Cooking for Health: USU Medical Student Finds Balance in the Kitchen

USU medical student Air Force 2nd Lt. William Brooks discovers the therapeutic and healthful benefits of cooking, transforming his approach to nutrition and well-being while managing the demands of medical school.

Air Force 2nd Lt. William Brooks has embarked on a journey to "healthify" his life through cooking. (Photos courtesy of 2nd Lt. William Brooks)
Air Force 2nd Lt. William Brooks has embarked on a journey to "healthify" his life through 
cooking. (Photos courtesy of 2nd Lt. William Brooks)

November 21, 2023 by Vivian Mason   

In the high-stress world of medical education and training, the allure of fast food often beckons as a convenient, albeit unhealthy, escape. Days brimming with rigorous study and demanding responsibilities leave little room for culinary finesse, making greasy takeout meals all too tempting.

Air Force 2nd Lt. William Brooks (Photo courtesy of 2nd Lt. William  Brooks)
Air Force 2nd Lt. William Brooks
(Photo courtesy of 2nd Lt. William 
However, for Air Force 2nd Lt. William Brooks, a third-year medical student at the Uniformed Services University (USU), the solution to this culinary conundrum lies in mastering the art of cooking. Brooks, while modestly disclaiming any professional culinary expertise, has embarked on a journey to "healthify" his life, driven by the desire for better nutrition and overall well-being.

“When I got to USU, I cooked ramen noodles just about every night,” admits Brooks. But a turning point for him came when he opened his refrigerator and thought, “What can I eat tonight?” All he saw was eggs, bread, almost-spoiled chicken, and some expired takeout food—none of it appetizing or appealing. He knew that he had to do something about it.

Although Brooks had occasionally assisted with cooking at home, he never assumed the role of chef. “My dad was the one who liked to cook, and I was just his helper,” he reminisces. “But, I never really learned how to cook.”

Now, Brooks underscores the transformative power of preparing one’s own meals, saying “I’ve discovered that when you eat food, you’ve prepared yourself, you have control over the ingredients, and can help manage fats, sugar, sodium, etc.” 

When Brooks realized he needed to eat healthier, he ventured into cooking through a meal delivery service. “I decided to try a meal delivery service and forced myself to stick to it every evening. I promised myself that I was not only going to learn to cook for myself, but also I was going to work out every day.”

Explains Brooks, “I started cooking to give myself better control over my weight. I did great on my PT test, and I credit a lot of that to not just working out consistently, but also eating healthier. I cooked foods that made me feel better, focus better, and sleep better.” He continues, “I know that if I go back to eating fast food, it’ll be hard to focus on my studies and do what I have to do in school.” 

Beyond the practical benefits, Brooks discovered a newfound passion for cooking. “I make sure that I eat well instead of going to fast food places or making something really easy like the all too famous microwave mac and cheese cups. It’s turned into a kind of de-stressing thing for me.” He adds, “When I’m in my kitchen, I can ignore everything that happened that day no matter how stressful it was because I’m cooking, relaxing, and having a good meal.” 

Cooking can be great therapy for the stress of medical school and residency. For several years, USU has even incorporated a Culinary Lab into its Bench to Bedside and Beyond (B3) curriculum. As part of the lab, students learn how to help prospective patients make and modify favorite recipes—not only making them more healthful, but demonstrating that they could still be tasty & flavorful at the same time. Learning basic cooking techniques, using simple recipes, and shopping for quality ingredients can be a time to decompress. Even cutting, chopping, and dicing vegetables can feel therapeutic. 

Brooks recommends efficient meal preparation, like these tacos and rice dishes. (Photo courtesy of 2nd Lt. William Brooks)
Brooks recommends efficient meal
preparation, like these tacos and rice
dishes. (Photo courtesy of 2nd Lt.
William Brooks)
Brooks recommends efficient meal preparation, focusing on dishes that can be ready in under 30 minutes. In order to do that, he proposes planning ahead, making a menu, and doing prep work. He suggests that using a slow cooker or crockpot can be a game changer. Or, if you’re really pressed for time, he says to make things that are easy to freeze and reheat, like simple soups, stews, pasta dishes, and casseroles. 

Brooks encourages using individual containers to store frozen meals that will allow you to eat quick, nutritious meals later. “I make a lot of soups, bake a bunch of chicken breasts, and create a ton of salads,” he says proudly. “I cook once or twice a week, but know how to spread out my meals for the rest of the week. Doing all of this makes me feel better because I know I'm on a healthy path when I’m using olive oil, low salt, no preservatives, etc.”

He tries to incorporate fresh vegetables and fruits into his cooking as much as possible, always looking for what’s in season. “If you’re patient with yourself starting out,” he maintains, “you'll slowly get a sense of what works and what doesn't. Once you get a small repertoire of dishes under your belt, you can branch out pretty easily and begin to cook more advanced recipes.”

Brooks humorously recalls a friend saying ‘if a med student can plan for a quiz or exam, then he’s certainly capable of creating a home-cooked meal.’

“I found that making three meals over the weekend with four extra portions each had me set for the week,” observes Brooks. “Every once in a while, I added a few extra things, like tofu or freshly caught fish for a bit of variety. Of course, I'd also eat out every now and then, too.” But, even with full days and coming home exhausted, he’s still able to prepare and eat home-cooked meals every day.

During the week, Brooks tries to keep meals on the easy side, preparing foods that don't take a lot of time, like pasta dishes. He emphasizes that, “I can change it up each week just by using different ingredients. It’s still healthy because I use a good quality whole wheat or whole grain pasta, olive oil, vegetables (broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, onions, spinach, zucchini, etc.), and lean meats or seafood. It doesn’t get any easier than that.”

While Brooks identifies as an amateur cook, he enjoys indulging in more elaborate pasta creations and shares his secret ingredient, truffle oil, to add complexity and character to his dishes. “It’s my favorite thing to add to a dish. I find that little things like seasoning can help flavor a dish, and you don’t have to spend a fortune. But I do like cooking gourmet meals every so often, like roasted duck, even though I’m not the best at it.” He admits to getting a lot more satisfaction from foods that are appetizing and taste good.

Despite some self-consciousness about his culinary skills, Brooks has witnessed significant improvement. “One thing that I do enjoy is baking desserts for people,” he says. “I went to an apple orchard in Virginia, picked way too many apples, and then wondered what I was going to do with them all. There was no way I could get rid of a giant basket of freshly-picked apples before they all went bad. So, I found a simple recipe for a deep-dish apple pie. I’ve made it quite a few times since then and normally bring it to the student lounge to share with my classmates.”

In addition to homemade treats, Brooks relishes poke bowls and gourmet burgers when celebrating academic milestones. “If I’m celebrating the end of a module or something, I’ll reward myself by buying a really good quality steak, marinating it, adding some spices, and cooking it on my indoor grill. It’s super quick, super easy, and also quite delicious. It’s one of my favorite things to eat.” 

Brooks' deep-dish apple pie is a favorite amongst his classmates at USU. (Photo courtesy of 2nd Lt. William Brooks)
Brooks' deep-dish apple pie is a favorite
amongst his classmates at USU.
(Photo courtesy of 2nd Lt. William
Many of the recipes that Brooks uses on a regular basis can be adapted. “When I subscribed to a meal plan, I kept the recipe cards. I have a big stack of them. Now, I use them to create meals. Sometimes I follow the cards exactly, and sometimes I just kind of wing it by adding different ingredients to the recipes. I like experimenting with food, so I wander the store aisles and buy different things to cook with. Sometimes it turns out well, and sometimes not.”

Brooks asserts that culinary mastery begins with research, ingredient selection, recipe creation, and hands-on preparation. “You can become a good cook when you study the recipe, buy all your ingredients, go home, and just start cooking. That was something I wasn’t able to do before. But, when I first did it and the food tasted good, I was really proud of what I had accomplished. That was a big step in my cooking journey.”

Without much time to watch cooking shows for inspiration, experimenting with food, ingredients, tastes, flavors, and recipes has become a favorite pastime. This creative outlet allows Brooks to bake, chop, mash, blend, boil, roast, dice, slice, mince, and peel food for his various meals. He’s learned that it’s important to know how to perform these skills and techniques correctly for recipes, because they’ve allowed him to be able to tackle just about any recipe and come up with a solid, delicious meal.

Brooks’ strengths as a cook “are developing,” he remarks. “I can come up with something very quickly and have it ready. So, the speed with which I cook now is growing because my confidence is growing. Sometimes when I get home from the hospital and don’t have the time or even feel like cooking, I can create a meal very fast. I’m getting better at baking, although it’s harder than you’d expect it to be. What you think will end up as a pie sometimes ends up as a solid brick because you forgot one simple ingredient.”

Cooking has become a source of joy for Brooks, providing tangible accomplishments amid the rigors of medical school. “It’s the fact that you have something tangible at the end of the process. In medical school, you work and work and work, but you don’t have the degree yet. But, cooking gives me a fully finished product to eat and enjoy. As chaotic as med school is, cooking allows me to take a step back, de-stress, and eat a good meal—ultimately creating something I can be proud of.”

Brooks also shares that this ongoing cooking experience has made him better equipped to not only take much better care of himself, but also will enable him to counsel patients on the role that good nutrition plays in improving health outcomes. 

As Brooks becomes a better cook, he wants to become a better doctor, too. “Food is medicine, and cooking is a simple way to take care of yourself,” he beams.