I was recently lucky enough to attend and present the results of our realist evaluation of cooking skills courses at a conference in Lisbon. This was the 3rd COOK and Health international conference and was attended by around 60 researchers, all of whom, like me, were enthusiastic about cooking skills. So what did we have to talk about?
More home cooking may help improve our diet…
The conference kicked off with a research presentation from Susanne Mills. Susanne and her colleagues looked at a UK study of over 11 thousand adults and found that eating home cooked meals more often was associated with a better diet, particularly an increased intake of fruit and vegetables (compared to eating out or using ready meals). It was also associated with being a healthier weight and having lower body fat. The best results were where people reported they ate home cooked food as their main meal more than five times a week, but eating home-cook meals more than three times a weeks was also beneficial.
What inspires or enables people to cook?
Trying to understand the sociological and psychological processes that support or inspire people to cook more homemade meals can be tricky to understand and measure. Our own realist evaluation used a behaviour change framework to understand and map how people reacted to cooking courses and the context of their own lives. These reactions turned out to be important: getting a wider range of these (positive) reactions from people was associated with a better diet and increased cooking skills.
Two of the reactions that were part of the framework we used were self-efficacy (i.e.: the confidence and ability to do a task) and (positive) attitude. Both of these reactions or processes were commonly discussed throughout the conference, even when the researchers used different theoretical frameworks to ours.
Another framework or tool to measure these reactions or processes was presented by Julia Wolfson. Julie and colleagues used the term ‘Food Agency’ to cover three processes that work together to either support or prevent people from cooking good food. These were: Food Self-efficacy, Food Attitude and Structure (i.e.: the context of people’s lives which can prevent or promote home cooking). Julia’s research measured Food Agency in a selection of adults from the USA and not surprisingly found that people with a higher Food Agency score were more likely to prepare home cooked meals more often. A higher Food Agency score seemed to increase with people’s age and either a very low or a very high income seemed to be associated with a lower Food Agency score. (Although the researchers acknowledged they did not have information from a wide enough range of people across income groups to make firm conclusions about the effect of income). So how can the idea of Food Agency be used to support better cooking courses? Julia and her colleagues have produced an academic poster that lists the skills and approaches they have used to try to support the development of Food Agency.
Lynn Fredericks, who runs Family Cook Productions – a social enterprise in New York– spoke about how she developed a theoretical framework on ‘experiential drivers’ to better plan and evaluate cooking courses that will inspire people to carry out more home cooking. These drivers included: ensuring that people feel their cooking is successful; developing their palates; encouraging peer support as well as more practical activities such as building and reinforcing skills. A You tube video summarises these drivers and is based on cooking courses for young people.
An ongoing theme throughout the conference was the acknowledgement that ‘cooking’ (and all the ‘invisible’ labour associated with cooking – deciding what to cook, planning, shopping, cooking, clearing up etc.) is a complex activity which many struggle to find time for. Amy Trubek and other researchers recognised that a lack of time can be too much for some people and simply saying there are plenty of ‘quick and easy meals’ that people could find time to do if they simply planned better is not always helpful.
And the first day of the conference finished off with a presentation from Sarah Bowen, who has written a book called ‘Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It’. The book examines Americans’ association with food and messages from celebrity chefs and others telling us we have no excuses for not feeding ourselves and our families’ proper food. She suggests people should not feel guilty about finding compromising solutions such as using ready prepared ingredients or buying ‘meal kits’ to save time.
Sarah Bowen and many others also acknowledged that more home cooking, or developing cooking skills is just one small component for eating well, particularly for people who may be food insecure. As well as more or better paid employment and more structural solutions, food related initiatives suggested included community meals and providing affordable meal kits.
Take home messages on community cooking courses
- Keep running cooking skills courses! – consuming home cooked meals is associated with a better diet, particularly an increase in fruit and veg intake
- But, recognise that preparing meals for a household day in day out really is a complex activity– an enjoyable cooking course that meets people’s range of needs and inspires them may build skills and promote positive feelings about providing good food and cooking
- Cooking from ‘scratch’ isn’t the only way to provide good home cooked food – making best use of ready-prepared ingredients or putting together meal kits might be more relevant and useful for some people.