Photo of Tia Berry

Photo of Tia Berry

Tia Berry’s smiling, joke-cracking aunt Carolyn — the favorite in the family — died of a heart attack when she was just 53.

“She gave me my name, which means ‘aunt’ in Spanish,” Berry said. “I was her sidekick. We shopped and ate out a lot. Since her death I have decided to make change in my life because I don’t want what happened to her to happen to me.”

Berry now manages the American Heart Association community teaching kitchen to help people get healthier by cooking tasty, healthy meals at home without breaking the budget. The Simple Cooking with Heart kitchen debuted last month at Baltimore’s Stratford University and is the only one in the nation. The classes are open to the public and cost just $5.

“We want people to make changes in their lives so they don’t end up having a heart attack or stroke,” said Berry, a graduate of Stratford’s culinary management program who has worked in professional kitchens, performed cooking demos on a local morning news show and prepared food for cooking shows on Maryland Public Television.

“Cooking at home isn’t as hard as you think,” she said. “It’s cheaper in the long run and you do have time.”

Many Americans pay a hefty price for not preparing meals this way. Two of every three U.S. adults are obese or overweight as people eat fast food and heavily processed meals. Obesity increases risk for heart disease and stroke, the two leading causes of death in the world.

But the Simple Cooking with Heart kitchen is trying to change that picture by making “the healthy choice the easy choice,” starting with the basics.

Students might shuck corn or chop basil. They also get lessons on food safety, sanitation, nutrition, knife skills, budgeting and menu ideas. Most importantly, they’ll prepare a meal for four and bring it home at the end of the class. Everything from stir-fry to make-ahead breakfasts to tilapia with strawberry-kiwi salsa are featured in the 12-course curriculum.

Diabetic Jeff Wells said he learned a lot from a recent class. After a stroke, he left the hospital with a feeding tube, initially unable to walk or talk. That’s when he got interested in healthy cooking.

“There are real alternatives to adding butter and salt to everything,” he said. “Healthy eating is too important for healthy food to be unsatisfying.  If the recipe won’t get made again, it’s not going to have a lifestyle impact. I am excited about completing the courses and sharing the information with my friends facing health challenges. ”

The Baltimore kitchen plans to partner with organizations to provide information on increasing access to healthy foods. Eventually the goal is to grow the program with mobile kitchens.

Berry doesn’t limit her instruction to the Simple Cooking with Heart classroom. She also visits senior centers and health fairs to remind people that eating healthy can make a big difference in avoiding heart disease, stroke and other serious health problems.

“You only have one heart,” Berry said. “You might as well learn to take care of it.”

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