02/06/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2012

12 Strangers Begin Six-Week Class Toward Healthier Eating

For years fast food, takeout and TV dinners have owned the dining room table. Drive-through restaurants provide quick dinner solutions after a long workday, or easy alternatives for those who aren't necessarily the best cooks.

However, 12 Cleburne, TX residents decided to start a six-week journey on Thursday night, seeking to learn the basics of healthier cooking by avoiding fast foods.

The residents joined the Cooking Matters cooking series held in the Booker T. Washington Recreation and Community Center. The series will teach each of them how to eat healthier and shop on a limited budget. Wives, boyfriends, mothers, daughters and a chef make up some of the people in the class.

"Why are you all here?" asked nutritionist Jennifer Deans.

"I want to learn different recipes because my husband is always complaining that we eat the same thing," Laura Barlen said.

"And you?" Deans said.

"Honestly, I'm done with living the Hamburger Helper fast-food life," said Rhonda Bigley, who's married with four teenage children.

"What about you?" Deans asked, pointing to an older gentleman.

"Well, I love fried -- everything," Tom Bobbitt said with a laugh. "I know I need to change. I have the theory, I just don't have the practice."

Participants, ranging in ages from mid-20s to 50, continued to admit that they replaced the traditional food groups of meat, bread, fruit, vegetable and dairy with fast, cheap, boxed, frozen and fat. Several class members said they knew what made a healthy meal, but they were lost when it came to buying ingredients and making home cooked meals -- not out of the box.

"I think this shows that no matter your age group you can learn to eat healthy," Deans said.

The free, hands-on cooking series is taught by Deans, a professional nutritionist who volunteers to teach nutrition, cooking skills, food-budgeting and shopping techniques. Each class member received a cookbook filled with 67 recipes and health tips. The class, now full, meets each Thursday for two hours through March 1.

During the past 20 years, there has been an increase in obesity in the U.S. and rates remain high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2010, no state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent.

Twelve states, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia each have a population that's 30 percent obese. "Watching what you eat" may sound like a cliché catchphrase, but it may hold some weight.

TCU student Lauren Wanner, who assisted Deans in teaching the class, said obesity can be curbed if people learn to break habits that lead to unhealthy eating and by paying attention to portion sizes and nutritional guides.

"Following the MyPlate guidelines can also help lead to better eating," she said.

MyPlate, which replaced the outdated food guide pyramid in 2011, illustrates the five food groups that are the building blocks for a healthy diet using a familiar image -- a plate divided into portion sizes.

After a refresher in food-group basics, the chefs-in-training moved into the recreation center's kitchen to prepare their first of six meals as a class. In the kitchen, a row of chef knives, professionally sharpened just hours before, laid across a long industrial-size preparation table next to spices, zucchini, canned beans, measuring cups and chopping boards. Deans stood at the head of the table with class surrounding her as she began reading instructions for quesadillas.

Deans picked up a knife, slowly removed its plastic cover, demonstrating the proper way to use it. She sliced a zucchini open and began dicing it into smaller parts. "You want cut them in similar sizes so that they cook evenly," she said.

She soon passed the knives and cutting boards to the class and they began imitating what Deans did moments before. Deans said if someone wants to begin cooking more at home, practicing proper kitchen safety is important. "As you work in the kitchen toward better eating, it's also always important to stay safe," she said.

Though the class was created to teach serious life lessons, Deans managed to keep the class laughing by giving important tips masked in humor.

"Do you know how to walk around the kitchen with a knife?" she asked. "Just keep it pointed down by your side and say, 'I have a knife. I have a knife.' People seem to scatter when they hear that."

This week the class will continue to build on the basics, bringing them a little closer to fast food independence.

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