One Friday afternoon at Comegys Elementary School in Philadelphia, a group of third graders and I gathered around a ten-pound box of turnips and looked at each other with apprehension. Cooking classes address what I describe to kids as the Turnips versus Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Predicament: Turnips are inexpensive and nutritious, but taste awful unless you know how to prepare them. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cost pocket change and require no preparation, but offer little nutritional value. While a healthy diet has room for the occasional Cheeto, for full nourishment on a tight budget, cooking is a vital skill.
I spent four years teaching cooking classes while studying nutrition at one of the country’s top nursing schools, and here’s what I learned: To improve children’s eating habits, we should be teaching them how to cook.
Improving children’s eating behavior is a necessary component of addressing the United States’ high obesity rate and related health disparities, which are intertwined with racial and socioeconomic inequality. Obesity and its associated health conditions cause over 300,000 deaths per year in the United States and are likeliest to afflict people who are poor, Hispanic, or black. Interventions to improve eating behavior among students won’t eliminate every systemic barrier to healthy eating, but they are one of our best opportunities to prevent obesity in the long term: 80% of obese adolescents become obese adults, and less than one percent of obese adults ever return to a BMI classified as “normal.”
Childhood obesity interventions in American schools have typically been delivered through nutrition education lessons that follow a format similar to my nutrition classes at Penn Nursing, where I once fell asleep on top of a pile of micronutrient flashcards and woke up with “folate” imprinted on my left cheek. In both cases, students participate in classroom lessons about the biochemical components of food and their roles in the body. It’s a logical approach, which is why I was so surprised to find that my studies didn’t actually impact my eating habits. And I’m not the only one: Reviews in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and the Journal of Nutrition Education have found that increasing nutrition knowledge among students across age groups does not improve their dietary behavior.
This is because food choices, like all choices, depend on more than knowledge. We choose food based on wide-ranging factors including preference, culture, familiarity, ability to prepare the food, availability, and cost. Nutrition lessons address only knowledge about food, but cooking classes address the child’s whole relationship with food and even ensure that they have some fresh food available to them at the time of the class. By equipping students with the skills to prepare low-cost, healthy meals, cooking classes set kids up to build better dietary habits and better long-term health.
Evaluations of cooking interventions across the country support what I observed teaching cooking lessons at Comegys: Teaching kids to cook can change what they eat and improve their health. I saw students who swore they would never eat a vegetable later passionately advocate for a certain seasoning mix for steamed cauliflower, and watched third through fifth graders develop positive relationships with fresh fruits and vegetables, cooking processes, and healthy eating. Emerging research on cooking interventions in schools suggests that the relationships I observed translate to better dietary behavior and health outcomes: The first three meta-analyses of cooking interventions have demonstrated that they are more likely than nutrition lessons to improve fruit and vegetable intake, attitudes toward food, BMI, and blood pressure.
Cooking skills alone will not enable every kid to overcome the systemic barriers to health, but comprehensive nutrition education policy can work against rather than around these barriers. The United States can draw inspiration from Japan’s 2005 Basic Law on Shokuiku, or “food education,” which placed a full-time nutrition educator in every public school in order to involve children in the preparation of healthy school lunches: a move that improved food access, school resources, and the school lunch program in one fell swoop. These changes are expensive, but so is obesity, which costs the United States $150 billion per year.
That Friday afternoon, we sautéed the turnips and seasoned them with thyme and black pepper. When I asked one student how they tasted, he said “almost as good as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.”