HUNTINGTON — For many, it’s a challenge to consistently eat healthy, remain active and address other health-related habits. The pandemic changed the way all of us live and work, but it also affected healthy lifestyles and where many of us eat our meals.
According to The Hartman Group’s Eating Occasions Compass annual report, 88% of Americans surveyed ate at home in spring 2020. That increased by 12% from 2019, with eating at restaurants decreasing to 4% during the early days of the pandemic. While individuals continue to eat more at home, some may not make the most healthy choices.
Huntington’s Kitchen provides opportunities for Tri-State residents to learn about well-prepared food and healthy living, cooking and other food-related experiences. Its mission is to equip everyone with the knowledge and tools they need to help prevent and reduce diet-related diseases.
It uses its own blend of community cooking classes, meal kits, college courses, kids’ programs and other resources to carry out its mission. When the pandemic made in-person classes impossible, Huntington’s Kitchen Chef and Manager Marty Emerson knew he had to make some changes in outreach. He pivoted from hosting in-person classes and events to meet residents where they were throughout the pandemic — at home.
“Without people coming into the facility and teaching them how to cook, we kind of lose our purpose,” Emerson said. “So, we switched to being live online quickly to keep reaching the community. We try to keep people cooking. If you cook at home, it will be healthier than what you can get at a restaurant. If you learn the basic cooking techniques, you can apply those to any recipe. There are only a few certain ways you can chop an onion, but you can focus on the basics and elaborate on that to get cooking.”
Each Tuesday and Thursday at 6 p.m., Emerson unveils a new recipe and a relatable video tutorial to Huntington’s Kitchen’s growing community on its Facebook page. The content often pertains to specific diets, from Mediterranean and vegetarian to keto and even comfort foods. Emerson relies on participants’ surveys, food trends, cultural experiences and other methods to craft the weekly recipes.
“I did shawarma over the summer, and some people messaged me telling me that they had never had it before,” Emerson said. “They heard about it a couple of times before, but then they made it and instantly wished we had a shawarma place here. Sometimes, I will make a recipe and people will comment later and say, ‘You know, I would have never thought about making that’ or ‘This was much easier to make now that I watched someone else make it first.’”
In addition to online tutorials, Huntington’s Kitchen offers a paid meal-kit and cooking-class hybrid. For a set price, residents can purchase a weekly meal kit online, pick it up at Huntington’s Kitchen, watch the accompanying video, read through the recipe and cook the meal themselves at home. It’s a more hands-on approach without much of the hassle of figuring out what’s for dinner, which can reduce food-related stressors.
For some, cooking food at home can provide several benefits and a sense of togetherness that otherwise could disappear during highly stressful and uncertain times.
“It’s cheaper and healthier for you to eat at home,” Emerson said. “It helps to build the family aspect because you can sit down and have a meal together. You can ask about each other’s days. It’s a fun way to interact with your kids. If you’re homeschooling, if you let your kids help you, there’s math that’s involved with cooking. You can also teach them history and social studies. You can do so much with eating at home.”
Michigan Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, through the University of Michigan, suggests prioritizing nutrition during the COVID-19 pandemic by identifying the reasons behind cravings, creating a well-balanced grocery list, eating breakfast every day and drinking sufficient amounts of water.
Huntington resident Brittney Linkous said she has optimized healthy, easy-to-prepare recipes during the pandemic. Linkous has actively followed Huntington’s Kitchen’s Facebook Live videos since their inception in March 2020.
“The videos are interactive,” Linkous said. “You can actually watch Marty making the recipe and see how he is doing it. He doesn’t just put the recipe on the internet. You can see him make it, and I really like that. I like that the recipes are healthy, simple to make and are things that you can meal prep, put away and take with you to work throughout the week.”
Linkous recommends using the videos as a springboard in crafting iterations of the provided recipes. She said one of her favorite recipes so far has been the one-pan roasted chicken and vegetables.
“I like this recipe because it’s very versatile with the types of vegetables you can use,” Linkous said. “I have made it at least three times now, and I’ve made it with different vegetables. If you’re looking to have extra protein, you can double the amount of chicken. It’s nice to be able to have recipes that accommodate whatever your diet is at the time.”
Thomas Balch from Huntington took an in-person cooking class a couple of years ago. Now, he regularly purchases the meal kits and tunes into the cooking tutorial videos. He said his dad also watches the videos and experiments with weekly recipes.
“My dad has an absolute plethora of cookbooks to choose from, but he’s still finding these recipes that are fresh and entertaining,” Balch said. “He’s enjoying trying them out. I’ve had some of the ones he’s made, and they’re really good.”
Balch said he has made the videos’ recipes into a makeshift cookbook of sorts to serve as inspiration in his own kitchen.
“I really like the mission of Huntington’s Kitchen, and I enjoyed taking classes from there,” Balch said. “They’re doing a lot for the community to promote healthy eating — not just amongst the adult population through their cooking classes, but also with kids. The meal kits are a great way to remain healthy because everything is already prepared. I follow the QR code, watch the video, follow the instructions and make the meal. It takes a lot of the stress and hassle out of shopping, and it removes that barrier to me getting healthy. It inspires people to actually want to cook for themselves and find resources as opposed to going through an easier route by picking up fast food or pre-prepared meals.”
Post-pandemic, Emerson hopes to continue the online cooking videos but also mix in the in-person components. Ultimately, he just hopes that people continue cooking with confidence and consistency.
“I hope these classes allow people to get more comfortable in their own kitchens,” he said. “I know when they come here, they talk about how easy it is to do stuff. I did some of the videos at home in my tiny apartment kitchen, which shows that you can make nice meals at home. You can get more comfortable in your kitchen in order to cook more for yourself. In a few of the videos, I’ve burned stuff and made mistakes. Hopefully, that shows people that even a professional can make mistakes. You can recover from them and not get discouraged if you mess up something.”