August/September 2020 Issue
Culinary Education: Deliver Dynamic Cooking Demos to Live Audiences
By Liz Weiss, MS, RDN
Vol. 22, No. 7, P. 20
Cooking demos can be beneficial tools for RDs and their clients. They can increase food knowledge and culinary competence and help teach healthful eating habits.1,2 They enable dietitians to reach out and connect with the broader community or specific groups within a community. Cooking demos also can be a helpful promotional tool for an RD’s organization, service, product, or brand. But most of all, they can be a great deal of fun for everyone involved.
To run a successful cooking demo, RDs must consider the location, audience, recipes, logistics, and, of course, performance.
Choose a Location
RDs can demo in a wide range of places—hospitals, nursing homes, supermarkets, schools, libraries, other community settings, and even on Zoom calls—as long as technical needs are met. Consider whether people will be signing up in advance or whether you need a high-traffic location to attract a crowd on the day of the demo. Find a venue that’s accessible and appealing to the target community, including people using wheelchairs, and that has a microphone to include those who are hard of hearing. If you’re doing an online demo, make sure you have a good internet connection and that the existing lighting, audio, and computer camera angle make you and your food shine.
Identify Your Audience
With whom are you hoping to work? Consider age, gender, food budget, cooking skills, food preferences and allergies, and how many people may sign up. Identify your goals for the demo—are you looking for new clients? Do you want to offer some free education to a specific group? Then, tailor your presentation accordingly.
Edee Hogan, RDN, a culinary consultant in Washington, D.C., presents in underserved schools and knows not everyone has access to the same tools. “Take into consideration what pans and equipment your audience has,” she says.
Audience safety is also crucial. “We always have an allergen warning posted” during demos, says Sarah Kiel, RDN, a retail RD who works with grocery stores.
Find a Theme
Once you have your audience pegged, choose a theme. Make your theme timely—maybe heart-healthy cooking during American Heart Month for cardiac patients, or seasonal fare at a farmers’ market. If your theme includes commonly used but easily misunderstood terms such as “plant-based,” “sustainable,” and “clean eating,” be sure to define them.
Poll your attendees to see if there’s any particular cooking or nutrition trend in which they’re interested. Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, manager of nutrition and lifestyle initiatives for Weis Markets in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, says, “I like to plan demo themes that match current food trends, but with a seasonal twist. Take, for example, plant-based eating. Host a demo around summer grilling ideas for your plant-based guests and show them how to make a craveable black bean burger.”
Nancy Tringali Piho, RDN, LD, cocreator of Good Food Nutrition Group in Washington, D.C., which specializes in nutrition counseling and solutions for individuals, families, workplaces, and school sports, agrees that polling your audience when picking a theme is essential. “I have learned the hard way that you can’t assume anything—for example, not all seniors are concerned about ‘nutrition on a budget.’ I once went to a senior program with this presentation topic in mind and quickly realized that the seniors in the audience loved elaborate cooking and fine dining!”
Logistics can seem tedious, but they will make or break your demo. You need to run everything as smoothly as possible, which means knowing exactly what your space offers and how you’ll structure everything. You’ll need to determine the length of the class, whether it’s part of a series, the date and time, who’s handling promotion, how the room is laid out, which appliances are on hand, how many outlets there are and where, whether you’ll need an extension cord, whether there’s running water close to your cooking space, how hands and dishes can be washed, and whether there’s a trash can.
Honna Kozik, RDN, LD, a wellness dietitian, in Valparaiso, Indiana, does a practice run that mimics the actual venue and circumstances as closely as possible to avoid a major mishap: “I had one demo that used pasta, and the cooking burner I was using wasn’t strong enough and took forever to boil the pasta. I then got a better one with more power and caused a blackout with all my equipment in the lobby …
funny now, but not then.”
Be Prepared and Make the Demo Shine
Have your presentation procedure down to a science to ensure the demo doesn’t come to a screeching halt due to a mishap. This will lower your stress level as well as help keep your audience engaged. Create an ingredient and equipment checklist and notecards detailing culinary and nutrition points, set up for mise en place (a French term meaning “everything in its place”), use clear bowls to enable the vivid colors of food to shine and make the meal more appealing, and declutter as you go by keeping a trash can and/or compost container nearby. Let the focus be the food.
Shari Steinbach, MS, RDN, owner and president of Shari Steinbach & Associates, in Allendale, Michigan, recommends having a “demo supply kit” on hand at all times, with everything from ingredients to sampling supplies to antibacterial wipes.
David Siegel, MS, RDN, CDN, a culinary instructor and personal chef in Brooklyn, New York, working in public health, is also adamant that preparation is key: “When I see someone start a demo or class with a grocery bag full of ingredients, I know it’s going to be bad. You need to figure out what is important to be teaching and focus on that. [For example], unless it’s a basic knife skills class, participants may not need to [learn how to] peel an onion. This also applies to prepreparing certain parts of the recipe when necessary. It’s painful to watch a pan slowly heat and cook during a demo. Cut out the dead time.”
Shopping, Cooking, and Propping Hacks
Little changes can help you make the most of your demo. For example, using an online grocery service and buying prediced and -sliced ingredients can save time. Set up your demo space with props to showcase the theme—use layers of objects at different heights for maximum visual interest, and bring items from your own kitchen. A favorite hack is to place a damp paper towel under your cutting board to keep it from slipping for quick prep beforehand or during the demo.
Find Your Performance Personality
Everyone has a different performance style; some are full of facts, whereas others joke constantly. But some universal elements make every demo engaging and exciting.
Always practice your presentation beforehand, and write down any related stories. “That way, when you get busy with your hands, you have talking points to fill in some of that silence while you chop vegetables, wait for pasta to boil, etc,” says Bethany Daugherty, MS, RDN, CD, a health and wellness education specialist at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour, Indiana. Keep your audience engaged by asking questions and encouraging volunteers when you can.
That said, stay flexible with what your audience desires from you—you may have a fact-oriented crowd that wants the nutrition details or people who are more interested in your stories. Cindy Kleckner, RDN, LD, FAND, a culinary expert, author, and recipe developer in McKinney, Texas, says telling stories and encouraging the audience to get creative are some of her best strategies. “Be prepared with your best storytelling. People love the culinary and food tales of your life and hearing food and nutrition experiences and new ideas. When I do my corporate team building events, I always include 10 minutes at the end for the group to brainstorm one thing their team learned during the event—but they have to deliver the message in a poem, story, rap, or something creative. I have the best footage of food-loving participants chanting with bok choy and rapping about roasting red bell pepper.”
It’s vital to be secure in your voice as a professional RD; be credible, confident, and trustworthy. Work with compassion and use person-first language. For example, rather than say, “I work with obese patients,” put the person first and say, “I work with many patients who are affected by obesity.” Avoid stereotypes. Define any potentially ambiguous terms, and make sure you’re considering all income and education levels; aim to be inclusive and empathetic in every way.
Kleckner’s professional voice is positive and inspirational: “Putting a positive spin on messaging has the audience leaving inspired, with an ‘I can do it’ attitude. I always focus on what they can add to make a dish more nutritious instead of what they have to give up or take out of a recipe; all foods fit, and reinforce taste and flavor. Attendees go from kitchen novice to kitchen warrior with messages that inspire.”
— Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, is a mom of two grown boys with a specialty in family nutrition. She’s the voice behind the family food podcast and blog Liz’s Healthy Table, and her site is filled with easy, flavorful, and nourishing recipes that appeal to both kids and adults. Weiss has written several cookbooks, including the interactive coloring e-book series Color, Cook, Eat!, as well as No Whine With Dinner and The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers.
1. Hemmelgarn M. Effectiveness of food-demos to increase nutrition knowledge. ScholarWorks@BGSU website. https://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/honorsprojects/202. Published December 11, 2015.
2. Goh LML, Wong AXY, Ang GY, Tan ASL. Effectiveness of nutrition education accompanied by cooking demonstration. Br Food J. 2017;119(5):1052-1066.
How to Choose Your Recipes
Selecting a recipe is a vital part of any demo. Recipes that succeed in your home may not necessarily present well in a cooking demo. Consider the following questions: Does the recipe tie into your theme? Is it budget friendly (and does it need to be)? Does it align with the points you want to make, such as “Fresh herbs are a delicious replacement for salt,” or “You can cook vegetables in ways kids will love”? How much time do you have? Will the audience participate or just watch? Can your recipe be easily adapted to various diets, cultures, and tastes, and accommodate allergies and intolerances? Are all the ingredients easy to find? Are you good at cooking it? Is it easy to share with a large crowd? Does it look and taste amazing?
Andrea Nikolai, MPH, RDN, LDN, of the University of Florida/IFAS Extension Polk County Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, says keeping it simple can be best. “Meals you can simply put together in an electric skillet with no other dishes work fabulously in front of crowds.”