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The Culinary Health Education for Families, or “CHEF,” program is part of the $135 million renovation project that began in 2012 to transform the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio’s downtown campus into the city’s first freestanding children’s hospital. Through a partnership with Baylor College of Medicine, The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio began attracting world-class talent from renowned children’s hospitals across the country.

In 2015, a pediatric residency program was established and 10 new medical school graduates joined the hospital. Most residents admit that the opportunity to train in culinary medicine was a major factor in their decision to receive their pediatric training at The Children’s Hospital. Those residents participated in their first culinary medicine class last fall. Dr. Julie La Barba, CHEF’s medical director, tells the students that the Teaching Kitchen is one of the few places during their residency experience where it is safe to say, “I don’t know.” While in medical school, physicians typically are required to take 25 hours of nutrition education, yet only 27 percent meet the criteria. “It’s estimated that 70 percent of chronic diseases are associated with preventable causes related to diet and exercise. That is a reason to get serious about having doctors include nutrition at the forefront of their practice,” says La Barba.

During the first five years of life, a pediatrician will have as many as 20 encounters with a young patient and may be the only physician the family visits on a regular basis. Pediatricians have a unique opportunity to have an impact on an entire family’s nutrition and eating habits, and lifestyle behaviors. “We are preparing a whole new generation of pediatricians to be equipped to help families recognize that food can be the best medicine of all,” La Barba points out.

The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio is a founding partner in an innovative community collaboration that is aimed at reducing childhood obesity. In Bexar County, one in three school-age children is either overweight or obese. Culinary Health Education for Families, or “CHEF,” an innovative program that is rooted in the belief that “food is medicine,” has a bold vision of motivating San Antonio families to adopt and sustain healthier eating habits by teaching basic nutrition and practical cooking skills to children and families.   The program, conceived and funded by the Goldsbury Foundation, features a state-of-the-art Teaching Kitchen designed by the Culinary Institute of America–the first of its kind in the nation located in the heart of a children’s hospital.

According to La Barba, “Research shows when people start cooking for themselves and eat at home, their health improves, but it also shows that many people lack that kitchen know-how, and they need help learning the basics. CHEF is a practical approach to teach families the basic kitchen skills they need to get real food on the table–not just what is good for them, but that they can afford and that their families will want to eat.”

Families receive a referral to the Teaching Kitchen from their physician who has identified their child as being at risk for developing serious conditions related to being overweight or obese. Another key component of the program is that children join in and help with the food preparation. They can help mom or dad in the kitchen by reading the recipe, measuring ingredients, and chopping vegetables.  Once enrolled, families are encouraged to complete a series of six classes which link culinary concepts with nutrition education.

“We had one child tell us he would rather be in the kitchen than playing video games,” La Barba says. “And that is exactly what we strive for, making the whole food preparation experience engaging for the whole family so they want to continue using their new skills at home.” At the end of the class, families sit down at a long wooden table and enjoy the meal they have prepared. Sometimes, children and their parents are eating food they have never tried before such as fresh salmon, kale, or jicama.

The CHEF team at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio includes Dr. La Barba, as well as Program Director and Chef Maria Palma who was trained at the Culinary Institute of America; Celina Paras, Registered Dietitian & Nutrition Education Specialist; and, Rebecca Vance, Program Coordinator. The team is bi-lingual and currently offers classes in both English and Spanish. Thanks to the funding from the Goldsbury Foundation, CHEF classes are offered free of charge to physician-referred patients as the program gets established.  In addition to the formal patient referral system, CHEF also partners with Child Life; conducts RD Lunch & Learns, which offer CE credits; Departmental Team Buildings; and, Pediatric Resident Training in Culinary Medicine.

Prior to the opening of the Teaching Kitchen, Palma and Paras worked together to develop the proprietary evidence-based Culinary Medicine curriculum that bridges the art of cooking and the science of nutrition in each class. The curriculum developed for the hospital setting was then modified so that it could be offered in non-clinical settings at the network of CHEF Community Teaching Kitchens around San Antonio including the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club, and the San Antonio Botanical Garden.

“In the past, most approaches to reducing childhood and adult obesity in the United States have relied on providing individuals and families with recipes, handouts, booklets, and coupons. We take things a step further by helping parents understand the basics of grocery shopping, reading food labels, food preparation, and all the steps in between. That is how we hope to bring about lifelong behavioral changes that can affect a family’s overall health and well-being,” stresses La Barba.

To learn more about the CHEF program and to download CHEF-approved recipes, visit


Julie La Barba, MD, FAAP
Medical Director, CHEF
Culinary Health Education for Families
Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics
Baylor College of Medicine
The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio

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