In 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) teamed up with the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington to connect over 1,300 DC area residents to Simple Cooking with Heart. The curriculum teaches participants cooking skills and instills confidence in the kitchen through the lens of improving heart health with better nutrition. Before COVID-19, in-person classes were primarily facilitated in Washington, D.C. as part of the District’s SNAP-Education program. Now, Simple Cooking with Heart has expanded to Maryland and Virginia. The classes have been hosted virtually in light of the pandemic.
Trained chef and certified integrated nutrition and health coach Veronica Velez-Burgess has always been enthusiastic about educating her local community on simple lifestyle changes to eat smart and live a longer, healthier life. As a YMCA culinary and nutrition educator, she brings her knowledge and passion for creating nutritious, affordable and simple meals to Latina mothers in Montgomery County participating in the Spanish-speaking version of the Simple Cooking with Heart curriculum.
The virtual courses use AHA heart-healthy recipes while sharing small lifestyle changes to incorporate more fruits and vegetables, substitute sugary beverages for water and engage children in healthy eating.
Veronica felt that the program, “left participants feeling confident in their ability to make lifestyle changes that led to noticeable health benefits for themselves and their families.”
Oftentimes, participants would share sentiments like:
“It is doable!”
“I don’t have to change my life dramatically or stop eating the foods that I love.”
“I can make these small changes. I can do it with my budget.”
Developing trust, encouraging community support among participants and having honest and transparent conversations about the reality of healthy eating were imperative to the program’s success.
“They really shared a lot about their own needs and challenges,” Veronica said. “We had really rich conversations about everything relating to the recipes, not just how you prepare them.”
The group discussed how to manage high blood pressure with heart-healthy meals by limiting saturated fat, sodium and added sugars, and they shared grocery shopping recommendations for healthy eating on a budget.
“The AHA takes budget into consideration in their recipes. They really think about what it costs to make these recipes, and for this group of participants, they felt it was manageable,” Veronica shared one of the reasons she loves teaching the Simple Cooking with Heart curriculum. “These recipes work because they are delicious and simple to prepare.”
Over 8 weeks, Veronica saw participants using the AHA recipes more frequently, eating more fruits and vegetables, cooking with their children and introducing new foods to their families.
One participant shared how these classes and small lifestyle changes made a big impact on her overall health.
“She previously used the oven as storage and tended to deep fry most of the food she made for herself and her family. She now roasts dishes and avoids frying. When her kids are hungry, they make fruit smoothies together,” Veronica shared the participant’s testimonial. “She used to feel a lot of pressure around her heart and was constantly tired. By making changes, she feels better, has more energy and the pressure around her heart is gone. Her doctor was very happy with the changes because she lost 15 pounds, her blood pressure is lower and her general health has improved.”
In addition to improving their health, participants also saw improvements in their children’s health. Many participants shared their children were at an increased risk for developing diabetes and obesity. By getting their children involved in the Simple Cooking with Heart classes, they became more open to trying new foods and learned skills to live a long and healthy life.
Veronica emphasized the importance of the YMCA Youth and Family Services team. “Maria Hernandez and Freddy Climaco identified the participants and encouraged them to engage with the program in a very meaningful and sustainable way. They were instrumental in making the group’s participation a success,” she said.
Interested in trying delicious, simple and quick recipes that are good for your heart and your wallet? Download our Shop Smart, Eat Smart digital recipe booklet or view Simple Cooking with Heart recipes and cooking tips at https://recipes.heart.org/.
For questions and to learn more about the program, contact AHA’s Community Impact Director Erica McIntyre at [email protected].