It takes more than sit-ups and strength training to keep high-performance college athletes healthy. Enter University of Kentucky athletics dietitian Monica Fowler who, for seven weeks this summer, ran a cooking school at the Nutter Training Center for members of the volleyball, women's basketball, softball, swimming and diving, gymnastics and football teams, and a few men's basketball players.
"By the end, we'd be exhausted," said Fowler who ran the program along with her graduate assistant Emily Ludwig and a cadre of dietetic student volunteers.
But the results were well worth it: student athletes who came in as kitchen novices are now preparing their own healthy meals from scratch.
Fowler knows this because they text her photos of their dishes, just like any other proud foodie.
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The cooking school grew out of Fowler's efforts to teach students about nutrition. A few years ago she began with female athletes at Shively Track and Field Stadium. During the summer months, when athletes would come in to train, Fowler let them compete in cooking contests, dubbed "Top Chef Shively," that also included nutrition lessons.
For a discussion on antioxidants, they'd fix feta and watermelon salad; when Fowler talked about probiotics and fiber, they got to fix black bean brownies.
This year, Fowler proposed full-scale cooking classes, and football coach Mark Stoops was so enthusiastic he suggested they have all the classes at the Nutter facility so his football players could participate.
The goal was simple, Fowler said: Get them comfortable in the kitchen.
"We tried for it to be really loose. ... We tailored the lessons to build on each other," she said. "The goal was to teach them to say, 'When I go to the grocery I buy foods I can cook with,'" meaning they buy ingredients rather than frozen processed food.
They borrowed pans from the dietetics classrooms and cooked on hot plates and burners. No ovens. At least not yet. Fowler is hoping next year they can use a full-scale kitchen so they can expand to casseroles.
Some of the students hadn't seen non-stick skillets before, Fowler said.
"It's really not uncommon when they get to college for kids today to have absolutely no idea how to cook," she said.
Before they could start cooking, they needed to learn kitchen basics. She noticed, for instance, that players weren't enthusiastic about recipes that called for raw meat, especially chicken. They were worried about food safety and were intimidated by the idea of cutting up chicken. Or cutting anything, really. So she worked with them on basic knife skills.
"'This is how you cut an onion, a pepper, how you hold a knife,'" she said.
To teach them that you don't really need a recipe for cooking, Fowler showed them how to make frittatas, basic egg-and-anything skillet dishes.
"The whole idea behind the frittata was to get them to look in the refrigerator and use what's in there," she said. "We were able to show them how many vegetables you can get into a recipe."
With just a little fruit on the side, they can get all their food groups in one dish, she said.
"They had a really good time with it," she said. "We wanted them to feel like it was just us and them, no coaches, no other people around them. And we could laugh. So if someone burned their frittata, we just made another frittata."
Despite the limitations, they covered a lot of ground. The recipe for lettuce wraps incorporated a lesson on food safety.
"We had raw lettuce and raw chicken, so we taught them how you get the produce ready, move it aside, then cut the raw chicken and keep it separate," she said.
In the course of the summer, the class also talked about incorporating foods that have things that are good for your immune system and special concerns for athletes, like keeping weight up with extra calories from healthy grains like quinoa.
She also taught them about peeling and de-veining shrimp, something many Southern football players were already familiar with. They even knew how to make a broth flavored with the shells, she said.
Fowler focused on items the athletes can fix to provide several meals, or can fix quickly.
"One of the common complaints we hear is that they are in class during the day, training at night and early in the morning, so they say they don't have time to cook dinner," she said. "So we teach them to make soup so they have enough for several days. We try to give them ideas where they're not feeling like they have to come home and make dinner every night."
One popular idea: grain bowls. Athletes could pair a cup of their favorite grain, a cup of their favorite vegetables, and a sauce.
"Everybody loved it because they got exactly what they wanted to eat," she said.
Teaching them how to shop at the grocery store is next.
"We're getting ready to do a grocery store tour for the gymnastics team Labor Day weekend," Fowler said.
And the women's soccer team missed most of the cooking classes so "one of the plans we have is in the fall, once a month we will meet over there, pull out our little burners and get something going (for them)."
The summer cooking classes were a success on many levels, from student bonding to independence, Fowler said.
"I think if we taught them anything, it was that a recipe is just a basic guideline. You don't have to reject it if you don't like onions. Just make it without the onions," she said. "I think some of them are cooking at home now. Especially the female athletes. Some of the football athletes had been big grillers already."
She has big plans for next year.
"I'd like to continue doing some kind of cooking classes, but when we were talking about ideas for next summer, somebody tossed out, 'How about an athlete garden?' I would love to do that," she said. "I have this fantasy of all the flower pots around the football field being filled with fresh herb plants."