From left: Kelley Bradshaw observes participants Johanna Younghans and Marie Koch during a recent cooking and nutrition class.

From left: Kelley Bradshaw observes participants Johanna Younghans and Marie Koch during a recent cooking and nutrition class.

A skillet sizzles as chopped onions and bell peppers sautée with olive oil on the pan. Earthy aromas of cumin and garlic fill the air as spices are added. While the ingredients then gently simmers in tomato sauce, several eggs poach in the mixture until firm. In about 15 minutes, the shakshuka—a savory breakfast dish with roots in North Africa and the Middle East—is ready to serve.

This isn’t a scene from a restaurant or café. Rather, it recently took place in the Hale Building for Transformative Medicine in association with a pilot program for pregnant women that combines dynamic cooking demonstrations with educational discussions about nutrition.

Developed through a multidisciplinary collaboration between faculty and staff in the Brigham’s outpatient obstetrics and nutrition clinics, with support from the Food Services team and a local chef, the program aims to make healthy eating more accessible for expectant mothers and their families.

“Many patients, and not just pregnant women, are intimidated when we say half your plate should be colorful vegetables,” said principal investigator Susan Hellerstein, MD, MPH, of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Oftentimes, they have tried a limited number of vegetables and do not know how to prepare them and make them taste delicious. The goal of our program is to help them put what we advise into practice.”

‘It Was Amazing’

Currently a five-week program for pregnant women in their second or third trimester, the 60- to 90-minute lunchtime classes have a fluid tempo.

During a recent session on breakfast foods, participants helped sautée onions for the shakshuka (view the recipe) while chef Eva Katz, a contributing editor at America’s Test Kitchen, prepared and added the remaining ingredients. Once the dish was set to simmer, attendees took in a brief, interactive presentation on healthy breakfast choices by Kelley Bradshaw, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, outpatient clinical manager of the Brigham’s Nutrition and Wellness Service. Once the discussion concluded, participants returned to the cooking area to taste the fruits of their labor. After a few bites, they learned about and sampled the next recipe on the agenda: overnight oats (view the recipe).

Noelia Purroy, 38, a participant in the program, has always enjoyed cooking and embraced the opportunity to learn new recipes, expand her palette and obtain a better understanding of her nutritional needs during and after pregnancy.

“I’m originally from Barcelona, so I was interested in discovering new kinds of foods that I don’t usually cook,” said Purroy, a post-doctorate researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in her third trimester of pregnancy. “For instance, the other day I discovered spaghetti squash. I had never tried it before, and it was amazing.”

Purroy said that while she had been familiar with some pregnancy specific guidance, she appreciated the in-depth discussions around intake of various nutrients, such as fiber, protein and carbohydrates.

“There’s a lot of practical information you can incorporate into your everyday life,” she said.

The Physical Act of Cooking

Bradshaw agreed the classes’ blended, hands-on approach to cooking and nutrition make the lessons especially engaging and effective.

“It’s one thing for me to talk about nutrition theoretically and provide a handout with some ideas, but when we’re combining that education with the physical act of cooking, you absorb the information so much better,” she said. “And we know from data that if people home-cook their meals, they tend to eat less salt and sugar, smaller portions and healthier foods overall.”

All recipes are designed to be affordable—feeding a family of four for $10 or less—and flexible in terms of ingredient substitutions. Additionally, each class covers food safety concerns during pregnancy and dietary guidance to avoid complications, such as preeclampsia, or conditions often exacerbated by pregnancy, such as acid reflux. The discussions also focus on appropriate weight gain during pregnancy.

During this portion of the pilot, Hellerstein and her colleagues are studying the feasibility of hosting this type of a program in a hospital and the optimal conditions for doing so, such as the time and duration of the classes. If successful, the team is interested in studying the relationship between program participation and health outcomes.

“We’re trying to expand upon the idea that pregnancy is a time when women are motivated to learn about and adopt lifestyle changes to improve their health and the health of their baby,” Hellerstein said. “We want to help patients view nutritional guidelines not as limitations but as parameters for making delicious, colorful and healthy meals.”

The next study cohort of Cooking and Nutrition in Pregnancy begins Wednesday, March 13. To learn more, call 617-732-9354.