N° 86 | February 2014

The importance of cooking skills for balanced food choices Results from the Swiss Food Panel

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Food guidelines simply inform people about healthy food choices and good eating practices, and a translation of food guidelines into actual daily meal preparation needs more than nutrition knowledge alone. Other important aspects that affect food choices are household characteristics, such as financial resources, available means of transportation, kitchen equipment, and household members’ skills in food acquisition, transportation, storage, and preparation1. Based on the published literature, however, it remains unclear how cooking skills infl uence one’s dietary behaviour. Therefore, we designed a cooking skills scale to measure cooking skills in a European adult population. Furthermore, we examined which factors predict cooking skills, and investigated if there is an association between cooking skills and balanced food choices. Our study is based on data from the Swiss Food Panel, a population-based longitudinal study of the eating behaviour of the Swiss population (4,436 participants). All participants receive a written questionnaire every year and provide information about different aspects of their eating behaviour.

Men reported lower cooking skills than women

In general, men reported lower cooking skills than women in every age group, and particularly older men’s cooking skills are low. One explanation might be that cooking classes for females were obligatory in the earlier years in Switzerland, while obligatory cooking classes for males started only in the 1980s. Further analysis showed that younger women at the ages of 20 to 30 years reported lower cooking skills, than older women. The supposed decline in the intergenerational transmission of basic cooking skills at home2, and people’s increasing consumption of convenience food3 might have led to the fact that cooking skills become less frequently practiced.

Cooking enjoyment is the most important predictor for cooking skills

Women who enjoy cooking have higher cooking skills independently of time or effort considerations. Interestingly, the association between cooking skills and cooking enjoyment is more pronounced in males than in females. Men’s motivation to cook might be different from women’s, because men cook when they are in the right mood and cooking is more constructed as a fun activity, than as an everyday responsibility. Another important factor for cooking skills is the presence of children. If there are children under the age of 16 years in the household, men and women are more likely to be able to cook. Parents might be more motivated to learn cooking and cook more frequently than persons living alone.

People who are able to cook make better food choices

We also assessed food choices by using a Food-Frequency Questionnaire, which refl ects usual consumption of various food groups. Our results suggest there is a positive relationship between cooking skills and the consumption of vegetables. Accordingly, the higher the cooking skills are, the higher is the vegetable consumption. In fact, cooking skills enable the preparation of different food items and dishes, and therefore may increase food choice opportunities, as well as food variety. It is well known that food variety is one factor among others that may increase food intake, which is preferable in the case of vegetables consumption4,5. Moreover, people with high cooking skills less frequently consume convenience food (e.g. pizza, a meal in a can, meals ready-to eat), sweets (e.g. chocolate, sweet pastries) and savoury snacks (e.g. chips) as well as sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g. Fanta, Cola). Most of those food items do not need preparation skills or additional effort in advance, are comfortable and simplify meal preparation. Unfortunately, most of these products are high in calories due to high sugar and fat contents, and with a higher consumption of these products, consumers lose control over ingredients and food safety.

Cooking classes in school and healthy convenience food

Our results have further strengthened the hypothesis that people’s food choices are infl uenced by their cooking skills. Therefore, promotion of cooking skills should be part of prevention strategies. Cooking classes in schools provide a great opportunity to raise awareness of fresh foods, food ingredients, and health-promoting diets. These classes could also provide students with the skills on how to economically and quickly prepare healthy dishes. Additionally, children and young adults, especially from low-income families, might benefi t most from cooking classes in schools because they have limited access to other resources of information. Thereby, cooking enjoyment should be promoted and especially boys should be encouraged to develop their cooking skills. Nonetheless, there is an increasing consumer’s demand for ready-to eat foods, with men in particular reporting eating convenience foods more often. The consumers, as well as the industry should be encouraged to focus on ‘healthy’ convenience foods, which are low in sugar and fat. It is evident that older men with low cooking skills in particular might profi t from those kind of ready-to eat foods.

Published as: Hartmann C, Dohle S, Siegrist M. (2013). Cooking skills for balanced food choices. Appetite 65, 125-131

  1. Popkin B, Haines P (1981) Factors affecting food selection: the role of economics. 79, 419-425.
  2. Lyon P, Sydner YM, Fjellstrom C et al. (2011) Continuity in the kitchen: how younger and older women compare in their food practices and use of cooking skills. Int J Consum Stud 35, 529-537.
  3. Gofton L. Convenience and the moral status of consumer practices. In: Marshall DW, ed. Food choice and the consumer. London: Blackie Academic & Professionaled, 1995:152-181.
  4. Bucher T, van der Horst K, Siegrist M (2011) Improvement of meal composition by vegetable variety. 14, 1357-1363.
  5. Wansink B (2004) Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annu Rev Nutr 24, 455-479.
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