Learn to Make Tasty — and Healthy — Meals With Online Classes

Posted on 04/30/24 by Linda Lamb

Linda Toney, 73, doesn’t buy salad dressing from the grocery store anymore. Instead, Toney, a retired nurse from Blythewood, outside Columbia, mixes her own, using blackberry or strawberry flavored vinegar and Persian olive oil.


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Compared with store-bought dressings loaded with salt, sugar and additives, the homemade option is healthier for Toney and her husband, William, who both have prediabetes. Making homemade dressing is among the healthy eating tips Toney has learned from Greenville-based chef Veera Gaul, who teaches online cooking classes for AARP on how to make nutritious meals.

“Even when we go out to eat, we try to select healthy foods,” such as seafood and vegetables, Toney says.

The virtual sessions are part of AARP’s efforts to help older South Carolinians embrace healthier lifestyles. The next class is Thursday, May 23.

Gaul is a proponent of heart-healthy Mediterranean-style food plans that focus heavily on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes such as beans and lentils, lean proteins and healthy fats, primarily olive oil. Research shows the Mediterranean diet may lead to better cardiovascular health and brain health and reduced risk for some cancers, compared with typical Western diets with lots of red meat and processed foods.

Gaul believes the laid-back style of Mediterranean eating also has health benefits as people relax and enjoy the meal.

“It’s about laughter and camaraderie and talk,” she says. “It’s an event.”

Trying something new

Gaul is a trained chef and former faculty member at Rhode Island’s Johnson and Wales University, which is known for its culinary and hospitality programs.

Originally from India, she co-owns with her husband a culinary gift store in downtown Greenville that features olive oils, vinegars and other ingredients commonly used in Mediterranean cooking.

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Chef Gaul prepares a ricotta toast with honey and herbs and a Mexican-style slaw with black beans, corn, tomatoes, lime and cilantro for her online class. Photo by Tim Robison

In her online classes for AARP, Gaul also focuses on how to make healthier versions of classic dishes. In one session, she tackled chicken—but instead of making a traditional Southern-fried variety, she made an oven-baked version. And instead of cooking turnip greens in fatback from a pig, she sautéed them in a flavored olive oil.

“My goal is to make it fun and interesting and give people ideas about trying something new,” she says.

But, Gaul notes, she doesn’t urge people to ditch their old diets overnight, which can seem overwhelming. Instead, make gradual changes, she suggests. “Maybe go vegetarian one or two nights a week; maybe switch out meat for fish one night.”

For her class this month—Summer Sides—Gaul will feature a potato salad made with pesto and a citrusy slaw dressed with oil and vinegar in lieu of a more traditional mayo base.

Retiree Paula Howell, 71, of Lexington, says she enjoyed Gaul’s previous classes and has nudged her meat-loving husband to sample more salmon and salads. Howell also enjoys the chef’s “normal and relatable” presentation. “I don’t need to see a skinny 20-year-old telling me how to cook,” she says.

Jo Pauling-Jones, an associate state director with AARP South Carolina, says nearly 200 people registered for Gaul’s last class. “Sometimes we just get bogged down in doing what we’ve always done, when it comes to cooking,” but the classes offer new tips and recipes to try, she says.

Gaul’s remaining classes this year will be on Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on May 23, July 18 and Sept. 26. Registration is required to access the live sessions, as well as to get recipes and links to view recordings of previous classes. To sign up, go to aarp.org/cookingsc or call 866-389-5655.

Linda H. Lamb, a Michigan-based writer, covers health care, veterans, politics and other issues for the Bulletin.

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This story is provided by AARP South Carolina. Visit the AARP South Carolina page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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