Dining with Diabetes

Young Patients Learning to Cook Nutritious Meals

“Live to eat, eat to live. You might as well enjoy the taste of the food!” That’s what Nirav Chaudhari, MD, pediatric hospitalist and trained chef, wants to teach children. It’s one of his goals of the newly formed Dining with Diabetes cooking class, hosted by the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology.

The class teaches children and teenagers how to cook a delicious and nutritious meal, while managing their Type 1 diabetes. Hosted in a fully equipped kitchen, the class gathers a dozen patients and their families to learn different techniques and recipes. It’s also a chance for kids to share their experiences living with Type 1 diabetes with the group.

At the end of class, they eat what they cooked!

“The goal of the class is to introduce meal preparation to the children and their families. We want to teach them to eat fewer processed foods by cooking more themselves.” said Nancy Jones, RN, a diabetes educator.

Jones had the dream of starting a cooking class for patients since before the pandemic. Her plans were put on hold until the Albany Medical Center Foundation received a donation from the Lonnie and Thomas Schwartz Charitable Foundation to support the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology.  Jones’ idea came to fruition with the first class last April.

“We’re incredibly thankful for this generous gift to support programs that help our patients with diabetes.” said Linda Riddick, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, noting the incidence of Type 1 Diabetes is increasing, with an average of one to four children being diagnosed each week at Albany Medical Center.

Hosted once a month, the cooking class is led by Jones, with culinary expertise from Dr. Chaudhari, and assistance from three Albany Medical College students who are part of the Cooking Healthy Options with Patients (CHOP) Service Learning program; Ta’Nae Harrod, Alexis Robert, and Pamela Sylvestre.

“Hosting these cooking sessions with the kids allows me an outlet to interact with the pediatric patient population, which I fell in love with when I previously worked as a Registered Dietician-Nutritionist.” said Harrod, medical student co-leader of the program. “I hope these classes cultivate a love for food, a mindset for moderation, and spirit of togetherness for the kids.”

In 2020, Dr. Chaudhari followed his passion to help improve the quality of food for children. He moved to St. Helena, California to attend an Accelerated Culinary Arts Program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, where he became a certified chef.  Afterwards, he earned a certification in culinary medicine to help bridge his careers as a doctor and chef.

When he isn’t rounding in the Bernard & Millie Duker Children’s Hospital and treating his young patients, he’s cooking up delicious meals and practicing the kitchen skills that he learned at culinary school.

“Knowing more about the medical and cooking aspects, I can tweak the recipes to make them healthier or bring up issues the kids may not be aware of. I also want to bring new flavors and expose people to foods they may pass up, because they don’t know what it is or how to use it,” he said.

At October’s class, the theme was “Taco Tuesday”. Dr. Chaudhari taught the families how to make homemade tortillas using masa flour. They also made chicken, rice and beans, and vegetables for the taco fillings and fresh guacamole and salsa. Many of the parents said they’re looking forward to making fresh tortillas at home, after seeing how easy the process was.

“People with Type 1 diabetes need to eat a healthy well-balanced diet, just like the rest of us.” said Jones. “But they need to be especially conscious of the carbohydrate content because they need to calculate and inject insulin based on the grams of carbohydrates they anticipate eating. That is not easy!”

“The main goal is to maintain glucose levels in the optimum range to avoid the long-term complications of diabetes, such as kidney, eye, nervous system, or cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Riddick. “By teaching these lessons in the kitchen at a young age, it will help the children reach their goals now and into adulthood.”

“I joined the Dining with Diabetes classes because I wanted to make more friends who also have diabetes. I really like the classes and I’ve loved all the food!” said Azzy Slattery, 15, from Albany.

So far, the group has made smoothies, pizza bagels, Caesar salad, BBQ chicken wraps, protein muffins, and tacos. Dr. Chaudhari hopes to make pasta from scratch in the future.

“Delicious and healthy food is not difficult to make,” said Dr. Chaudhari. “Creating good eating habits now will hopefully carry forward. These children won’t have to focus on their diet as an adult, they will already be living it.”