« Cooking skills: a tool for a healthy diet »

Cooking crisis: What crisis?

To cook or not to cook?

Cooking has long been a topic of discussion and concern among those arguing for a healthy diet. Chadwick, the great public health reformer, in 1842 called for cooking education1.

The Obama administration has heartedly endorsed cooking, mainly through the First Lady and a program called Cooking Matters, to address the obesity problem in the United States (http://cookingmatters.org/).

Changing practices in cooking and food preparation and the way we eat2,3 some argue are driven by a loss of skills. Others argue that there is not a loss of skills but a changing set of skills4 driven by the changing nature of food provision and demands on our time5. Our research in 1999 showed the United Kingdom population with low levels of skills, with the rich having higher levels of a skills deficit6.

Evidence for cooking interventions

There is emerging evidence that in communities that cook7 there is an enhanced health outcome but we do not know how best to transfer those skills and to encourage their continued use in the light of changing times and habits.

  • The evidence for schools
    The promotion of cooking in school settings are often based on a relationship between cooking and health outcomes8. One of our most recent pieces of research explored the transference of skills from the classroom to the home9. We found some short-term transference of skills and acceptance of tastes to the home. A key success was with vegetable and vegetable consumption and the encouragement to prepare vegetables as part of the meal plate and not just hide them away in foods as an ingredient. Tasting and peer approval appeared to be important in encouraging this.
  • Community cooking for adults
    Cooking classes for adults in the community are popular food initiatives. These are often run to fi ll gaps in knowledge and skills that adults have not managed to acquire. A review of cooking for adults concluded that the available evidence is inconclusive for community based adult interventions, largely due to poor quality evaluations10. This lack of evidence has not stopped public and private bodies funding such initiatives.


The main drives for the teaching of cooking have come from the health sector, which believes this is a way forward to deliver healthy eating. Many celebrity chefs have linked to this, the most obvious being Jamie Oliver (others are Stephanie Alexander in Australia and Alice Waters in the USA). The majority of claims are not based on evidence and often seem to hinge around a lack of public health imagination. So we invest resources in programmes without a clear evidence base. What we need is to invest in research to develop a robust evidence base from existing activities.

There are many reasons to teach cooking to people, at its simplest this is a necessary citizenship skill which helps in many areas such as food choice and sociability, even if an individual decides not to cook. The evidence suggests that cooking has a role to play in extending diets by following the following principles:

  • Allows young people/adults to prepare, experiment, taste and try new foods in a safe environment.
  • Models of teaching which rely less on demonstration and more on involvement are more likely to be successful. Demonstration of a dish or meal preparation tends to suggest a proper way or look to a meal/dish.
  • Those which focus on meal preparation with vegetables as a key component or side dish are more likely to result in healthy eating.
  • Linking skills with confi dence is important.
  1. Chadwick, E. (1842) Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labour Population and on the Means of its Improvement. London, May 1842.
  2. Symons, M. (1998) The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks: The story of cooking in civilisation and daily life. Penguin Books, Victoria Australia.
  3. Vileisis, A. (2008) Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why we Need to Get It Back. Shearwater, Washington DC:.
  4. Stitt, S et al. (1997) ‘Schooling for capitalism: cooking and the national Curriculum’, in Köhler, B.M., Feichtinger, E., Barlösius, E. and Dowler, E. (eds,) Poverty and Food In Welfare Societies. WZB, Berlin, Berlin.
  5. Short, F. (2006) Kitchen secrets: The meaning of cooking in everyday life. Berg, London.
  6. Caraher M., et al (1999) The state of cooking in England: The relationship of cooking skills to food choice. British Food Journal, 101(8), 590–609.
  7. Chen, R. C.-Y., Lee, M. S., Chang, Y. H., & Wahlqvist, M. L. (2012). Cooking frequency may enhance survival in Taiwanese elderly. Public Health Nutrition, 15(7), 1142–1149.
  8. Seeley, A., Wu, M. and Caraher, M. (2010) ‘Should we teach cooking in schools? A systematic review of the literature of school-based cooking interventions’, Journal of the Home Economics Institute of Australia, 17 (1), 10-19.
  9. Caraher, M., et al. (2013). When chefs adopt a school? An evaluation of a cooking intervention in English primary schools. Appetite, 111(4-5), 452-474. doi:10.1016/j. appet.2012.11.007
  10. Rees. R., et al. (2012) Communities that cook: a systematic review of the effectiveness and appropriateness of interventions to introduce adults to home cooking. EPPI Centre, Social Science, Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.