As a hands-on way to encourage wellness, more and more health systems are on a mission to show and tell their communities how to eat well. Introducing demonstration kitchens, some with mini-auditoriums, has become an innovative way for hospitals to engage the public in disease prevention and management.

Interactive classes incorporate food samplings, practical tips, and take-home recipes. Some classes home in on special diets—diabetic, weight-control, heart-healthy—while others give children a head start in learning how to assemble nutritious and delicious meals.

“We want people to be able take the knowledge they gain from our chefs and dietitians and apply it to their own homes,” says Jerry Roche, director of integrated services at Watertown Regional Medical Center (WRMC) in Watertown, Wis.

WRMC opened an addition that includes its Wellness Works environment, a new dining area, and the Harvest Community Kitchen in late 2013. It was designed by Eppstein Uhen Architects (Milwaukee). Outfitted with stainless steel appliances, the demo kitchen is positioned just off the main lobby, where it piques the curiosity of visitors who can peer through its glass doors.

A kitchen island with a granite countertop serves as the focal point for food preparation that promotes consumer wellness. High stools stationed around the island can cater to small groups ranging from six to eight participants, while tables and chairs on casters can accommodate as many as 50 observers.

Big-screen TVs feature close-ups of meals in the making. Adult tastings often include a glass of wine, and all sessions aim to incorporate fresh produce from the hospital’s 10,000-square-foot garden. Seasonal items, herbs, and spices round out the selections.

For a cost of $15 to $30 per class, participants “leave feeling full, and they leave with a good experience. We use a model that healthy food is our foundation, and food is powerful medicine,” Roche says.

Demonstration kitchens dovetail nicely with the concept of nutrition delivered with homegrown products. The more these venues resemble residential kitchens—with wood cabinets, granite countertops, and neutral tones—the more they resonate with participants.

“It feels like the kitchen in anyone’s home. It’s a very warm, inviting environment,” says John S. Barker, executive vice president at Hobbs+Black Architects (Ann Arbor, Mich.), which designed the demonstration kitchen at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in suburban Detroit. The kitchen, which opened in 2009 within the new hospital, can serve 83 people.

Here, various chefs take turns leading classes for adults, schoolchildren, and seniors. They try to include at least one ingredient from the hospital’s hydroponic organic greenhouse, which was built solely with philanthropic dollars, says Rob Hindley, executive chef and manager of culinary wellness.

In addition to the hospital’s culinary staff, “we welcome chefs from the community to come in and teach classes to mix it up a little bit and add their own flair,” he says. Some sessions are offered for free, while others might cost between $25 and $35. In the future, they may be recorded and broadcast on the hospital’s television network, allowing viewers to tune in from patient rooms and other areas.

Embracing good food as the body’s best defense against disease is also the idea behind a new demonstration kitchen expected to open this summer at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

“To our knowledge, It will be the first teaching kitchen in a children’s hospital in the U.S.,” says Dr. Mark Gilger, the hospital’s pediatrician-in-chief and vice chair of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. “The issue behind the teaching kitchen—why we’re pursuing this—is to take a very early, proactive approach to obesity in the United States.”

Children will receive a hands-on introduction to cooking while learning about healthier alternatives to sugar and salt. They will be encouraged to replicate their experiences with families at home.

“We really want to create what we call ‘a recipe for life,’” Gilger says.