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How have Healthy Valleys created a sense of community during online cooking courses?

Simone Janse van Rensburg tells us what she has learned from delivering their first few online courses – for parents with young children and two different weight management groups.

About the courses
Simone and her colleague, a cook tutor too, created some home-made videos of recipes they knew people enjoyed at face-to-face sessions and found easy to cook. Although making ‘food videos’ was new for them, they created something that demonstrated cooking skills and how to follow a recipe. These videos were shown during the online cooking course sessions and gave something visual to base a discussion around.

Participants had the option to cook along during the session or observe and chat then cook after. The duration of each session depended on the group preference and how the group were coping on that day or evening, but usually these lasted between 1 to 1.5 hours. Ingredients were delivered to participants by volunteers who then joined the online session a few hours later. This allowed for a socially distant chat or wave to create familiarity, which was especially useful for the first session.

A private YouTube link to the recipe video was sent out post session along with other information on eating well or adapted recipes. Participants emailed/messaged photographs, comments and other feedback from creating their own meals on their own at home.

Getting the dynamics right
Trying to recreate the atmosphere of a face-to-face cooking group has been tricky. There are no delicious cooking smells, participants cannot taste each other’s food and get that instant feedback from each other, and it’s harder to work out if participants need help or want to chat about something without prompting them.

So, what can be done to recreate a convivial, supportive atmosphere? Simone has found that keeping the online session informal and adapting to people’s needs as each session progresses has helped to create some of the feelings of group ownership and make people feel comfortable.

Not wanting to be ‘on camera’ was a challenge for some participants. Over time and with regular communication during and outside the sessions, participants eventually turned their cameras on at some point. Staying on the Zoom call a few minutes after each session also gives some people the chance to either speak to Simone individually or carry on with informal chat.

Adapting to the needs of the group has led to some useful conversations. In one session for example, a parent prepared the recipe ‘live’ during the session and got her toddler involved in some of the food activities, such as tasting or identifying the ingredients. This led to lots of chat between the parents on how easy or difficult they found it to cook a meal while their children were around and what they could do about it.

The approach seems to be helping people create a sense of community. Over time, people have commented that the social contact of the sessions, albeit as part of online course, has been an important social contact outside their social bubble during lockdown.

Keeping people involved
Simone has found the parents’ online cooking groups are better attended than the previous face-to-face courses. She speculates this is because it’s easier to be online at home when faced with challenges that might usually put people off attending a face-to-face course, such as feeling tired because a baby has not slept well, or not having adequate childcare.

Future plans
Simone and her colleagues plan to continue the online cooking courses for some time to come and run them alongside their usual face-to-face sessions which they are keen to get back to doing when it is safe to do so. They also started running the REHIS suite of courses online and these are more structured. More filming of cooking demos on specific topics will be done as well as gathering and creating more online resources.

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