An item that’s unusual for a 13-year-old made the top of Jackson Schamper’s holiday wish list last year —a KitchenAid stand mixer.

This kid loves to bake.

So as a participant in the new Family Kitchen Rx program from Spectrum Health Culinary Medicine—hosted in the gleaming steel-and-white teaching kitchen at the Downtown Market Grand Rapids—Jackson felt at home.

“Jack has more confidence in the kitchen than I do,” his mom, Shawn Schamper, said.

But by the end of the four-class series, all three family members—Jackson and his parents, Shawn and Steve Schamper, of Holland, Michigan—felt better equipped to cook and eat healthy foods at home.

That’s the goal of Family Kitchen Rx, said Kristi Artz, MD, the lead physician for Culinary Medicine.

“The driving point is that food is medicine,” she said. “That’s what we’re teaching, that’s what we are prescribing—food as being a critical element.”

Children are the focus of Family Kitchen Rx, Dr. Artz explained.

Families participate when a provider refers a child to the program, convinced the family is ready to make dietary changes to combat chronic disease.

Anti-inflammatory foods

In the Schamper family’s case, Peter Freswick, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, referred Jackson to help treat Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition.

The recipes featured in the class align closely with the healthy, anti-inflammatory ingredients recommended for patients who have Crohn’s—fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, nuts, seeds and healthy fats.

“We’re trying to get away from fast food,” said Steve, who has Crohn’s disease like his son, as well as an unrelated inflammatory disease that affects his spine.

“We’re trying to incorporate more fish,” he said, and “pushing the vegetables a little harder.”

Of all the recipes Jackson helped prepare over the four sessions, two topped his list of favorites: oven-baked fish sticks, an entrée from the first class, and chewy banana nut oatmeal cookies, a dessert from the last class.

“By the way, we kind of cheated on the recipe for the cookies,” he said with a grin on the final evening. “We used way more than what the recipe said for vanilla and cinnamon.”

It could be the sign of a chef in the making.

“Jackson is just awesome—he just loves to go at it, chopping and cooking,” said Cait Melamed, a registered dietitian who led the Schampers and three other families through the Family Kitchen Rx series.

“He brings his own apron, so he means business.”

Hands-on coaching

Melamed is one of seven registered dietitians accompanying small groups of families through the grant-funded program.

The dietitians start each class by teaching about healthy eating, smart snacking and easy ways to replace processed foods with whole foods. Each class emphasizes a simple phrase, like “Forget fried” or “Plant power.”

Coached by culinary students from the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education and the Culinary Medicine team, the families then prepare an assortment of recipes and share a meal together.

“They give you a lot of attention,” Steve said. “They’re always right there with anything you need and kind of helping out, giving tips.”

Between class sessions in the 12-week program, the dietitians connect with participants via the MyHealth app or the MedNow video service to check in, answer questions, prescribe new recipes and consult on cooking skills or meal planning.

“We’re learning to cook different things—things that we’ve never had before, like lentils,” said Shawn, who has also taken Spectrum Health’s Eating the Mediterranean Way class.

The kid-friendly recipes and hands-on format make Family Kitchen Rx enjoyable for all ages, Steve said.

“It’s cool with the kitchen setup. It’s like you’re on one of those TV shows,” he said.

“It’s just fun doing something as a family, too, rather than everyone off doing their own thing.”