Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming.
And making healthier choices when it comes to meal planning, cooking and activities can not only help families save money but also improve nutrition and personal well-being.
For 45 years, Montana State University’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program in Yellowstone County has been promoting that message through adult classes and grade school programs.
“We have three generations that don’t know how to cook,” said Phyllis Hansen, EFNEP’s supervisor in Yellowstone County.
But the program is “not a cooking class,” Hansen said. Rather, it’s all about education. “To teach people so they make healthy choices,” she said.
Billings resident Event Spotted Wolf, who recently attended her second class, is eager to learn healthier ways to cook. Her son and daughter, who also are attending the classes, will be moving out soon and she will have two grandchildren to care for, she said.
Spotted Wolf, who works full time, says she’s not much of a cook. She uses whipped cream in her fruit salad and buys pizzas, she said.
But Spotted Wolf and her daughter, Winter Kills Night, tried at home a new fruit salad recipe they got from their class. They used yogurt instead of whipped cream and their family liked it, she said.
Spotted Wolf said she’s learning how to read and understand nutrition and expiration labels on food items and how to prepare food in ways that save both money and time.
At a recent class that had 10 students, Monica Patterson, a nutrition educator whose has taught the program for 27 years, focused on meal planning, shopping, and saving time and money. She had students each plan a meal using grocery ads, discussed unit pricing and generic products versus name brands and suggested tips for freezing cheese and cooked ground beef for use later.
“That’s something I’m going to try,” Spotted Wolf said, about freezing cheese.
Spotted Wolf said she heard about the program at a recent farmers market, where the Extension Service had a booth and was giving away salsa samples and fliers.
Spotted Wolf said she intends to attend all eight classes. In addition to learning healthier ways to cook, she said the classes get her out of the house and offer an opportunity to meet new people.
The program’s three educators help clients learn how to shop, read labels and use “real food” to prepare nutritious meals, Hansen said. Cooking in the classes gives participants hands-on experience and a taste, she said.
Offered through MSU’s Extension Service, the EFNEP is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yellowstone County is one of three counties in the state that offer it along with Missoula and Cascade counties. The three counties have the program because they have the state’s highest populations.
EFNEP aims helps residents and youth with limited resources but also is open to anyone. Those eligible for the free program also qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), WIC or Head Start.
In addition the program teaches first-, third- and fifth-graders in elementary schools where at least half of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals. In Yellowstone County, about 75 percent of the county’s 37 elementary schools qualify for the program, which is currently focusing on schools in Billings, Broadview and Lockwood, Hansen said.
After the session on planning and shopping, Patterson’s class made a South of the Border casserole using five ingredients from a recipe called Invent a Casserole. The idea is to mix and match a variety of ingredients, like noodles and grains, a vegetable, a meat and a sauce that can be baked, cooked on the stovetop or in an electric skillet.
The South of the Border dish of thawed and cooked ground beef, thawed shredded cheese, corn, whole wheat macaroni, canned tomatoes and seasonings, was ready in less than 10 minutes.
Lynn Olson, a nutrition educator, said she’ll blend up a breakfast smoothie of yogurt, fruit and 100 percent fruit juice to show students how good it can taste.
The reaction, she said, is, “Wow. Eating healthy is less expensive.”
The need is great, said Olson. Many of their clients, she said, eat processed, convenience or boxed food and foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
Olson has a client who gets $500 a month in food stamp assistance for herself and her two children under the age of 13. “She is out of food by the middle of the month,” Olson said.
The program uses the government’s MyPlate nutritional guidelines, which recommend making half your plate fruits and vegetables, switching to skim or 1 percent milk, choosing whole grains and varying lean protein choices, and Extension Service-approved recipes.
This year in Yellowstone County, the program has taught 372 adults, who have a total of 1,263 family members, Hansen said.
During the 2013-14 school year, the program also reached 880 children, including 42 groups with 252 individual lessons, Hansen said. Participants included 345 first-graders, 263 third-graders and 272 fifth-graders.
A survey of the third- and fifth-graders showed that 92 percent had improved their knowledge needed to choose healthy foods consistent with the government’s guideline recommendations, Hansen said.
Community to class
Some of the biggest challenges, Hansen and nutrition educators said, are getting clients to finish the seven to eight lessons offered in a course.
“They don’t make that commitment,” Hansen said.
Barriers to completing the course typically are transportation and child care issues, Hansen said.
The Extension Service has a nondiscrimination policy, and its program is open to everyone. Instructors encourage clients to bring a friend because then clients will be more likely to attend, Olson said.
The instructors teach throughout the community and work with a number of partners, including the Billings Housing Authority, churches, Montana Beef Council, Yellowstone County CattleWomen, Rimrock Foundation, Family Service Inc., Human Resource Development Council and RiverStone Health’s Healthy by Design program.
“We will teach almost everywhere,” Olson said.
Classes are being held this month at the Billings Housing Authority Center on the South Side, while others are taught at various churches. The instructors don’t necessarily need a kitchen.
“We can do it simply with a blender, skillet and microwave,” Olson said.
Class participants receive basic kitchen supplies, like measuring cups and spoons, a food thermometer, produce brush, along with a calendar packed with recipes, a cookbook and a graduation certificate upon completion.
The program freely shares recipes, not only on its website at www.co.yellowstone.mt.gov/extension/efnep, but also on handouts and fliers. On the back of the 2014 Fall Schedule flier is a recipe for Mexican chicken soup. A flier promoting EFNEP’s classes has a recipe for three-bean salad.
Some of the many tips instructors offer include preparing ingredients ahead and stretching meals by adding vegetables.
Patterson said she encouraged a client to add some frozen stir fry vegetables to quick noodles, like Top Ramen. “She just loved it and her kids loved it,” she said.
Olson likes using a slow cooker so meals can be ready when clients get home from work. Knowing dinner will be ready means clients are less likely to drive through a fast-food restaurant, she said.
If clients don’t like a particular food, Patterson said, she shows them how to substitute a vegetable or be creative to make a meal they will like.
The nutrition educators promote their program at community events like the Gardeners’ Market held at South Park. Olson said they gave out samples of a slaw of kale, green and red cabbage and carrots. The salad was a hit.
“The kids kept coming back,” Olson said.
Hansen, who teaches in the elementary schools, uses vegetable soup to introduce children to foods they may not have tried or think they don’t like.
The kids can’t make faces or noises. Hansen says she tells them: “I don’t want to hear any ‘bleh!’ You have to try a bite but do it with me.”
First, Hansen tells the kids to fish out a vegetable they like from their bowls. Next, they find and try a new vegetable. And finally, they try both vegetables together.
“I’ve never had a child not finish their soup,” Hansen said.