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Among many different factors affecting the type of food chosen and consumed, the skill to prepare appropriate food plays an important role. A lack of skills in preparing and cooking food combined with the increasing popularity of ‘convenience food’ can limit choices and therefore have a negative impact on health. Can building people’s confidence in cooking food lead to a healthier lifestyle?

Food choice today

Food choice is a complex process and the factors influencing it differ throughout Europe. Many socio-cultural factors determine the foods we choose and our dietary patterns. From a cultural point of view, food can express hospitality, celebration and sociability. For example in Southern Europe, mealtimes are seen as an opportunity to come together, and therefore play an essential role in people’s social lives. Tradition also plays a part in food choice and is often passed through generations, sometimes linked to religious beliefs. In addition, practical factors can influence the decisions regarding which food to buy, including preferred taste among numerous alternatives, price, availability and many more.

Cooking skills around Europe

In many European countries, food is an important part of culture however, it is becoming increasingly worrying that young people are not acquiring the basic skills of cooking that enable them to have autonomy over the foods they choose. For example statistics show that in the UK about 10% of people believe a major factor limiting their food choice is poor cooking skills. However, cooking appears to be very popular, as indicated by the popularity of TV cooking shows, cookery books and magazines. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the viewing is applied in the kitchen. To be honest, no doubt most of us find Jamie Oliver’s dishes spectacular, but after a long day convenience food is way too easy and simple and therefore tempting!

The rise of ready meals and convenience foods

There has been an evolution in cooking in recent years, moving from almost entirely raw ingredients to convenience foods now widely available. The increasing use of ready-meals and convenience foods is worrying, especially in the UK where consumption of convenience foods is the highest in Europe and food is cooked less from raw ingredients. Convenience can be defined not only as time saving in preparing a meal, but it can also mean minimising the physical and mental effort often needed for food preparation. Considering the busy schedules people have, planning and preparing meals inevitably becomes part of the weekend whereas quick ready meals are the easy option during the week. With the growth in use of ready-meals, concerns have been raised about their nutritional value. According to recent studies, most people have negative images of ready-meals regarding their nutritional and health value but this doesn’t necessarily stop them from buying them. As a result consumers become increasingly disconnected from food preparation.

Cooking to control diet and health

Since nutrition is known to play a major role in health, food preparation and cooking skills have the potential to significantly affect one’s well being. Food prepared at home tends to be more nutritious than ready meals, and people can achieve healthier dietary variety when regularly cooking from fresh or raw ingredients. Furthermore, cooking from scratch gives the consumer maximum flexibility in the choice of ingredients, and allows public health guidelines (related to nutrients such as saturated fat, sugar and salt) to be followed more rigorously, to help achieve a balanced diet. Research shows that individuals more involved in food purchase and preparation are more likely to meet dietary guidelines. Moreover, a dislike of cooking is associated with lower fruit and vegetable intake. Lack of confidence is another significant factor. There is a huge variety of vegetables for example but you are unlikely to buy them unless you are confident in how to use them!

Health implications of cooking and eating together

Eating and cooking together is far more common in countries like Italy and France than in England. Having a regular meal pattern and not skipping breakfast is also more likely in France. However, even in France some degree of change in eating habits is emerging, though not to the same extent as in England. These differences might, in part, explain the higher prevalence of obesity in England.
Many studies have shown that having family meals and other aspects of meal structure, including eating dinner with others is significantly associated with a more nutritionally adequate diet, with higher intakes of fruit, vegetables, grains and calcium-rich foods. Conversely, research has shown that eating food prepared away from the home and eating on the run is linked to a poorer diet, with higher intakes of total fat and saturates.

Conclusion

In an era where diet-related diseases continue to spread around Europe, there is great need to improve public health. Reviving cooking skills, as well as building confidence to prepare good food, can have an enormously positive impact on food choice and dietary intake. The key is to make cooking a fun experience for all ages. So grab that cooking book from the shelf and get involved! You may need more that 15 minutes but the satisfaction when the meal is ready will be definitely worth the effort. And if not, remember, practice makes perfect!

By Kleio Bathrellou
Associate Nutritionist

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