Q: How did your private practice get started?
Caroline: While in the Wellness and Human Performance program I got my Health Fitness Instructor certification. I worked closely with a lot of the exercise folks and there was someone in my cohort whose sister just had twins and she was doing an exercise plan with her, but she needed someone to help her with her diet. My classmate came to me and asked, “Can I give you to my sister for her birthday?” Literally, that is how my private practice started.
I had some culinary skills, I had the nutritional skills, and I had the exercise skills, so I developed a program where I would go into the home and do food preparation and set up a one-stop-shop. That's what I did for her. I went to her home and cooked her meals and kept her motivated to continue doing the exercise plan from her sister. Through word-of-mouth, I got referrals. Coming out of grad school, I started my private practice right out of the gate. That was 12 years ago, before Blue Apron and all that. I was doing this bespoke meal planning before it was the behemoth it is now.
I continued to evolve my business. I knew it wasn't scalable for me to cook individually for everyone in their homes so I rented a commercial kitchen and did my food preparation for multiple clients at once, and I would portion everything out specifically to their nutrition needs. It was great that I could give people healthy food but as a dietitian I know it's better to teach a person to fish than to just give that person a fish.
The new plan was that I would start out cooking as many meals for my clients as they wanted for the first couple weeks. Then we would develop a tailored plan to help them learn to cook and execute the plan on their own. I did that for a couple years -- it was fantastic!
Q: You went on to run a nutrition program at Giant Eagle. What was that like?
Caroline: Around 2008 Giant Eagle came to me and said, “We want to have a retail dietitian program, will you do it?” I figured I could always go back to the business, so I put it on hold, went to Giant Eagle, and started a nutrition program there. At its height, we had 23 dietitians on my team covering 230 stores over four states. I was there almost eight years. Then it was time for a change. I was losing my passion and I wanted to do so much more. I was at the peak of what I could do there, at that time, because while health and wellness in a grocery store is an interesting project it’s not always the main focus in the retail industry. I then decided to start up my private practice again.
Caroline with Pitt Nutrition Assistant Professor, Judy Dodd
Q: Is that when you started teaching at SHRS?
Caroline: Yes. Around that time, it just so happened that the Entrepreneurial Skills for Nutrition Professionals Course needed a professor. I started doing that and added the community class the following year.
My business is currently focused on strategic consulting, whether that be with corporations for program development, or if a person wants to strategically figure out their nutrition plan. For the past two or three years, I've been doing strictly telehealth and meeting people virtually on a HIPAA-compliant web platform because people don't always have the time to drive somewhere and meet you.
Also, a couple months after I left Giant Eagle, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which is my professional association, comprised of about a hundred thousand members of Dietitians and Dietetic Technicians announced an opening in Pittsburgh for their fantastic spokesperson program. I applied and got it! Currently, I’m also a media spokesperson for the Academy and I just love being able to support my profession in that manner.
Q: What kind of larger impact do you hope that your work has?
Caroline: It's a lofty vision, but it's to make the healthy choice the easy choice for everybody. I started out with my practice focusing on the folks who had a disposable income and learned that's not scalable. I went to Giant Eagle and realized there were audiences that we weren't reaching with our program, so I pivoted to figure out how you work with different people, like students, or with policy, to build a healthy, supportive environment on a large scale that's accessible. That's really the goal.
Creating a vision and mission is actually an exercise I assign students in my Entrepreneurial Skills for Nutrition Professionals Course. I ask them to write a mission statement because they are so stressed and they want to do so much -- volunteer, develop a good resume, etc. -- and students don't know what to say “no” to. They're afraid to say no and I explain to them that you have to, but you learn to strategically say no. Students spend the first week developing a mission statement as a graduate student seeking employment.
Q: Do you have any advice for current SHRS students?
Caroline: Have a broad vision. Know where you're going, but be flexible, and don't have a narrow path as if there's only one way to get there.
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