person cooking

Are our lack of cooking skills at the root cause of lifestyle diseases?

In my clinical practice and through my interactions with social and occupational groups, I have observed a growing number of people who don’t know how to cook and a decreasing value placed on a good “home cooked” meal. People are often reaching for convenience foods, take aways, frozen meals and pre-packaged foods rather than preparing and cooking their own meals. We are taught as lifestyle medicine practitioners to evaluate a person’s “nutritional intake” by what they are eating. But maybe we need to be looking a bit deeper and rather than just look at what, we also need to be looking at the why and how. Maybe we need to be digging a bit deeper into people’s lives to really discover where their lifestyle choices around food come from. If we are asking someone to change what they are eating, do they know how?

Moving towards the recommended “mostly plants and whole foods” way of eating requires not only a knowledge of the foods, but how to prepare and cook them. Unless you have a private chef, a personal shopper or an endless budget to eat at the local whole foods cafe, then you have to know your potatoes from tomatoes! You really do need to know how to cook.

So are a lack of cooking skills at the root cause of lifestyle diseases? Or, is the issue something greater than the actual cooking skills, and more about what comes as part of the package with cooking?

There are many studies out there that have looked at people’s cooking skills and whether they are impacting our food choices and consumption. And, genearlly speaking, the more cooking skills people have, the more fruit and vegetables they eat.

Cooking, a basic life skill, has traditionally been taught in the home. And, the home cooked meal has really been the “heart” of the home. Cooking creates connection between family members, working together, planning, and creating meals together. It creates movement; standing, stirring, grating, chopping, whisking (all extremely valuable resistance movements that can be done for 10 – 15 mins, 2 – 3 times per day without the need for a gym or personal trainer!). Cooking creates time out from the tv, electronic devices and for some, it can even be meditative and relaxing. And it creates discussion. Many great conversations (and debates) have been had in my home while prepping and cooking up a meal. Sometimes it’s the only time that partners, friends, or families have time to debrief about their day. It’s a very different process, a very different “vibe”, and a very different outcome than chucking a frozen meal in the microwave, or opening a box and shovelling food in your mouth.

So could it possibly be the ritual and the process of the preparation, cooking and eating that is just as important as the food itself? Dare I say, there may even be a little bit of “magic” that is shared between friends and family when they regularly gather to cook and eat together, that goes beyond the nutrient value of the food, and sets up a way of life, or a way of being, that either positively or negatively impacts on health. Take for example the studies of the “Blue Zones” where all of those communities had regular gatherings of family and community for meals or cups of tea. Part of what is inherent in their daily lives is the gathering and communing for meals which have been prepared together. These communities have minimal incidences of lifestyle diseases.

But these gatherings to prepare, cook and share meals are not possible if you can’t cook, or worse, if you don’t know a bean from a carrot.

Worryingly, we are faced with an evolving generation that have little knowledge of food, as evidenced by the famous lesson Jamie Oliver has with a class of 6 year old school kids in the US. These kids could not identify basic fresh foods. They did not even know a potato, yet I’m certain they have all eaten this in various forms. They didn’t know tomato, cauliflower, beetroot, onion, eggplant…..none of them.

So why don’t these children know what fresh produce is? Why haven’t they seen it in their everyday lives? If they haven’t seen these basic foods, then what are they eating? And more importantly, what are their parents eating for meals? Eating a hot dog in front of the TV? Eating fast food in the car? I don’t know. My daughter who is 20 months old unpacks the market bags with me every week. As a consequence she knows loads of fruit and veg; zucchini, broccoli, garlic, onion, potato, sweet potato, carrot, ginger, apples, lemons, orange, banana, strawberries, blueberries and the list goes on. So it would seem that these children, at age 6 and older, are not being exposed to natural fresh fruit and veg in their everyday life, otherwise they would have learnt very early on what fresh produce is. Quite sad really. Can you imagine not having even seen a fresh tomato!

But further to this, it means they are not helping mum or dad cook an evening meal, chopping vegetables, stirring ingredients together, measuring things out. Unfortunately, they clearly are not seeing behaviours that they can learn and model. Fresh produce is obviously not even in the house, let alone cooked and eaten.

While this is alarming and worrying, it is thankfully not the majority… yet. But it worries me when I see mothers feeding their 2 year old a hash brown before swimming lessons. It worries me when I see workers eating convenience foods day after day. And it worries me when patients report they’ve signed up for the delivery of something light and easy. Maybe it is not so much the cooking skills that are lacking, but the value placed on the cooking of the meals that is waning in favour of other demands.

It seems there is not yet enough “evidence” to determine whether improving people’s cooking skills through intervention programs has a long-term impact on people’s dietary intake, obesity and other health outcomes. But it stands to reason that we certainly need to keep encouraging people to cook their own meals and understand the importance of continuing to teach children this valuable skill. There is wisdom in a “good home cooked meal” and as practitioners we could start asking some different questions. If we want people to change what they are eating, let’s ask them why and how they access their meals. We need to be ahead of the game and prevent our society from having a bigger issue in the future.

Jacqueline Edser is a qualified Occupational Therapist, Certified Lifestyle Medicine practitioner and offers Lifestyle Medicine Coaching

More articles from Jacqueline:

  1. Importance of cooking skills for balanced food choices, Christina Hartmann, Simone Dohle, Michael Siegrist, ETH Zurich, Institute for Environmental Decisions (IED), Consumer Behaviour, Universitaetstrasse 22, CHN J75.1, CH-8092 Zurich, Switzerland
  2. Impact of Cooking and Home Food Preparation, Interventions Among Adults: Outcomes and Implications for Future Programs Marla Reicks, PhD, RD1; Amanda C. Trofholz, MPH, RD2; Jamie S. Stang, PhD, MPH, RD2;Melissa N. Laska, PhD, RD2,
  3. Wider impacts of a 10-week community cooking skills program – Jamie’s Ministry of Food, Australia, Jessica Herbert1*, Anna Flego1, Lisa Gibbs2, Elizabeth Waters2, Boyd Swinburn3,4, John Reynolds5 and Marj Moodie1
  4. The associations of vegetable consumption with food mavenism, personal values, food knowledge and demographic factors, Tahlia Farragher a, Wei C. Wang b, Anthony Worsley a,

This article has been written for the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) by the documented original author. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the ASLM or its Board.