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When a Kitchen Is Key to Recovery
Meyer 4’s redesigned cooking facility helps eating disorder patients warm up to food

The Eating Disorder Clinic’s new kitchen is a place where patients can comfortably relearn the basics so eating becomes social again.

It’s lunchtime, and the smell of hamburgers wafts through the halls of Meyer 4. For most, the familiar scent makes mouths water and evokes happy memories of cookouts past. But for the eating disorder patient tapped to cook and serve the burgers today, there’s nothing more arduous than forcing a greasy bite past her lips.

While high-fat meats are this patient’s particular fear factor, another may panic at eating cheese; yet another, Chinese takeout. All, whether struggling with the low-calorie obsession of anorexia or the binge-purge cycle of bulimia, somehow diverged from a path where eating is a positive, social part of life.

“Our patients may like the smell of food but can’t connect to it,” says nurse manager Chris Boyle. “Their eating behavior has fallen out of social perspective. They’re happy to make a meal for someone else but can’t sit down and eat it with them. In the Eating Disorder Clinic, we help them reconnect and make the transition back to the outside world.”

One of the clinic’s therapeutic rites of passage from inpatient to day patient is participation in an innovative program run by nurses and occupational therapists. Patients make menus, shop for food, prepare meals and eat as a group. At the center of it all is an airy, new kitchen that would make Chef Emeril drool. The soothing blue space, with its large oval island, rich wood floors and plenty of storage, is a far cry from the old one, says Boyle. “It was so cramped that only a few patients could actually participate in the cooking. The others would have to simply set the table or do the dishes.”

When the unit set out to redesign the kitchen—with the help of a $128,000 gift from the Women’s Board—nurses like Allisyn Pletch were concerned with aesthetics. Preparing food in an appealing setting, she pointed out, automatically makes it more enticing.

Nurse Allisyn Pletch, right, helps a patient prepare a well-balanced meal.

Now, in this refreshing ambiance, Pletch spends mealtimes working with as many as 10 day patients. She might lead a cooking demonstration at the stove or help the group navigate a takeout menu. Much like diabetics, eating disorder patients learn to tally exchanges for meat, milk, vegetables and more until they’ve put together a healthy, well-portioned meal.

“One key to recovery is flooding patients with a wide variety of foods in healthy, non-dieting proportions,” says Angela Guarda, clinic director. “By doing that in a social setting, it puts a stop to abnormal food rituals, eating in secret and the overall anxiety surrounding food.”

On holidays, Pletch and other nurses lead patients in decorating cookies or cupcakes, then incorporate them into that day’s lunch or dinner. “The goal,” says Boyle, “is to make patients feel comfortable in social eating situations so that if someone says, Hey, we’re going to a party, they won’t avoid it.”

Initially, day patients eat three meals on the unit, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. As they progress, they’re allowed to eat dinners with friends or family, then cut back to six days a week, then five and so on, until they’re completely out on their own.

Ray DePaulo, director of the Department of Psychiatry, says the kitchen setting is the real key to recovery. “There’s no better pill or discussion that can substitute for involving patients in healthy food interactions.”

—Lindsay Roylance



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