Different factors influence the choice and type of food consumed, but the ability to cook properly plays an important role. A poor understanding of healthy cooking and ways to prepare food can affect your health as it limits your food choices.
So, the question arises – can a better understanding of cooking skills and techniques improve the health of Europeans? Does healthy cooking have a role to play.
The choice of food in Europe
The choice of food is a complex process and the factors that influence this choice are different in different countries. Typically, many socio-cultural factors determine the choice of foods and dietary behaviours which emerge from these choices.
For many people and cultures, the meal time is seen as an opportunity for the family to get together. It’s seen as a time of pleasure, of cementing relationships, especially in Southern Europe.
Tradition also plays a role in the choice of food and eating behaviour, carried forward for generations, sometimes linked to ethical or religious beliefs. Also, practical factors influence decisions about what food to buy, prepare and eat, including the attractiveness of alternatives and price points.
The ability to plan and prepare a meal is hugely influenced by cooking skills and habits and demands attention.
The ability to cook: a factor in the choice of food and health
The ability to prepare food, follow a recipe and use the resources available may influence people’s food choices. If they become used to eating foods that require minimal preparation or food prepared for them, they are less likely to pick food items that require more preparation.
It is widely acknowledged that nutrition plays a vital role in the upkeep of our health, and so healthy cooking techniques have the potential to greatly influence our health and well-being.
Research conducted has also highlighted the ‘ability to cook’ as a factor in socioeconomic dietary differences. Studies conducted in the UK and Ireland have shown an association between occupation or socioeconomic status and the ability to cook, and suggested that poor cooking skills contribute to a lower intake of fruits and vegetables in low-level economic groups.
Other European studies suggest that workshops aimed at promoting healthy cooking skills may be an effective strategy to promote healthier eating.
Several cooking workshops have been targeted at the socially vulnerable groups in order to improve the diet and nutrition aspect of our health.
A Scottish study which looked at the effect improved cooking skills had on lower classes, noted a small but positive change in their food choices.
After-school activities have also been used as a platform to promote healthy cooking skills amongst communities.
In many European countries, food is an important part of culture and there is a wealth of traditional fare they are renowned for.
However, more and more young people are not learning the basics of cooking and as a result they lack the ability to be autonomous in cooking. This is becoming a problem across Europe and there is a general degradation of traditional cuisine, in spite of an abundance of raw products.
In the UK, 10% of the population cites not knowing how to cook as a limiting factor in the choice of their food. In fact, it has become such an obvious problem in the UK that even the government’s strategy has highlighted the need to increase the culinary skills of young people.
Conversely, the figure of the “chef” seems to be very popular, as evidenced by popular TV shows, books and cooking magazines, but this interest does not mean that what you see is made in the kitchen.
It has been suggested that the abandonment of the kitchen could be a result of more and more women turning to work outside the house, whereas traditionally they had a great deal of responsibility in activities related to food in their homes. It has been argued that this has further acerbated the problem of people gradually losing their ability to prepare healthy nutritious meals.
In addition, some studies have shown that most people learned to cook from their mothers; since a lot of others are now working outside their homes, their culinary skills are not getting transferred of their off springs. This can be seen in the trend of ready-made food becoming mainstream.
The recent years have seen an evolution in cooking – from times where food was prepared entirely from raw ingredients to a time where it’s almost entirely ready-made.
The use of prepared food depends on a number of factors, including socio-economic factors and culinary skills. However, the culinary skills do not always guarantee that we can prepare an improvised, healthy meal. There are other factors such as the preparation of the menu, the equipment and the raw material. In addition to that, a certain amount of time is needed for healthy cooking practices.
The growth in ready-made meals and convenience food
One factor that has been explored is the increased use of ready-made meals and food items. This is particularly significant in the UK, which has moved furthest away from healthy cooking practices. Fast-food consumption is the highest in the UK and raw ingredients are used the least in cooking.
However, even France which is the most traditional in its approach to meals, there seems to be some shift towards convenience food, especially among young adults. Where healthy cooking was of great importance and meals were cooked from basic ingredients, with great emphasis on the structure of the meal, people are now buying more pre-prepared food.
Convenience can be defined in many different ways: the saving of time is an element of convenience but in terms of meals, convenience can also mean to minimize the physical and mental effort that is required for the preparation of food.
Technological innovations such as the microwave, cultural changes with multicultural societies introducing new foods, the increase of households with individuals, the decrease of eating together in families and more women pursuing paid work and for longer times – all of it is contributing to the shift towards emergency, ready-made food.
A study from Switzerland showed that in general many people use ready-made food to some extent. The term ‘home food’ was reinterpreted to include the ‘use of some food like canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables or dried pasta that are already ‘ready’. One study reported that even when prepared at home, many dinners include prepared food, with 36% of food bought being ready-to-eat.
With the increased use of convenience foods, there is a growing interest in their impact on health. Swiss researchers reported that there is a gap in people’s understanding of ready-made meals from a nutritional point of view.
Those who consumed more of these meals have perceived ready-made food as time-saving, healthier and more cost-effective.
Food prepared at home tends to be more nutritious than food eaten outside and healthier dietary variety is achieved by those who cook regularly.
Also, cooking at home gives you maximum flexibility in the choice of ingredients (related to nutrients such as salt, saturated fat and sugar) and so allows for health guidelines to be followed much more effectively. A home cooked meal offers a nutritionally balanced diet.
Research shows that those individuals who report being more involved in the purchase of food and its preparation or cooking more frequently, are more in the habit of following health guidelines.
In addition, a lack of interest in cooking is associated with a lower intake of fruit and vegetables.
Even a little self-confidence in cooking can be significant. An Australian study found that fruits and vegetables were bought and prepared in greater quantity and variety in families where the “chef” had confidence and knowledge in preparing them properly.
The study also showed that safety in cooking was also lower among certain socioeconomic groups.
Health implications of cooking and eating together
Eating and cooking together is common in France than in the UK. They have a regular meal pattern and do not generally skip breakfast. However, even in France, a certain degree of destruction of the old eating habits is slowly taking place, though not to the same extent as England. These differences may in part explain the higher prevalence of obesity in England than in France.
Many studies have shown that eating meals with family and other aspects of structured meals, including dinner with others, is significantly linked to a more adequate diet from a nutritional point of view, with greater intake of fruits, vegetables, grains and wholesome foods.
Conversely, research has shown that eating food prepared outside the home and eating while walking is linked to a poorer diet, with higher intake of fats and fatty saturated food.
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