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By 10 a.m. on a Thursday, Kristina Spero’s apartment is filled with the delectable aroma of coconut rice with cinnamon stick and lime zest, roasted zucchini and mocha chip muffins.

Kristina, a graduate of Chapel Haven’s REACH program who is currently enrolled in the SAIL program, makes her way in the kitchen confidently, slicing, dicing, measuring, and chatting under the expert guidance of Nicole Romano, her holistic health counselor, who also teaches nutrition and cooking classes at Chapel Haven.
Together each week Kristina and Nicole prepare a week’s worth of healthy, portioned breakfasts and lunches so that Kristina has good food options at her fingertips. Kristina picks the recipes the week before from one of Romano’s cookbooks, they order the ingredients and hit the kitchen. Spending three hours cooking may seem like drudgery to some, but not this pair – they have lots of conversation and laughter in the process.

Kristina loves to recall the time they were cooking in a group and the beans of the edamame she was peeling starting flying around. And the humor isn’t lost on either one of them when the sensitive smoke alarm goes off several times during cooking even though there’s no smoke in sight. Nicole waves a dish cloth in front of the alarm, joking,”This is my exercise for the week.” Does Kristina enjoy the time? “Oh yeah,” Kristina said.Nicole, who works one on one with some other students as well, revises their favorite recipes to make them healthier. For instance, Kristina’s mocha muffins call for oil, but Nicole substitutes the healthier applesauce. “It’s creating a new normal and having people make healthy choices,” she said. Meal preparation is also good for students because they “take ownership of being involved,” Nicole said.
Kristina’s mom, Kathy Spero, said she and her husband want to give Kristina the same opportunities others have to eat healthy on a consistent basis so she can enjoy a long life. Spero said the aging process and the factors that go with it, such as weight gain, high blood pressure and type-2 diabetes are of concern for all the students.

Since Kristina cannot cook by herself, she would eat a lot of microwave meals and processed foods without Nicole’s help, Kathy said. “I’m not looking for skinny, I’m looking for healthy,” she said. “The whole school in general has bought into the idea of cooking healthy.”
Mom also loves that “Nicole creates a really warm and happy atmosphere.”
In addition to cooking, Nicole and Kristina cut oranges, carrots and other healthy to portion for snacks. Kristina is easy, Nicole said, because she has a wide range of food likes. She’s lost about a pound a week since they started the program.

Nicole, a mother of two, knows firsthand what the right eating can do for health. She became a vegan about seven years ago after years of being plagued with asthma and other inflammatory conditions. When people ask her, “Do you miss eating cheese?” she says, “No, I like breathing. Once I made that commitment, I never looked back.” All the breathing problems went away and so did the medications.

In cooking with students and planning menus, Nicole stresses low fat, little meat and lots of vegetables. The formula she’s going for in student dinners is plate that is half vegetables, ¼ carbs and a ¼ meat. “The more whole foods you eat, the more you can eat,” and feel full, she said. Most of all, she loves her students.
“It’s very rewarding,” Nicole said.