Toni Coleman used to turn to two key ingredients when cooking: sugar and salt.

The 68-year-old retired federal government worker figured it probably wasn't healthy, but food just didn't taste good without it.

After taking classes offered by the American Heart Association Maryland, the Gwynn Oak resident has learned to cook with herbs, garlic and other fresh ingredients, which has helped her reduce her intake of calories, sodium and other things that contribute to bad health. And she said the food still tastes as good — and sometimes better — than before.

The American Heart Association Maryland opened its Simple Cooking with Heart Kitchen this year to teach people how to create healthy meals. Baltimore was one of several cities the association tapped to run such kitchens, but the first in the country that has opened.

Baltimore was chosen because of its high rates of heart disease and obesity. Heart disease is the leading cause of death and stroke is the third-leading cause, according to the Baltimore City Health Department website. Major cardio-vascular disease claimed almost 2,000 lives in 2012, the department says.

Keeping a healthy weight and adhering to a low-sodium, low-fat diet can help prevent heart disease.

"What you put in your mouth definitely affects your quality of life and if you have life," said Yvette Mingo, the heart association's executive director.

Doctors and health advocates emphasize the importance of eating right, but many residents don't know how to do that — even when they think they do.

Coleman said she was one of those people. Since changing her diet, she has fewer bouts of gas and indigestion.

"To make people heart-healthy without knowledge of how to do so is a dead-end street," she said.

The cooking classes are held several times a week at the heart association's kitchen on the campus of Stratford University in Baltimore. Students, who pay $5 to attend, sit at stations where they are given all the ingredients, utensils and recipes needed to cook the meal of the day. Chef Tia Berry then guides the class through preparation.

During a recent class with a breakfast theme, Coleman was among about a dozen students who made oatmeal bars with blueberries and egg cup muffins. Berry said she tries to choose recipes that are easy to make, healthy and taste good.

"These are simple, and you can take them on the go," she told the class. "You will have no excuse to skip breakfast."

Berry started the class by reminding attendants about the importance of eating breakfast. It helps jump-start people's metabolism and give them energy for the day, she said. Balance breakfast with a serving of lean protein, a serving of whole grain and a serving of fruit or vegetables, she added. And an egg a day is OK, although egg whites are better if someone has high cholesterol or heat disease.

Eating healthy can prove challenging, Berry told the class. Even she has a bad habit of skipping breakfast.

"I understand your struggle," she said. "I understand it's difficult to make change. But we have to do it."

The students hunkered over their pots and pans, slowly measuring out oatmeal, honey and cinnamon. Berry also gave the class cooking tips along the way. Combine the dry and wet ingredients separately, she said. Spray the measuring spoon with cooking oil so the honey doesn't stick.

As the smell of baking oatmeal bars filled the room, the class moved onto the next dish: vegetable egg cup muffins. This dish required more prep work, mostly chopping vegetables. Berry showed the class the proper way to hold a knife and suggested the cooks brush the dirt off the mushrooms rather than wash them so they wouldn't absorb the moisture. She also instructed them to combine the eggs, not beat them, so they wouldn't come out tough.

The classes, which are open to the public, have attracted a diversity of students. Some have heart and weight problems, while others want to learn to cook so they don't end up with health issues.

Retiree Melinda Parham said she started taking the class because she has diabetes and high blood pressure and had started gaining weight. She said the class has introduced her to new foods, such as salsa. She has also learned to cook healthy chicken salad and baked apples with cinnamon and honey.