are endless!

A cooking class is an excellent, though underutilized, forum for encouraging lifestyle change in a practical, hands-on
way. With just a cup of creativity and a pinch of pizzazz, you can inspire confidence in the kitchen and teach your clients invaluable skills that they will use for years to come.

Sample Cooking Class Recipe:Layered Salad

8 eggs
2 heads romaine lettuce
8 oz baby spinach
8 oz reduced-fat cheddar cheese
fresh dill and garlic
4 tomatoes
› C reduced-fat mayonnaise (made with olive oil)
› C Greek yogurt
1 bunch green onions
10 oz frozen peas (thawed)

After students have washed their hands, gather everyone together. Demonstrate how to hard-boil eggs. (Fill large saucepan about two-thirds full with cold water. Add eggs. Place on stove over medium heat and bring to full boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let sit for about 12 minutes.)

While eggs are sitting, divide students into groups and assign them to the following stations (for small groups, assign one student per station; for larger groups, assign 2-3 students per station).

Station 1

  • Wash and chop romaine lettuce, tomatoes and green onions.
  • Wash spinach leaves and pat dry.

Station 2

  • Grate cheese.
  • Wash and mince fresh dill and garlic.

Station 3

  • Mix mayonnaise and Greek yogurt together.

When eggs have sat for 12 minutes, drain pot and submerge eggs in very cold water to stop the cooking process; then gently peel and chop eggs.

When each station’s tasks have been completed, reconvene the whole group, and assemble the finished product:

  • Stir dill and garlic into mayo/yogurt mixture—this will be the salad dressing.
  • Layer ingredients in large glass bowl in the following order: lettuce, spinach, eggs, tomatoes, green onions, cheese, peas, dressing (use spoon or spatula tospread dressing evenly across top of salad).
  • Serve and enjoy!

Recipe key: C = Cup; oz = ounce

Serve It Safely

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are about 48 million cases of food-borne illness in the United States each year (CDC 2010). With proper precautions, however, we can keep our cooking classes safe and minimizethe risk of students getting sick. The USDA recommends four key steps:

1. Wash Hands And Surfaces Often

Wash countertops, utensils and cutting boards in hot, soapy water before and after each step of the food preparationprocess. Wash hands and forearms with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds.

2. Separate Raw Meat From Other Foods

Thoroughly wash any surfaces or utensils that have been in contact with raw meat, eggs, poultry or fish. Keep these raw animal-derived foods away from other foods.

3. Cook To The Right Temperature

Use a food thermometer to ensure thatthe following minimum internal temperatureshave been reached:

  • steaks, chops, roasts: 145 degrees Fahrenheit (62.8 degrees Celsius) (Allow to rest at least 3 minutes after removing from heat source. The meat is still cooking during this time, which kills pathogens.)
  • ground meats (except poultry): 160 F (71.1 C)
  • all poultry: 165 F (73.9 C)
  • eggs: 165 F
  • seafood: 145 F
  • casseroles: 165 F

4. Refrigerate Food Promptly

When purchasing your ingredients, pick up the perishable items last, and refrigerate them at or slightly below 40 F (4.4 C) as soon as you get home (USDA 2014).

Resources and Recommended Reading

Allrecipes.com. An extensive recipe library with menu planners, videos and shopping lists. Users can search for recipes by ingredient or by nutritional content. An app is available for mobile users.

ServeSafe® Food Safety Training Program. An excellent resource for additional training in food safety, offered by the National Restaurant Association. www.servsafe.com.

Guide to knife skills. Weinstein, M. 2008 Mastering Knife Skills: The Essential Guide to the Most Important Tools in Your Kitchen (with DVD). New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.


Bachrach, G., et al. 2011. Garlic allicin as a potential agent for controlling oral pathogens. Journal of Medicinal Food, 14 (11), 1338-43.
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2010. CDC reports 1 in 6 get sick from foodborne illnesses each year. www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/2010/r101215.html; accessed July 16, 2014.
Kyung, K.H. 2012. Antimicrobial properties of allium species. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 23 (2), 142-47.
USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture). 2014. Food Safety and Inspection Service. Safe minimum internal temperature chart. www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-foodhandling/safe-minimum-internal-temperature-chart/ct_index;
accessed May 30, 2014.
Vega-Gálvez, A., et al. 2010. Nutrition facts and functional potential of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa wild.), an ancient Andean grain: A review. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 90 (15), 2541-47.

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