Unhealthy eating habits can mean big problems, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. In Guilford County alone, about 39 percent of deaths in 2019 resulted from heart disease and cancer, according to the North Carolina Division of Public Health.

Changing those unhealthy habits is one way to combat the chronic diseases that disportionally affect underserved and minority populations, and Cooperative Extension’s Healthy Habits program focuses on changing bad habits, developing knowledge and skills about nutrition and food preparation, and making lifestyle changes that lead to happier, healthier individuals and families.

The program always stresses research-based information and tips from professionals, but this year, Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T offered a new twist: the chance to cook healthy recipes with a professional chef during virtual Healthy Habits sessions.

“This is an idea that helps moms—like myself—learn cooking techniques and tips from a certified chef,” said Arnicia Gudger, program assistant with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), who teamed up with Shewana Hairston McSwain, EFNEP Nutrition Outreach Coordinator, to offer the new series.  “It is a new idea. I have invited chefs to various nutrition education series in the past, but it was never virtual or for families. I guess COVID helped us come up with new ways of teaching.”

The Healthy Habits Cook Along series began in February 2021 and will continue through the end of the year. Once each month, families from across North Carolina gather on Zoom to cook along with Chef Cherisa Williams, the owner of Flavor 57, a personal chef and catering company based in Winston-Salem. Williams, known as “Chef Cookie,” spent more than a decade in the corporate world but decided to pursue her culinary passion after a layoff in 2017. She completed the culinary arts program at Forsyth Technical Community College and Triad Community Kitchen, launched her business about three years ago, and has since seen it grow and thrive.

Chef Cherisa Williams, known as “Chef Cookie”

“I used that time out of work to pursue my culinary passion and I’ve been blessed with success,” said Williams. Her work with Cooperative Extension and the Healthy Habits program began when McSwain contacted her through the Flavor 57 Facebook page. As a result, Chef Cookie began meeting with Healthy Habits participants thought Zoom once each month. She gives the participants a recipe and a shopping list before each class and together, they walk through the steps of creating a healthy, tasty meal.

“It’s a real interactive process, and I take them through all the steps, including plating,” said Williams. “I love bringing people together to share that quality time. Today, it’s cell phones this, video games that, and this is so much more real family time. It’s been cool to see the kids with the adults working together to make that family time and mealtime special.”

The dishes prepared during the Healthy Habits Cook Along series illustrate that healthy eating can be exciting and delicious. Williams and the class have worked together on Caribbean fish tacos with pineapple slaw, fajita bowls with brown rice, chicken alfredo with broccoli. Peppers and whole wheat pasta, pastries with berries, and healthy egg dishes.

Even more important than the wide variety of mouthwatering recipes is the impact the program has had on participants. Pam Slaughter, a High Point resident who has participated in the program since early spring, said she enjoys learning about the science behind food preparation and food safety as well as making new recipes.

“The nice thing about having a chef involved is that you get to watch her techniques and get tips directly from her,” said Slaughter, who learned about the class through a Facebook group called Wellness Wednesdays. “I learned about the correct order for food preparation, why you wash knives between uses to stay safe, and I learned a lot about making substitutions.”

Slaughter said she started to lose weight during the class, which encouraged her to keep attending and making new recipes. She also likes that the recipes are all relatively simple and quick to prepare and enjoys the camaraderie of the class.

“We encourage each other, which is great,” she said. “Especially because we’ve felt so isolated during COVID. We can motivate each other to drink more water, eat more greens—it really helps.”

As for Chef Cookie, she said she loves to introduce people to new foods, especially when they are young and still developing their food preferences. She also enjoys seeing the reactions of parents and kids as they cook with her.

“When you see their smiles or their reactions when they try eating something new, as a chef and as a mom, it makes you feel good,” she said.