RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now to Your Health, and eating well on a budget. If you like the idea of salmon and arugula, but it's frozen pizzas or bagel bites that end up on your dinner table, your life may not be all the different from busy doctors who are eating on the run.
NPR's Allison Aubrey traveled to the campus of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California. Through collaboration with Harvard Medical School, the chefs there are training physicians to cook.
ALLISON AUBREY: If you've ever assumed that meals that taste really great must be loaded with all the stuff that's bad for you, well, then meet Michelle Hauser. She's about to demonstrate how you can whip up healthy meals in under 20 minutes for less than $20.
Ms. MICHELLE HAUSER (Instructor, Culinary Institute of America): Go ahead and give that a smell.
Ms. HAUSER: It has like a very musky, lime scent.
AUBREY: As she snips sprigs of a citrusy herb from the garden here at the Culinary Institute, Hauser sounds every bit the foodie. But she's a world away from the diet she grew up and grew heavy on as a kid. One staple was commodity cheese, handed out to families like hers living on food stamp budgets.
A turning point, she explains, came when she first moved away from home and she was blown away by all the beautiful, fresh foods she discovered at a farmer's market.
Ms. HAUSER: And so I just started getting all of these really interesting vegetables I had never seen before and picking the farmers' brains as to how I would cook with these things.
AUBREY: Her approach to eating changed gradually, bit by bit, emphasizing a more plant-based diet. A decade later, she's teaching it.
Ms. HAUSER: Can you hear me, okay? No. Okay. I see some yeses and nos.
AUBREY: With the herbs in hand, Hauser has stepped into the Institute's huge demonstration kitchen. A video feed connects her to a packed classroom of students.
Ms. HAUSER: So I'm just going to dump my two cans of salmon into this bowl.
AUBREY: Pressing chunk of salmon into a strainer, she talks up all the flavor and the omega-3s packed into the grilled salmon burgers she's about to make.
Ms. HAUSER: And I'll tell you, I know that anyone can do this recipe at home, because I gave it to someone that absolutely cannot cook and they made dinner successfully. So that was my acid test for this recipe.
AUBREY: Now, before this all starts to sound like some kind of Rachel Ray cooking show spinoff, what you should know is that this isn't just a cooking class. Michelle Hauser is a professional cook by training, but she's also now a third-year medical student at Harvard. And her students are doctors, too. Many of them want to spend more time focusing on diet, lifestyle and disease prevention with their patients.
Ms. HAUSER: Okay. We're almost there.
AUBREY: Hauser has added some egg, herbs, spinach and whole wheat breadcrumbs. As the first of the salmon patties come off the stove, students gather in for a taste test.
Dr. TASHA TOMLINSON: It's delicious. It's very good. Very tasty.
AUBREY: Physician Tasha Tomlinson says they taste like a lighter version of the salmon croquettes popular in her culture. With less saturated fat, at a cost of about a dollar per serving, she says she'll take the recipe back to her patients.
Dr. TOMLINSON: Well, most definitely in my practice, there is like an epidemic of young women who are just overweight and sedentary, and they're always looking to me for things that they can do to get back on track.
AUBREY: Thinking out loud, she says maybe she'll coordinate demonstrations for her diabetes patients who gather once a month.
Dr. TOMLINSON: What if we did this in that diabetes class? Then they can learn one new recipe or a couple of new recipes to kind of incorporate into their weekly shuffle.
AUBREY: When people learn from each other by actually cooking, they're less intimated in the kitchen. Physician Lorrie Elliott of Chicago says what she's learning is that she needs to show her patients how to make changes.
Dr. LORRIE ELLIOTT: You can go to a patient and say, listen, I'm not going to tell you you can't have this and this. I'm going to say, look at all the great new things you can try. And here are some practical strategies for it.
AUBREY: Strategy one is to think about flipping portion sizes on your plate. The protein, or meat, in a meal should be no bigger than a deck of cards. Instead, build a meal around vegetables - it should be 50 percent of your plate. Then add whole grains and flavors.
Mr. TUCKER BUNCH (Instructor, Culinary Institute): Is anybody here tired of black beans and brown rice yet?
AUBREY: In the demonstration kitchen, Culinary Institute instructor Tucker Bunch has students prepare two kinds of whole grains - quinoa and faro.
Ms. HAUSER: You can drain and rinse these.
AUBREY: The grains cook just like rice, but offer more texture and flavor.
Mr. BUNCH: This is all really nice stuff. It's starting to feel a little Mediterranean, right? A little oregano. We've got some edamame, which is a little bit outside the norm, but they're loaded with great nutrition, especially when they're whole.
AUBREY: Edamame are just a type of soy bean. You can buy them in the frozen food section.
Bunch adds some baked chicken, some fennel, and he's got a meal.
Mr. BUNCH: So here's night one.
AUBREY: But there's still a lot of food left over. So the concept here, explains Bunch, is to cook once, eat three or four times. The extra meals he calls plan-overs.
Mr. BUNCH: I've got some of that nice vegetable stock.
AUBREY: This becomes a soup. He just adds bits of chicken and vegetables. And then he makes a salad, served cold, adding yogurt. Another plate is a drumstick with the vegetables mixed on the side.
Mr. BUNCH: So now I've got four meals, one simple combination of pretty basic ingredients, and I cooked it in one pan.
AUBREY: Pulling it of takes a combination of practice and planning, but your local grocery store doesn't need to stock a wealth of exotic, fresh ingredients to make it happen. Remember, Michelle Hauser's salmon burgers were made from canned fish and frozen spinach.
Hauser says she did enjoy the time she spent working in restaurants cooking fancy food, but her calling as a physician seems to be headed towards teaching food.
Ms. HAUSER: The biggest a-ha moment I had was when my students would come back - and these were just people taking one class at a time in the community -would come back and say their blood pressure had improved or, you know, some health benefit had come of it. And it just kept being repeated. And they were just cooking what they loved.
AUBREY: It was Hippocrates who said, let food be your medicine. Hauser's approach isn't far off.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can get Michelle Hauser's salmon burger recipe and a few more recipes for healthful family meals under $20 at npr.org/yourhealth.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.