People learn to cook in order to maintain healthy weight

A unique series of classes at UPMC is giving some Pittsburghers what so many of us want:

More food, less weight.

Unlike most fad diets, it works, and you can take part in it, or be inspired by it to do a similar thing at your house.

The PrepAbility class, part of the BodyChangers weight-management and healthy-living support group, gets members to prep nutritional meals by giving them the ability to do so. Once a month, members from the group, which is open to the public (even Highmark subscribers), sign up for the $35 class, which is held in a University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences kitchen lab space in Forbes Tower in Oakland.

The class is led by registered dietician and Pitt instructor Liz Ruder, as well as two students pursuing the clinical dietetics and nutrition major there. The students, seniors Kalli Lodovico and Christina Proch, get school credit for this, and plan -- and shop for all the ingredients for -- the healthy recipes. Last month's class, held on Saturday, Jan. 18, had the theme of "Reinventing Comfort Food."

Not only did the 11 participants work together to make three entrees of meatloaf, soup and pasta, but they also got to take them home -- nine individually proportioned meals each. The event -- the third class since PrepAbility started this past October -- lasted from about 1 to 4:30 p.m.

"This is kind of like an endurance event when we're here. But then they don't have to cook for a week," says Ms. Ruder, who has a Ph.D. in nutritional science (and two young children who help test the recipes).

The first two hours flew by, as long-time participants, newbies and BodyChangers staffers, even medical co-directors Jeffrey Gusenoff and Vicki March, chopped and chatted through an afternoon that was as fun as it was fragrant.

"Don't worry. We have a plastic surgeon here. So we can sew your fingers back on," Dr. Gusenoff had joked as participants signed release forms.

"Cooking is a perfect way to bring people together to live healthier lives," said the plastic surgeon as he worked one stove with Lisa Cronin and her 16-year-old daughter, Olivia. Actually doing it is so much better than just watching demos, which is what they used to do, and for more than one reason: He, too, would be taking home the meals, which he relishes for "clean" lunches on busy days.

Mrs. Cronin, who also has a 15-year-old son at home in Ben Avon, had just started BodyChangers and this was her first PrepAbility class, but she liked it from the start as a tool to teach her how to cook and eat things other than the "meat and potatoes with the butter and the milk" that she grew up with.

"I'm aware of what's healthy and what isn't," she said. "But going outside my comfort zone and trying something new, I'm not."

So she probably never would have tried the recipe for Mashed Cauliflower, which each little team was making to accompany their Muffin-Tin Meatloaves.

At each class, Ms. Ruder explained as she walked around the room, they try to introduce some unfamiliar techniques, such as the muffin tins ("actually a great way to do your portion control") and ingredients, such as the escarole (a bitter green) in this day's soup. Some people get more excited about that than you might think: At the previous class, "One woman wanted her photo taken with kale." They also share ideas for amping up nutrition, such as the oatmeal and mushrooms mixed in with the sirloin of the little meatloaves.

"Don't the mushrooms look like meat?" she said, stopping by one stovetop. Even manly man Tim Bouvy agreed, and he wasn't afraid to taste the Mashed Cauliflower, either. "The worst thing that can happen is that I won't like it."

He was here to support his wife, Gail, who said her disability (after multiple hip replacements), menopause and other factors had packed on the pounds. "I thought this would be a good way to learn some better habits" -- and teach her husband some cooking skills so he can help her even more at home.

This isn't rocket science: The Bouvys have a daughter-in-law who cooks ahead and freezes healthy meals so she has time to eat them on busy days and isn't tempted to eat unhealthful crap.

But even accomplished cooks don't make time for that, or have good ideas for what to make.

"I never would cook with quinoa or couscous," said Karen Tarolli, a cardiology nurse practitioner. She was paired with fellow BodyChangers veteran and enthusiast Lynne Erlich of Robinson, who said she'd never cooked before her divorce. Later in the afternoon, they were joined by newbie and Magee-Womens Hospital emergency room nurse Rose Meadows of Homewood, who told them she doesn't cook at all, but rather survives on what she called processed "heat 'n' eats."

Ms. Tarolli showed her how to brown the chopped sirloin for the Stuffed Pepper Stew, and then asked if they should drain off the grease.

"What grease?" said the not-shy Ms. Erlich. "That's taste!"

Ms. Meadows just kept stirring: "I'm learning."

And so it went, as they laughed, ran the food processors, washed dishes and, eventually, gathered their bags full of food and recipes.

I hazarded to the three women that people could do this at home -- gather some friends, share good ingredients and a stove, and cook a bunch of food ahead of time.

Ms. Erlich liked that idea, but warned to be careful if you add wine to the equation, or you might be, as she put it, "in the bag" before your healthy meals are.

The next PrepAbility class is on Feb. 15 and has a vegetarian theme, with a menu of Lentil Chili; Couscous with Lentil, Tomatoes and Edamame; and Corn Chowder. You can register for a PrepAbility class if you have a gold ($25 a month) or platinum ($50 a month) membership in the BodyChangers program. For more information on that, visit or call 1-855-BODY-CHG (2639-244).

Muffin Tin Meatloaves

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

1 carrot, run through a food processor

8 ounces white mushrooms, trimmed and finely diced

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2¼ pounds 90-percent lean ground sirloin

1 cup uncooked old-fashioned oats

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper

Cooking spray

1 cup marinara sauce

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat a large nonstick skillet and cook onion, celery, and carrot over medium heat, until softened, about 4 minutes.

Add mushroom and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid mushrooms give off is evaporated and vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes; let cool.

Place sirloin in a large bowl and mix with cooled vegetables, oatmeal, Italian seasoning, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and spices until just combined (do not over mix).

Place mixture into muffin tins sprayed with cooking spray; bake in middle of oven for 30 minutes.

Remove meatloaves from oven and spread marinara sauce on top of meat; continue to bake for another 5 minutes, or until meat reaches 160 degrees.

Makes 9 servings (of 2 muffins each).

-- adapted from

Mashed Cauliflower

32-ounce bag cauliflower florets

1½ teaspoon minced garlic

3 ounces Neufchatel cheese

1/3 cup reduced-sodium chicken stock (if needed)

Salt and pepper to taste

Wash cauliflower florets and add them, along with garlic, to a large pot of boiling water; boil until florets are tender (about 10 minutes); drain water into sink.

Add quartered Neufchatel cheese to pot and mash with hand-held potato masher until desired consistency (use a food processor or immersion blender for a creamier consistency).

Add a small amount of reduced sodium chicken stock if a thinner consistency is desired.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Makes 9 servings.

Stuffed Pepper Soup

1⅓ pound 90-percent lean ground sirloin

Salt to taste

1½ cup chopped green bell peppers (1 large pepper)

1½ cup chopped red bell peppers (1 large pepper)

1½ cup finely diced onion

2 teaspoons minced garlic

3 14.5-ounce cans petite diced tomatoes

29-ounce can tomato sauce

2¾ cups reduced-sodium, fat-free chicken broth

3/4 teaspoon dried marjoram

Ground black pepper to taste

4 cup cooked brown rice (prepared ahead from 1 cup dry)

In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown ground meat on high heat and season with salt; reduce heat to medium-low.

Add peppers, onions and garlic; cook about 5 minutes on low heat.

Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, broth, marjoram and black pepper; cover and let simmer until peppers are tender.

Add the cooked rice to the soup.

Heat soup through and serve.

Makes 9 1½-cup servings.

-- adapted from

Rotini with White Beans and Escarole

18 ounces uncooked, whole-grain rotini

5½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

3 tablespoons minced garlic

1⅛ teaspoons crushed red pepper

1 head escarole, outer leaves removed and discarded, chopped into bite-sized pieces

1⅔ cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

2 15-ounce cans no-salt-added cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

½ cup golden raisins

½ cup shaved parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat; drain water into sink.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat; add oil to pan and swirl to coat

Add garlic and red pepper; cook 45 seconds or until garlic begins to brown, stirring constantly.

Add escarole, cook 1 minute, or until escarole begins to wilt.

Add broth, and bring the mixture to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium; add golden raisins and cook for 5 minutes, or until escarole is tender and liquid nearly evaporates.

Stir in pasta, beans, and salt.

Top each 1¾ cup serving with 1 tablespoon parmesan cheese.

Makes 9 servings.

-- adapted from

Bob Batz Jr.: and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.


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