For Veterans, Healthy Teaching Kitchen Much More Than a Mess Hall 

September 29, 2023
Emily Bukovich, one of the registered dietician nutritionists at Bedford VA Health Care, leads a program called Healthy Teaching Kitchen at the VA, integrating nutrition and application. Photo by Robert Dorer

As an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, Emily Bukovich taught weekly cooking classes for fellow students, focusing not only on nutrition but also budget.

That turned out to be good preparation for her work at Bedford’s VA Health Care on Springs Road as one of the registered dietician nutritionists presiding at Healthy Teaching Kitchen.

The sessions, a feature at the VA Hospital for the past several years, take place on the third Friday morning of the month. They resumed on Sept. 22 after a summer hiatus. 

Bukovich explained that her class “is designed to increase veterans’ self-efficacy and confidence in food preparation and management of their own health, and encourage healthier, more natural, and less processed food choices.” 

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She focuses on “integrating nutrition concepts into real-life application – food and meal preparation – to help maintain lifelong, healthy lifestyle changes.” 

Her resume includes not only a master of science degree in nutrition and health promotion from Simmons University, but also an internship at the Bedford medical center. 

Turnout was small at the Sept. 22 Healthy Teaching Kitchen and included a couple of other staff dietitians. One of the attendees, a resident of Bedford Green, has been an attendee for about four years. He grinned as he told Bukovich, “I’ve tried stuff here that I never even knew existed. Nine out of 10 things you’ve made I’ve liked – even though I didn’t know what I was eating.”

Bukovich set up a portable kitchen in the front of the room, featuring a horizontal mirror angled so the audience could see what she was doing on the surface.

The morning menu was roasted pork tenderloin with a chimichurri sauce, as well as plantain chips to mark Hispanic Heritage Month. As she prepared the food, Bukovich integrated basic information on cooking and safety.

“One in six people every year gets food poisoning, and when we get a foodborne illness, it’s coming from the preparation,” she explained. “So, make sure to keep raw meat separate from produce, make sure you are washing your hands, good hygiene, things you have been hearing your whole life.”

“I want to focus on safe internal temperatures,” she continued, augmenting her words with a printed handout (“a fantastic cheat sheet”). To be certain meat is cooked properly, “get a food thermometer.” She also spoke about safe storage of leftovers and other perishables.

That turned the subject to eggs and a nutritional lesson, “We want to eat the egg yolks. Naturally occurring cholesterol in foods doesn’t impact the cholesterol in our bodies. I don’t want anyone to be afraid to eat a whole egg.”

Bukovich turned back to the day’s menu. “Has anyone made chimichurri sauce?” One of the veterans replied, “I didn’t even know about it.” The condiment, she said, is “the most complex part of this recipe. All you have to do is take six ingredients and put them into a blender or food processor. It is a simple, straightforward recipe.” 

She began with four cloves of garlic (“you can use pre-chopped – I decided to use fresh”) and demonstrated how to remove the skin. Then olive oil, juice from half a lime (“stab it with a fork a couple of times, microwave for 12 seconds and you will be juicing for days”), fresh parsley. 

“Herbs are a great way to add flavor without adding extra sodium. There are a lot of health benefits, a lot of great nutrients, and they are good for anti-inflammatory cooking.”

She plugged an upcoming session: “We are going to be having a class on flavor balancing and flavor profiles to really help you get comfortable with using fresh herbs.”

Bukovich poured the mixture into a food processor and added salt and pepper. “I can already smell the yummy, delicious garlic smell,” Bukovich said as the machine whirred. “If you are watching your blood pressure, you can use less salt. Blend until it’s nice and creamy.” 

Then she added part of the sauce to the tenderloin to marinate in a plastic bag, saving the remainder for a topping.

“Always try to clean up along the way throughout the cooking process to make your lives easier,” Bukovich advised. For example, “Parchment paper to help line the pan makes it easier to clean up.”

Turning to the plantain chips, Bukovich said she would be frying them in olive oil, drying them on a paper towel, and adding cinnamon or salt so they can be sweet or savory. 

Before slicing the plantains, Bukovich turned to knife safety. “This is really important. I don’t want anyone losing a finger in my kitchen.” She stressed the importance of using a sharp knife. “We want to make sure we have a really secure station. A cutting board should not slide. Holding the knife is really important” She demonstrated the proper grip; a “claw” hand posture protects fingertips.

“We don’t have to be a professional chef. If you’re not comfortable cutting up produce, start slow and steady,” she continued. “You don’t have to be chopping like crazy.” An audience member confessed that he had “a bad experience in the kitchen with a knife. A tomato moved on me.”

As she sliced a plantain (“nice and thin and they will crisp up”) Bukovich pointed out that food preparation can be therapeutic. “Make it a fun atmosphere for yourself. Put on some music. Talk to a friend on the phone,” she said. “It’s all about the overall enjoyment.”

She noted that an option is to bake plantain slices “to really healthify this.” 

A veteran asked if he could use his air fryer.

“I want to talk about how all foods can fit into a healthy diet,” Bukovich affirmed. “If you get a heart attack, it’s not because you had one brownie. It’s all about moderation and all-around diet quality.” She also said, “You don’t need to have anything fancy to eat really healthfully. Don’t be afraid to use the tools that you have.”

She encouraged veterans to take advantage of the free produce market that the hospital hosts on the third Thursday of the month. “It’s a benefit you’ve earned, something to keep on your radar. 

Bukovich also stressed that the web address nutrition.va.gov “has a whole library of recipes that are easy, healthy, budget friendly, and in many categories.”

As she kept an eye on the pork tenderloin cooking in a portable appliance, Bukovich also turned her attention to the frying plantain slices. “I haven’t decided whether I’m going to use a spatula or tongs – I might use both.”

When the chips were done, she offered them to the audience, along with a store-bought package that she brought “in case something goes horribly wrong” with her slices.  All agreed that the home-cooked version was superior. Then she turned back to the tenderloin, passing around slices garnished with chimichurri.

Next month’s agenda will focus on breakfast.

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