In her last year of college, Nutreatious CEO Dana Sicko was beginning the clinical rotations required for her bachelor’s degree as a registered dietician when an older man recovering from a heart attack ordered her out of his hospital room. By golly, he snorted, if he wanted to eat bacon and eggs each morning for the rest of his life, he darn well would and dismissed her nutritional services as “another way for the insurance companies to make money.” Sicko—and the heart-healthy diet she had written for him (sans bacon and eggs)—quickly left the room.
She laughs as she recounts the story. But the loud and clear message stuck: People do not want to be told what to eat. “I love bacon and eggs, too,” agrees Sicko. “I would hate to be told I couldn’t have them.”
Departing from the RD track where, in essence, telling people what they can’t eat if they want to become or remain healthy is the mainstay of the job, Sicko went on to graduate with a degree in nutritional science from the University of New Hampshire, where she was already cooking up the idea of a business like Nutreatious. “I would be sitting on the bus, coming home from intermural lacrosse games and conjure ways to make cookies and other treats healthier.” Hence the provenance of the company’s name.
After graduating in 2010 and working as a nutritional consultant for FX Studios in Cockeysville, she would tinker around in her kitchen late at night and bring in her offerings for the studio’s clients. “I somehow had to make a healthy blueberry muffin taste like a real blueberry muffin,” she says. She obviously paid attention in chemistry class, replacing coconut milk for fats, agave nectars for sugars, whole wheat or gluten-free wheat to get the proteins down for the perfect light and fluffy muffin. “It took a few years to get these muffins just right,” says Sicko, but her boss was immediately impressed, asking her to expand beyond her treat menu and begin cooking three meals a day for one of the studio’s clients.
Around that time, Baltimore native Harry Kassap returned home from living and working in Las Vegas where, as he puts it, he “gained weight and lost hair” and hadn’t exercised in 25 years. Walking around with extra pounds and high blood pressure, Kassap’s doctor told him to start exercising and eating right and handed him Sicko’s business card.
“I knew the right foods to eat, of course, but I was going for the Doritos over fruit any day,” recalls Kassap who took his doctor’s advice and called Sicko the next day. Impressed with Sicko’s professionalism, Kassap, handed over his credit card and told her, “I want you to cook every meal, using the freshest and best food for me.”
Once filled with junk food, Kassap’s kitchen is now stocked with fruits, dried fruits, water, herbal teas, high fiber cereals and low-fat organic milk. “I actually eat quinoa now, and I love it,” admits Kassap used to life off of processed meat. “Thanks to Dana, I still eat meat but now it’s organic grass-fed beef in her amazing Asian stir-fry dish.”
Each client begins with a personal consultation. “Everyone has a relationship with food,” says Sicko, “and it’s my job to understand what that is.” Some of her clients want to lose weight, some want to eat healthier and others have little time to cook. All have likes and dislikes. Sicko’s mission is to work within those likes and dislikes to create a healthy menu.
Under Armour founder Kevin Plank and his wife, DJ, simply wanted to start eating healthier, so they hired Sicko to map out a 12-week meal plan. “She cooked five meals a week plus healthy snacks for us,” says DJ. But Sicko did more. She contacted Plank’s secretary to discuss healthy lunch choices in his company’s cafeteria. She made kid-friendly fruit kabobs and vegan Rice Krispies treats the kids couldn’t resist. She tweaked her blackened fish taco recipe to please each member of the family—spicing it up for the adults; toning it down for the kids. It’s been over two years, and Sicko is still cooking weekly for the busy family. “She’s like a member of our family,” says DJ.
After a client’s initial consultation, Sicko, who now has two chefs working with her, creates a menu specific to each client’s needs. She sends a menu for the week via email, generates a grocery list upon approval, then shops and orders foods from Whole Foods and other specialty shops. “I am that serious shopper you see, two hands on the cart—no time for lulling around the aisles.”
After shopping, she and her chefs head to the clients’ homes to commence the week’s meal preparations. They cook the food—usually six to eight different mix and match dishes loaded with fruits and vegetables, affix labels to each container with reheating instructions, arrange them by meal and day in the refrigerator, and clean up. “The clients don’t even know we were there until they open the refrigerator,” says Sicko.
Recipe development is a big part of Sicko’s job. “I am a mad scientist with recipe reconstruction,” she admits. She has several families where one child eats gluten-free, another is lactose intolerant, the mom is a vegetarian and the dad wants meat. So she makes one big meal they can all come together around. “Everyone likes the vegetarian lasagna!” she says.
Looking back, Sicko realizes she was probably destined to one day work with food. “When I was 6, my parents gave me an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas—and I attacked that thing, she says.
“My mom literally had to issue time restrictions on how much I could use it.”
In addition to her personal chef services, which start at $350 per visit plus the cost of food, Sicko recently added catering to Nutreatious’ menu of offerings. The organization-obsessed culinary wiz also offers “pantry transformations” and other kitchen design services, which included a recent trip to Utah to help one of her client’s set up shop in her new vacation home.
“I opened 30 boxes of appliances, pot and pans, and utensils,” she says. “It was unbelievable! I was in heaven.”