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Building a Teaching Kitchen in a Studio

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

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.

But why?

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

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

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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