Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

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Carmen holds her dessert of the day, brownies made with black beans. By rinsing and pureeing the beans, their taste is disguised while their benefits for helping maintain healthy blood sugar remain in full. She also prepared pot roast and biscuits containing sweet potatoes, creating a full meal with a short preparation time of only 45 minutes.

What’s Cookin’ with Carmen?

By BRET MOSS Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) Food Distribution has made many efforts in recent years to improve the health of its members and employees. From cooking videos and health brochures, to health fairs and 5k runs, CNO is highly invested in the well being of its people.

One of the most effective assets CNO has in this initiative is a highly energetic woman with a love for her profession named Carmen Robertson, who is most known for her work doing an event at the four food distribution centers around the Choctaw Nation called Cooking with Carmen.

Cooking with Carmen is a four-hour educational event, occurring from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., eight times each month, twice at each distribution center. There are distribution centers in Antlers, Durant, McAlester and Poteau.

At these events, Carmen will take a common recipe she has modified to include healthy alternatives to substitute for some of the unhealthy original ingredients and demonstrate how to prepare it to perfection. She will sometimes even cook her original recipes she has concocted with creativity and experimentation.

She always cooks a full meal, including side dishes and desserts. All the meals have low/no sugar content and are fat free. She uses recipes likely to expand the palette of those attending without using hard to find or expensive ingredients.

By showing her audience, which usually consists of about 30 or 40 people, how to prepare the common commodities they already have in a healthy way, she hopes to make eating healthy an everyday occurrence for the Choctaw people.

When developing and preparing meals at her cooking events, Carmen sticks to three main points. She wants all meals to be quick, easy and inexpensive. She believes if she sticks to these criteria, people will be more apt to attempt these recipes on their own.

Carmen believes just teaching healthy cooking and eating habits is not enough. “A lot of them will not try a recipe if they haven’t tasted it. So I have been trying to introduce different types of food and ways to prepare it,” said Carmen as she explained the importance of tasting a new recipe.

While she is cooking, she is also taking questions from the audience and educating them on the nutritional aspects and the effects different foods have on the body. It has become common for her to take mailing and email addresses so she can modify recipes by request.

Three of the four distribution centers are equipped with a full kitchen allowing her to simulate a common setting for the average audience member. The ingredients and utensils used on the set are those most familiar to the largest portion of the audience.

Carmen not only teaches at the Cooking with Carmen events, but plays a role in the Cooking with Council videos produced by the Lifetime Legacy staff, the Going Lean Team, health events at the wellness centers and after-school specials.

She deems working with the kids at the schools and the younger generation of the utmost importance. She knows if she can spark healthy lifestyles in them, those ways will be instilled for a lifetime and hopefully passed on to generations to come.

“In order to stop the childhood obesity, we’ve got to hit these young mothers, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” said Carmen as she explained how health issues in children are a serious problem she would like to see subside in the near future. By teaching young parents to prepare foods with a knowledge of the effects each dish has on a person, particularly the children, she hopes to stop bad habits before they even begin.

Carmen is not only equipped with the knowledge of recipes and nutrition, her expertise is reinforced with experience. She grew up in the small town of Opal, Wyo. with a large family. She mentioned the winter the snow would make it hard for people to get groceries and they would have just one bag for a long period of time.

She and her family would make bread and other dishes from scratch, can food and grow produce. At her young age, she learned how to create meals with various ingredients and be creative with her combinations.

She graduated from Kimmerer High School in 1989 and moved to Oklahoma in 1999. She worked as a phlebotomist, drawing blood and working in a lab when she first arrived. She eventually went to work for the OSU Extension Office in Atoka. “We would go into the homes and I would teach low income families basic nutrition and different life skills,” said Carmen as she explained her beginnings in the art of food demonstration.

Many of the commodities she used to cook came from the CNO distribution center, which is how she got her connection to Lisa Mullens, director of Choctaw Nation Food Distribution. After 3.5 years with OSU, Lisa offered Carmen the job, and she began her work in 2007.

While she worked at the OSU office, Carmen struggled with a weight issue herself, weighing 325 pounds. As she taught people how to prepare nutritional meals, she made a commitment to practice what she preached, and in 15 months, she had lost 150 pounds.

She is sure this aspect of her life has helped her encourage, relate to, and better teach others about healthy choices. “It’s hard for somebody who has a weight issue to listen to somebody that never has… but when people know that I have been there, and done it, they want to know how I did it,” Carmen exclaimed.

Carmen has also recently earned her bachelor’s degree in Science, Nutrition and Dietetics from Kaplan University. What she learned through life experiences and her collegiate education combined with her general love for cooking and creativity in the kitchen make her well qualified to give health advice to anyone seeking a healthier way of life.

She teaches many things to those around her, one of which is the 28-Day Rule. It has been proven that a person can break a bad habit or create a new one after 28 consecutive days of committing an action. Carmen gives an example, saying if you ride your bike every day for 28 days in a row, it will become habit and therefore make it easier to ride daily.

The act of “eat less, more often,” she deems most important of all her advice. If you consume a small amount of calories on a usual basis, you keep your metabolism working regularly while keeping the over-eating and splurging at bay. She keeps a small amount of food on hand wherever she is to practice this act.

She also teaches that everyone eats with their eyes first. If food is made more appealing to the eyes, it is more likely the viewer will desire it. This is particularly true for children. This is something she practices with her 10-year-old daughter, Jeannie. The two will cook healthy dinners using different foods in creative and colorful designs to make healthy eating fun.

The act of eating in proportion to one’s activities for the day is also something she stresses. Carmen and Jeannie are regulars at a tae kwon do gym in Atoka. Carmen eats more whole grain carbohydrates for energy if she knows they will be doing a highly strenuous activity along with protein after, but a lighter meal if the exercise is of a lower difficulty.

Since finishing her education, Carmen now has more time to share her skills in the kitchen and plans to finish a cookbook, which is already under way, as well as increase her involvement in the education of healthy living. It is her hope to spread her knowledge and love of healthy lifestyles to not just Choctaw members, but to everyone she meets.