Nutrition education curricula taught in schools, community programs, or through extra-curricular activities often focus on the science of eating well: avoid too many sugary foods, or you will develop dental cavities and become overweight; eat healthy snacks to have the energy to do well in school or sports; increase fiber in your diet to feel full and have a regular digestive system (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020). We teach scientifically proven and evidence-based information about why balanced nutrition is important to lifelong health and wellness, but what is missing is how these nutrition directives can be implemented as part of a healthy lifestyle. Culinary literacy is the adjunct to nutrition education that adds in “how” to eat well.
What is culinary literacy?
Culinary literacy is defined as abilities that allow individuals to prepare meals from scratch. It is the knowledge and talent to make a delicious tasting dish from available foods. It means having sufficient skills to experiment with food and ingredients, applying basic food safety and sanitation principles, and knowing common pieces of kitchen equipment and their use. It is being hungry between meals and having the expertise to look in the pantry and refrigerator, choose ingredients, and prepare a nutrient-dense snack using common household items such as a peeler, liquid measuring cup, and grater.
How do we teach culinary literacy, and why is it important?
Cooking behaviors and culinary literacy among young children and families have been associated with healthy eating behaviors, including increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Research tells us that by teaching kids to cook, their family shops differently, fills their plates differently, and considers their impact on the environment differently. However, as home cooking declines, culinary literacy levels and cooking skill development have also decreased among younger generations due to limited exposure to culinary processes and knowledge. What’s more, for various reasons, children are often absent when the family meal is being prepared. One way to “get kids back in the kitchen” is to teach them basic culinary practices. Teaching culinary literacy to children supports the knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed to prepare and eat healthy foods. When coupled with home cooking frequency, increased culinary literacy often improves dietary quality as home-cooked meals have been found to naturally contain more fruits and vegetables than pre-prepared. Providing children with hands-on cooking activities at home and experiential learning opportunities in the school environment may not only teach children the knowledge and skills they need to cook but be a greater influence on their selection of fruits and vegetables when compared to school-based nutrition education focused interventions. In addition, cooking recipes with fresh produce as an ingredient provides direct contact, greater familiarity, and repeated taste exposures to fruit and vegetables, factors that have been shown to increase the self-selection of produce by children.
Cooking at home and school also promotes environmental sustainability by reducing food production costs, pollution, and waste. Educators are supporting a more beneficial, more sustainable approach to eating and living by promoting culinary literacy to children at a young age when they are developing attitudes, beliefs, and habits about food.
Furthermore, promoting plant-forward recipes increases fruit and vegetable intake, which is good for health and the planet. We eat healthier when we learn how to cook, and the best way to learn culinary literacy is by practice.
Educating children about nutrition is only one part of the pathway to lifelong healthy eating habits. The other missing component is the participatory aspect of food preparation that gives children the opportunity to apply what they have learned about food in an experiential context. A child may learn about the healthfulness of a carrot, but carrots won’t become a regular part of a healthy diet until that child learns how to prepare and enjoy them as part of a balanced diet. One does not become a better basketball player by watching March Madness. One becomes a more skilled basketball player by competing in the game and practicing strategies explained by a coach. It is the same for culinary literacy. Educating children about nutrition is only part of the pathway to lifelong healthy eating habits –the participatory aspect of cooking the foods that contain the nutrients we preach about is the often-overlooked major missing piece.
Acknowledgments: The work of the New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative is supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant ID 75084). This Rutgers University led initiative is a partnership between the Institute of Food, Nutrition, and Health and the Child Health Institute of New Jersey that focuses on improving the health of New Jersey children.
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Peggy Policastro, PhD, RDN, Director of Culinary Literacy and Nutrition, New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative
Erin Comollo, Ed.D. Program Development Administrator, New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative
Alison H. Brown, MS, RDN, Project Research Manager, New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative