By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Dinnertime lacked the pizzazz Kim Panowicz was looking for.
Family meals had become somewhat stale as she stuck with the same meat-and-potatoes recipes that satisfied her husband and teenage daughter.
“We were always eating the same things,” said Panowicz, who wanted to spice up the menu by introducing items that are both good-tasting and good for you.
“We all needed to eat healthier in our household,” she said. “I just needed some encouragement to make that happen.”
The University of Nebraska at Kearney employee found the support she was looking for through an experiential learning project that pairs student coaches with people looking to improve their eating habits and overall health.
Seventeen students in Peg Johnston’s advanced nutrition course worked with UNK employees this semester to help them reach their wellness goals and pursue a healthier lifestyle.
Johnston, a registered dietitian and senior lecturer in UNK’s Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences, organizes the project each spring to give her students an opportunity to serve clients in a real-life scenario and prepare them for future careers in the medical and health and wellness fields.
Similar to a professional setting, the student coaches met with their clients to discuss wellness goals and strategies, then scheduled follow-up sessions over the next two months to track their progress and help them overcome any obstacles.
Jennica Delvaux, a sophomore from Yankton, South Dakota, worked with Panowicz to develop healthier eating habits for her family.
“One thing we really strived to do is get a greater variety of vegetables in her side dishes,” said Delvaux, who offered recipes and cooking tips to create delicious and nutritious options.
They also focused on portion control and ways the Panowicz family could add exercise to their daily routine.
“I felt like I was able to give her some really helpful recommendations she could easily fit into her lifestyle,” Delvaux said.
Panowicz, an office associate in UNK’s Department of Communication Disorders, was excited to try the ideas, calling Delvaux a “very prepared, upbeat and encouraging” health coach.
“She had great ideas I was able to implement little by little,” Panowicz said. “We’re trying to slowly make changes so we’re not setting ourselves up for failure.”
For Delvaux, a former exercise science and health education major who now plans to be a 7-12 biology teacher, the partnership allowed her to test her knowledge while building her interpersonal skills.
“I think that’s vital for anyone going into the nutrition counseling or health care fields,” she said. “Seeing the actual impact and measured progress in our client’s life was a valuable experience.”
Yovan Perez agrees.
The senior from Scottsbluff wants to be a personal trainer and this project gave him firsthand experience in that area.
He worked with Renae Zimmer, an assistant director in UNK’s Office of Student Engagement, whose goals included exercising more and eating better.
An exercise science major with a nutrition minor, Perez helped her reimagine meals by substituting healthier options into existing recipes.
“You could really see the way she was eating was a lot different,” he said of the end result. “It was a lot smarter way of eating.”
Perez also benefited from the relationship.
“Working with Renae was definitely a good start for me because she understood that I was learning as much as she was,” he said. “She was really motivated, and that made things a lot easier.”
Participants in the UNK project realized a variety of lifestyle changes, including one client who lost 9 1/2 pounds and another with lower blood pressure.
Panowicz notices the differences in her household every time she goes to the grocery store.
“The grocery list has changed dramatically. I have to say that,” she said. “There are a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables coming into the house.”