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Bulldogs in the Kitchen
By Janice H. Dada, MPH, RD, CSSD, CDE, CHES

Fresno State’s cooking program is blazing trails in the area of nutrition for hundreds of its student athletes.

At California State University, Fresno, a special project has been under way for the past three years in the Food and Nutrition Communication class that has transformed the department of athletics by leaps and bounds.

In this capstone course, part of the food science and nutrition department, senior dietetics students are given the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the course of their studies to a major project.

During the course, dietetics students teach student athletes to plan menus, develop a budget, shop for healthful food, and learn how to cook. The program, called Bulldogs in the Kitchen, was named after the Fresno State mascot, the Bulldog. The main goal of Bulldogs in the Kitchen is to teach the athletes basic survival cooking skills they can use at home, on campus, and on the road.

Match Made in Heaven
Lisa Herzig, PhD, RD, CDE, directs the program, which began when the university’s head strength coach, Andy Bennett, approached her to express interest in collaborating with the nutrition department to help the athletes learn about nutrition. To improve their athletic performance, Bennett believed they needed to know how nutrition played a role. He also wanted the athletes to learn about meal planning, grocery shopping, and budgeting, so it made perfect sense to partner with the nutrition department to achieve these goals.

Fresno State already had a kitchen on campus for the dietetics students, so Herzig and her team soon developed the cooking program with the athletes in mind.

“Given the fact there was a kitchen already available, it made sense to invite the athletes into the kitchen,” Herzig recalls. “The dietetics students are required to take cooking classes during their undergraduate curriculum. So it was fitting to have them teach the athletes not only basic cooking skills but basic nutrition education skills as well, such as how to determine a healthful body weight, decipher pre- and postworkout recommendations, focus on the store perimeter while grocery shopping, and figure out how much money they have to spend on food. Essentially, the students teach the athletes basic kitchen survival skills and how to place nutrition at the forefront to improve or sustain athletic performance.”

In addition to the cooking classes, Herzig and her team developed a supermarket video tour as well as meal planning and budgeting seminars. Like the program, the seminars were designed to teach student athletes about healthful eating for optimal athletic performance, self-sufficiency in the kitchen, and healthful and budget-friendly shopping and cooking skills.

Come One Come All
All Fresno State athletes are invited to participate in the program, although the ones who have shown the most interest are on the soccer, football, softball, track and field, tennis, golf, basketball, and volleyball teams. Of the 400 athletes on campus, about 100 participate in cooking classes at any given time, and 200 have received individual counseling since the program began, Herzig says.

In the beginning, the program provided individual counseling in the exercise facility and nutrition education programs focusing on hydration, pre- and postworkout fueling, eating on the road, and preseason, in-season, and postseason nutrition.

The program has grown so much over the past three years that the university had to hire a part-time RD to work with the athletes.

Down Home Cookin’
The dietetics students work in pairs and choose a group of three to four athletes to take under their wing. The dietetics students greet the athletes in the kitchen and proceed to teach them basic cooking skills such as baking, broiling, frying, sautéing, steaming, chopping, and grilling, Herzig says. They learn to use proper knife techniques and food safety and handling procedures and how to complete a meal. The dietetics students direct, coach, and guide the athletes throughout the cooking process for a memorable hands-on experience.

Athletes from a wide range of sports work together to prepare meals. The meals are created from scratch and include appetizers, salads, entrées, desserts, and beverages. The athletes also are taught basic meal presentation skills. They learn about garnishes and how to appreciate the aesthetics of food. After the lessons, everyone gathers in the dining area and enjoys family-style meals, Herzig says.

As part of the program, the dietetics students create a booklet for the athletes that’s available online and in print. The booklet contains menus and recipes and provides a step-by-step guide for budgeting and shopping. It also offers snack ideas, garnishing techniques, and much more. Each time students complete the Food and Nutrition Communication class, they update the booklet and add new recipes. Sections on special dietary concerns, such as vegetarian eating, food allergies, and cultural foods, also are included.

Value to Athletes
An evaluation of the program has shown that the athletes find Bulldogs in the Kitchen valuable, worth their time, and helpful for improving their knowledge and comfort in the kitchen, Herzig says. Some athletes have said that they’d never touched a knife before participating in the class.

— Janice H. Dada, MPH, RD, CSSD, CDE, CHES, is a dietitian in private practice, college nutrition instructor, and freelance writer based in southern California.