Sarahmarie Innes & Katie Mahn
Many of us remember adolescence as a difficult time. Our mental well-being may have suffered because of increasingly busy lifestyles and academic expectations, body image issues, and peer pressure.
It’s also a time of increasing independence, which means more freedom and responsibility for your own dietary choices. Studies have shown this increased independence over food choices often results in teens eating less fruit and vegetables, having takeaways and snack foods more often, and missing meals such as breakfast.
Growing freedom and responsibility for food choices doesn’t have to spell decline in diet quality. It can be an opportunity to cook more. Giving teens the skills to make yummy meals from basic ingredients can be a very good thing. Population surveys show that teens who cook more often tend to not only eat healthier, but also have better mental well-being.
We wanted to test whether we could improve teens’ diet quality, mental well-being, cooking confidence and home cooking involvement by giving them a very tasty health intervention: a cooking program.
With the help of some experts, our research team developed a program especially for New Zealand teens called the COOK (Create Our Own Kai) Project. It was a five-day hands-on cooking program held during the school holidays. Our teens cooked three dishes per day, along with learning about other cooking-related topics including nutrition, food safety, meal planning and recipe development. This was followed by six weeks of take-home food bags (one per week) containing a recipe and its ingredients to make a meal for their families, to encourage them to cook more often at home.
Participants were randomly assigned to either an intervention group, who did the program, or a control group, who did the measurements only. We are following them up for a year, to see whether any changes as a result of this intervention are stable over time.
Our Bake Your Thesis entry was inspired by the saying “give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day, teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime”. We put a fish on a plate and added some vegetables to make a more balanced meal. All components were made of gingerbread (including the plate and cutlery), except for the meringue “mashed potato”. If you’re thinking that’s not actually very healthy, you were not the only one! But we hope the message makes up for this.
The “give a fish, teach to fish” saying is a nice analogy for cooking. Providing people with a meal feeds them temporarily, but teaching them to cook gives them the ability to eat more healthily over their lifetimes, which may reduce their risk of chronic disease.
Home-cooked meals are usually cheaper and more nutritious than ready-made alternatives and takeaways, which tend to have less vegetables and be higher in energy (calories), sugar, fat and salt. Home cooks are often creating shared meals, as well as teaching other family members to cook, so building one person’s cooking confidence could potentially impact the health of an entire household.
We expect that cooking confidence will improve among the teens who did the COOK program, but will it be enough to change their home cooking involvement, diet quality and mental well-being? Even supposing the cooking program doesn’t have much effect while our participants still live with their families, we wonder whether that extra experience and confidence will make a difference when they move out.
We’ve survived a wide range of flat cooking abilities, including regular meals of spaghetti with plain boiled mince, finished with add-your-own Watties tomato sauce. After seeing what our participants became capable of during COOK week, we’re sure they will be doing much better than that!
Katie Mahn is completing a Masters of Dietetics at the University of Otago, Dunedin (New Zealand).
Sarahmarie Innes is completing a Masters of Science in Human Nutrition, also at the University of Otago.
Their “Teach Them to Fish” cake won the People’s Choice award in the University of Otago’s recent Bake Your Thesis competition. Read how some of the other entrants cooked up their research ideas: