Clinical Center News
Winter 2019

Spices and social skills mix in cooking group for NIMH study participants

Two women look at a piece of paper in a kitchen
Rachel Hingst, with the Rehabilitation Medicine Department, looks over the ingredients of a meal with Megan Schoenfeld, with the Nutrition Department.

People with schizophrenia and related psychoses may struggle with social skills and pre-vocational skills like following directions and working with others. But there is one thing that can bring people together around the table – food. The NIH Clinical Center Rehabilitation Medicine and Nutrition Departments hold a weekly cooking group for these select patients admitted to the hospital for National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) studies related to their psychoses.

Rachel Hingst, an occupational therapist with the Rehabilitation Medicine Department, conducts the cooking group for four to eight participants in the department's kitchen area. The group focuses on teaching participants the mechanics of preparing meals.

"A lot of the participants struggle with weight gain due to their medications. It can be very discouraging," Hingst said.

This is where the collaboration with Megan Schoenfeld, a dietician with Clinical Center's Nutrition Department, comes into play. Schoenfeld and Hingst work together to develop healthy menus for the classes.

"We focus on increasing vegetables in meals and replacing higher-calorie ingredients with healthier options," Schoenfeld said. They also talk about resources that research participants can access at home like Sometimes, this means finding healthy substitutes for foods the research participants already eat. For example, in a recent class, participants learned how to make a healthy pizza. The class used vegetables as toppings, lower-fat ingredients and whole wheat dough and discussed adjusting portion sizes and adding a salad to the meal, Schoenfeld said.

Participants said, "I like learning how to cook and enjoy myself," and "I enjoy cooking with others."

Other classes have provided easy to duplicate recipes like sheetpan meals, nutritionally-balanced meals made on a sheet pan, such as cashew chicken and chicken fajitas.

"We try to find the balance between healthy and indulgent foods," Schoenfeld said.

"It is not practical, and it's not realistic to just tell people they cannot eat certain foods," Hingst added.

Group participants are asked for their input on future class meals. Recipes selected for the classes are easy to follow and do not require hard-to-find or expensive ingredients. It is very important that the participants be able to duplicate the recipes at home, Schoenfeld said. "Quick healthy eating on a budget." The group has the added bonus of encouraging patients to try new foods, she said.

"I think [our participants] find they actually like foods that they did not think they would," Hingst said.

Hingst and Schoenfeld educate about healthy eating habits during class, but the participants do all the work. They discuss the recipe, decide who in the group will complete the various tasks needed to make the meal and then they make the meal, Hingst said. Afterwards, they all sit down together to share the meal they have made.

One of the intangibles of the class is that it helps improve the attendees' self-image as it helps them to know how to eat healthier and provides them with skill sets they did not previously have, both agreed.

"I learned how to make coffee," commented one participant.

"Cooking group challenges me because of the many steps involved," added another.

People living with schizophrenia and related psychoses "often don't have a lot of opportunities to feel successful, so they take a lot of pride in successfully completing these meals," Hingst said.

Trina Davis
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