Does knowing how to cook as a kid ensure that you’ll eat healthier as an adult? Hmmmm…
I love science, but sometimes it’s baffling that certain things even need to be studied.
If you were to ask any mom out there whether knowing how to cook would help someone eat healthier, she would say, “Well yeah, duh, obviously it would!”
But now we have science to prove it…
A new study came out in the Journal of Nutrition, Education and Behavior this year showing that when young adults ages 18 to 23 feel like they know how to cook, they actually have better nutrition in their homes and with their families more than 10 years later in their 30s.
The study followed a large group of young adults for over 10 years and looked at factors like eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains, fast food, soda, how many times they eat at home and eat with their family, what healthy food or unhealthy food they have available in their house, their weight, and more.
It was a very extensive longitudinal study and I love love love the results!
Problems the Study About Cooking and Nutrition Wanted to Address
The authors of the study set out with a worthy goal: to determine whether we need more cooking instruction for our youth and young adults.
They lay out the problem this way:
- Evidence is beginning to show that cooking skills and involvement with food is likely associated with healthier diets.
- But we have a problem in our country in this generation – too many children are not learning to cook, neither from their families or through school curriculum. The authors voice their concern that, “The practice of home cooking is declining and there are growing concerns that the skill of cooking may be lost in future generations.” (I worry about that too, but we’re not going to let it happen!)
- Some research is showing success in teaching cooking and then seeing improved attitudes toward eating new foods, especially vegetables. However, there is a lack of data on the long-term impact.
That’s what this study set out to show – does it last when you teach a child to cook?
How to Figure out if Cooking Skills Encourage Good Nutrition
The study was actually pretty interesting. It began in 2002 to 2003 and surveyed over 2,000 young adults ages 18 to 23 (there was actually initial data from high school or middle school for the participants as well).
They used surveys to ask the kids if they knew how to cook, and how well: very adequate, adequate, inadequate, or very inadequate were the choices. The survey was extremely intentionally put together, with lots of testing before it was run live, including asking groups to answer the same questions a month apart to make sure that their answers remained the same and therefore wasn’t too subjective.
Any good study does its best to exclude confounding factors, meaning to take into account other reasons that may impact nutritional choices as adults.
This study looked at how often people made a meal that included vegetables, whether they are the main food preparer in their household, how often people ate together in their household, how often they ate fast food, how available healthy and unhealthy food was in their home, and how often they ate a variety of healthy and unhealthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and sugary soda. Weight and BMI were also measured to see if that had any impact.
All the data were adjusted to make sure that age, sex, race, and socioeconomic status were not factors.
Teens Who Can Cook Eat Less Fast Food as Adults – And More Vegetables!
Ten years later, when the participants were now in their 30s (“real adults!”), they received surveys again, and over 1,100 data points were collected.
The survey participants shared how often they ate fast food in a week and could choose any number between 1 and 7+. They were divided into two groups – those who at fast food 1 or 2 times a week and those who ate more than that. The groups were about equal size!
How did cooking skills as young adults impact eating habits in adults?
- “Very adequate” cooking skills, which about 25% of the participants reported, meant they were 3x more likely to prepare a meal with vegetables most days once they reached their 30s.
- Even “adequate” cooking skills, which the majority of young adults perceived in themselves, resulted in eating 3+ servings of vegetables in their 30s and less fast food.
- It affected families too! Of those who had kids in their 30s, basically, anyone who knew how to cook as a young adult was more likely to have family meals, eat less fast food, and find it easier to prepare meals.
What is possibly MOST interesting is what had no effect on healthy eating for adults: pretty much every habit they had as teens other than knowing how to cook. It didn’t matter how healthy their family of origin ate, how much soda they drank in high school and college, their own weight, and even how much healthy food was available in their homes between the ages of 18-23. Nothing mattered, except learning how to cook!
So as much as parents feel like the habits we lay down for our kids, serving fruits and vegetables, restricting soda and junk food, avoiding fast food restaurants – it turns out that once they’re on their own, they have to learn to cook for themselves for any of it to matter.
There have also been some smaller studies that showed that when adults are involved in food preparation it doesn’t really have an impact on their health and nutrition. The authors surmise that perhaps “the impact of developing cooking skills early in life may not be apparent until later adulthood when individuals have more opportunity and responsibility for food preparation.” My thought? Let’s give them more opportunity even earlier and see if it maximizes all the positive outcomes!
Strengths and Shortcomings of the Study
The group of participants who made it to the end was over 2,000 people, and the study was over 10 years, both numbers that give much credence to what the researchers discovered.
However, it must be stated that all the participants were from the Midwest and may not reflect the diversity of the nation as a whole, and also all data was self-reported – which means someone’s personal optimism about life, for example, could impact the results.
For me though, the answer is pretty clear – and it was already a common sense result before 10 years of study!
Teaching kids to cook and giving adolescents opportunities for responsibility in the kitchen and especially preparing their own healthy food and meals for their family makes a difference in how healthy they’ll be as adults. It makes a difference in how they make food choices as kids, too, even for picky eaters. And it will make a difference to future generations as well!!
Put Research into Action: WHAT Do Kids Need to Learn in the Kitchen?
The authors of the study end by saying that they don’t really know which cooking skills are the most important, but that the data show that we should definitely be doing something to help develop “adequate” cooking skills by young adulthood. That’s enough for me!
I know what kids need to know to make basic healthy recipes, and I compiled them all in a comprehensive cooking curriculum for kids that you can start as young as age 2! Kids who are 10 or 12 or even teens can jump right in though – it’s never too late! Except, research shows, when you’re 18-23. By then, you better know how to cook because your mama isn’t around every day anymore!
I don’t need to wait for another 10-year study to tell me that we need to get our kids in the kitchen, train them to use sharp knives safely, help them be comfortable with the stove, and introduce them to the world of vegetables and other whole foods. It’s a no-brainer that it’s important – but it can also be tricky to implement in a busy world where we’re pulled in all directions.
All the thinking about skills is done, all the planning is done, and my kids and I even demonstrate the skills through engaging video lessons. All you have to do is find a bit of quality time with your kids (we all want that anyway, right?) and watch the videos, then guide them in the kitchen to repeat the skills.
Adreeanna Black is a chef and a mom in Idaho who reached out to me, saying that the curriculum was so good, she and other chefs wanted to use it to teach kids in person (rather than reinventing the wheel themselves)! They previewed the videos, and she admitted she was watching for me to make a mistake, to hold the knife wrong or teach something that could become a bad habit. (Yikes! I was nervous!)
But she didn’t find it:
“The high quality of Kids Cook Real Food and Mrs. Kimball’s commitment to accuracy was just what I was looking for.” (<<<a real chef said that!!! I’m so honored!!!)
We even created memorable phrases for basic cooking skills for kids so you can all use the same vocabulary while in the kitchen, and it really works to help kids remember their safety and skills.
Sarah Bester, CNP, a family nutritionist who literally teaches other parents how to feed their kids healthy foods, said this:
“This is powerful stuff — much more powerful than I anticipated! The bonus is that it’s such a fun bonding activity to do together.”
Sarah and her kids enjoying time together in the kitchen. The pic above includes her kids (much older) doing our spices lesson in the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse too, just precious!
Other parents tell me their kids remember our memory phrases even months later, and a member from Europe whose kids don’t even speak English shared that her daughter uses one of our knife safety phrases all the time!
“Our three-year-old keeps chanting all the phrases, and now the parents have been able to enjoy ants on a log, ranch dip, and fruit salad, all made by the kids.”
— Elizabeth R., Cambridge, England
So…should your kids learn to cook?
Are they going to eat every day of their lives? Do you want to give them the best chance at being healthy adults and even raising your grandchildren with real food?
The answer is pretty clear. We don’t need to let this generation (or the next) get missed when it comes to cooking at home. Let’s get started!
Your kids can learn to cook, even if you don’t know where to start.
My 4 kids and I created the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse to help bring real food and independence to families all over. Over 10,000 kids have joined us and we’d love to invite you along for the adventure!
PLUS we’re so pleased to offer a little gift from our family to yours: “10 Snacks Your Kids Can Make” packed with our favorites for the road! GRAB THAT HERE!
Don’t forget that how you think about your food is just as important as what you eat! Check out this interview with eating disorder expert and dietitian on having a healthy relationship with food.
And for the cynics (i.e. smart, details-matter) people out there, you might be asking, “Who paid for the study?” Don’t worry, it wasn’t some sort of kids cooking school! 😉
Funding came from a grant through the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and another from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. I’m thrilled that the value of cooking is finding its time in the sun and hope to see more public discussion about it as the years go on!
Image credits: Some images from Sarah Bester, CNP, used with permission.