The teaching kitchen at Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC) heats up on Tuesday afternoons when a group of clients convene with Chef Anne Gallagher, chef’s assistant Bob Forlano, and nutritionist Francine Blinten to learn the art of cooking and eating better. For these students, who live with serious mental health issues and subsist below the federal poverty level, the Better Eater’s Club and one-on-one nutrition counseling have been life-changing. The program started in 2013 and is now one of the Center’s most popular. We sat down with Chef Anne, Bob, and Francine to ask about their approach and to hear their reflections on food for the holidays. Very special thanks to Chef Anne for sharing two of her favorite soup recipes with us!
Q: Why do you think people enjoy the Better Eater’s Club?
Bob Forlano: They must be sick and tired of being sick and tired—of getting their food stamps every month, going to the corner store, buying bologna or whatever.
Q: Why did the program start?
Chef Anne Gallagher: I was brought in about six years ago to help with food transformation here at CMHC. There was a significant crisis with the client population eating a very unhealthful diet, which was not beneficial to their physical or mental health. By creating Better Eater’s, we addressed the need for folks to learn to cook and learn to make healthy food choices, even on a restricted budget. Better Eater’s has been instrumental in helping people take control of their health destinies through food.
Francine Blinten: When I started doing nutrition counseling at CMHC, I quickly learned that the clients often did not have the funds to go out and buy some of the foods I was recommending. We needed a basic build-your-own-pantry program, so they could have food items on hand to help them during the second half of the month. Better Eater’s Club was designed for people with food insecurity and other comorbidities that are diet-sensitive, such as hypertension and diabetes.
Chef Anne: At first, we were very regimented in sticking to the budget and being economically conservative. We still are, but now, if I see something at the market that’s interesting or different, I’ll bring it in. Last week, I brought a stalk of Brussels sprouts. By getting creative in the kitchen, we're expanding our palettes.
Bob: Once people try it and they see how good the food is—and that it’s actually cheaper than what they’ve been doing—they’re hooked. They taste the food. They see the quality of what goes into it. They feel better.
Chef Anne: We have a great time. We cook a meal together and sit around the table and eat it. We share stories.
Bob: One woman told us about how she went out and found a steak and cooked it for herself. That was really, really cool!
Q: Wait, why was that so cool?
Bob: People struggle to eat well because of mental illness and poverty. We’re all clients at CMHC—I am too. When I was going through my crisis and hospitalizations, I wasn’t worried about what I was eating. Now that I am doing better, I see the importance. For her to take the initiative and cook that steak--that was a real accomplishment. Life is challenging. One person, when we have leftovers, she never takes any because she’s homeless. One person lives on the inpatient unit and can’t take any food with him. One person won’t leave until everything is gone. He can’t stand for anything to get thrown away.
Francine: When there is scarcity, you want to hold onto things. That’s not always good.
Chef Anne: Better Eater’s is important for so many reasons. Everyone needs to feel connected, and food is a universal thread for all of us. Coming together to learn cooking skills and understanding the nutritional benefits of cooking for yourself is empowering on so many levels.
Bob: In Better Eater’s, we bond with each other. Nobody’s an outcast here. Nobody should be an outcast out there, either.
Q: What do people learn in your classes?
Chef Anne: We want everybody who has a kitchen or shares a kitchen to be familiar with their pantry and to move freely in their kitchens. They take the skills they learn in the group and incorporate them into their daily lives.
Francine: We address food myths. Fat. Salt. Things that look like health foods but are disguised. We read a lot of labels. We talk a lot about the messaging we’re all getting from the food industry. I want people to learn to trust themselves and their instincts about food. This little sweet potato can’t make any health claims, yet it’s one of the best things you can eat.
Chef Anne: We also talk about the five tastes. This isn’t about following a recipe. It’s about listening to your palette and checking in to see if you’re experiencing all five tastes, because that’s what keeps your diet balanced and keeps cravings at bay.
Q: What are the five tastes?
Chef Anne: We all eat sweet and salty; that is basically what our diets consist of. But there are three other tastes: sour, bitter, and umami. By incorporating all five tastes, you will create a more balanced diet. Having a more balanced diet eliminates craving. It also allows you to create a meal that is more satisfying and delicious.
Francine: We also explore the concept of leftovers: cook extra and count on leftovers, so they can take care of you the next day. What you keep in your house is the most important thing.
Chef Anne: I think universally, whether you’re battling mental illness or addiction or you’re just somebody walking through life, there has been a big disconnect in our society with food. People don’t sit down at the table together as much as they used to. We don’t realize how important it is. I don’t know what the answer is, but something has been lost. I see it everywhere, in all kinds of groups and communities.
Q: Do you think food heals?
Chef Anne: Yes. Absolutely. It heals as it sustains and nourishes. For you to take ownership of your food, to decide that you’re going to take care of yourself, is a very loving and empowering thing to do.
Francine: The social aspect is very healing also. Sometimes clients will offer to help each other. When something is working for you, you want to shout from the mountaintop. I also see lifestyle changes. Eating well is a cycle. When you eat well, you feel good, you sleep better, you have more energy, you’re able to do a little extra exercise, and you tend to crave healthier foods. It’s a positive cascade.
Q: How do you approach food for the holidays?
Francine: I encourage people to think about the real meaning of whatever they celebrate. I don’t think Christmas is about cookies. If food puts you in the spirit of the holiday, that’s great. But we should always remember what the holiday is really about. Think about your family and how you grew up, what is important to you, your values. And we shouldn’t go broke or go into debt around the holidays—I see that happening around here. Just spending time with a child in your life is more important than buying a gift.
Chef Anne: For me, the sky’s the limit. But holiday food doesn’t have to be fancy. Even something as simple as having a pot of soup on the stove can be very magical.
Q: What does teaching at Connecticut Mental Health Center mean to you?
Chef Anne: I love it. I find it very rewarding. I learn so much from everybody here. It’s not just me teaching them—they’re teaching me.
Francine: Yes. It’s a community mental health center. We all learn from each other.
Chef Anne: It’s amazing to walk into that kitchen with a group of folks who are all different and make a beautiful meal together. For me, it puts everything into perspective. Food is powerful.
CMHC is a collaborative endeavor of the Yale Department of Psychiatry and the Connecticut Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services.