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New Teaching Kitchen Gives VA Dietitians New Way to Connect with Nebraska and Iowa Veterans

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Natalie Vankat admitted that her adrenaline and heart were pumping, Monday, Feb. 14. After months of conducting virtual cooking classes for Nebraska-Western Iowa Veterans using a teaching kitchen mobile cart she set up near her desk within the Omaha VA Medical Center, Vankat was finally going to get the opportunity to teach in the hospital’s new state-of-the-art Teaching Kitchen.

“I am so ready to teach this class,” said Vankat, a VA NWIHCS clinical dietitian who also serves as the organization’s Teaching Kitchen coordinator. “I can’t wait to use this space.”

“This space” is a large, fully functioning kitchen designed to help VA NWIHCS dietitians provide important training and educational services to area Veterans. The Teaching Kitchen was part of a $2.5 million dollar engineering project that also include a complete renovation of the Omaha VAMC’s third-floor inpatient kitchen.

The Teaching Kitchen includes two complete cooking stations, a large island that can be configured to accommodate special needs Veterans, and classroom space able to support large groups. The Teaching Kitchen will also soon include a smartboard television monitor and multiple cameras that will enable the dietitians to teach cooking and nutrition classes virtually.

Vankat said the Teaching Kitchen was needed to help support Veterans who have a wide variety of needs. “Some Veterans may be very new to cooking. They may not have ever chopped an onion or boiled pasta,” said Vankat. “Others may have very basic cooking skills, but when they find out that they need to now follow a special diet – such as a diabetic or low-fat diet – they may not know what that means.”

“How can we as health care providers expect them to follow these special diets if they don’t have cooking skills or do not understand what a special diet means?” she said.

That’s where the VA dietitians come in. VA dietitians work closely with Veterans to assist them in maintaining good nutrition, which can often become extremely complicated based upon various medical treatments Veterans may be undergoing. Dietitians also assist Veterans through classroom training designed to help Veterans develop the skills they need to take care of themselves.

Vankat said VA NWIHCS dietitians currently offer 14 varieties of classes centering around cooking and nutrition. She said those classes will receive a boost now that dietitians have the new Teaching Kitchen to work in.

“Having a kitchen like this allows us to actually bring (Veterans) in and show them what a diabetic meal looks like and this is how you prepare it,” Vankat said.

Vankat said the VA’s clinical nutrition and Healthy Teaching Kitchen teams worked closely with VA NWIHCS engineers and architects to ensure that the new facility was designed to be both functional and expandable in the future. That’s why the new space included such things as wired technology that can be improved and added onto later.

“I think it’s just a beautiful space,” said Chaz Williamson, a VA NWIHCS staff engineer who help oversee both kitchen projects. “The Teaching Kitchen is just a beautiful facility for our dietitians and our patients. It opens a lot of opportunity to do online and streaming training. I think it’s going to be a fantastic facility for them.”

Vankat agreed, saying that having the new facility will dramatically improve the classes she and others have been teaching during the past 22-plus months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those classes include such topics as anti-inflammatory cooking, food and mood, and budget cooking classes.

“Having this kitchen will allow (Veterans) to come in and work with the dietitians and learn how to actually prepare the food hands-on,” she said.

“It means so much because now we will be able to connect with them – either physically or virtually – and actually teach them that healthy cooking isn’t as difficult as they might think it is,” Vankat said. “It will also allow us to show them how they really can cook healthy and support their health co-morbidities just by making healthy foods… foods that taste good at the same time.”

As a part of her first virtual cooking class, which included women Veterans located in both the Omaha and Lincoln areas, Vankat took time to show the Veterans around the new Teaching Kitchen as she prepared a meal involving whole wheat pasta and other healthy, low-sodium ingredients.

Following the class, Vankat said she looks forward to using the Teaching Kitchen to teach larger groups of Veterans in the future. She said she’s also looking forward to seeing their reaction.

“I think the patients are going to be blown away,” Vankat said. “I think they’re going to be amazed to learn that a facility like this is available to them as an opportunity to learn more about how to cook and eat healthy.”

For more information about the various nutritional services and Healthy Teaching Kitchen classes offered by VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, please check out Veterans can also learn about current and future Healthy Teaching Kitchen classes by calling 402-995-3599.

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