How Families Teach Healthy Eating


Photo by N.R./Flickr CC

To try riso e zucca, click here for a recipe.

The recent New York Times Magazine article on Jamie Oliver's efforts to combat obesity by teaching people how to cook simple foods highlights an interesting approach that I hope will have positive results. And it could get people cooking for themselves, which might be the most important result, even if he and his producers chose the small town they did because the obesity rates are so high (I won't call it the fattest town in America, as the article makes clear that its residents understandably bristle at the title).

As for losing weight: the recipes he teaches do not necessarily appear to be very low in calories or fat (for example, Mini Shell Pasta With a Creamy Smoked Bacon and Pea Sauce). But it is possible that home-cooked meals could help prevent excessive weight gain because the portion sizes might be smaller and they might change how people think about food.

One of the biggest challenges for Jamie Oliver's program is that he may be starting too late.

The food-service industry has, of course, tried to make people not think about whether they are full. Portions are large, but served on enormous plates which make the portions look reasonable in size. Barbara Rolls' research has clearly shown that people eat more when served larger portions. People also seem to be very influenced by their perception of how much of their serving they have consumed. In one clever study, Brian Wansink served people soup in bowls that slowed refilled as the soup was being eaten. He found that rather than perceiving themselves as full based on the amount they had eaten, people judged themselves full based on how much soup remained in the bowl. Since most family-style and fast food restaurants serve extremely large portions and may refill drinks often, it seems reasonable to conclude that if people ate less often at these types of restaurants they might gain less weight.

What we need to combat the forces of big portions at low prices for food people don't make meals for themselves is to start showing people who don't think they can cook that they can--Jamie Oliver's approach in the new show. By learning how to cook, people will be more educated about what they are eating, which is a necessary first step towards combating the obesity epidemic.

But it will not be enough on its own. One of the biggest challenges for Jamie Oliver's program is that he may be starting too late. Food preferences start early, so it might make more sense to focus on teaching pregnant women to cook rather than targeting schoolchildren and their families. First, pregnant women are more willing to listen to health messages than most other people. Second, their children might develop preferences for home-cooked foods, which are usually lower in sugar and fat than commercially-prepared meals. Since it is harder to change established preferences and patterns than promote adopting health patterns, Oliver may want to rethink or expand his program.

Although some have questioned whether teaching home cooking has merit because snacking is a bigger problem, I would argue that promoting home cooking might change the eating pattern in a family so that it is more meal-focused and less snack-intensive. However, the real hurdle is how to market home-cooking to families who feel stretched too thin. Even a meal than only takes 30 minutes to prepare might be difficult for families in which there are multiple small children to take care of and parents do not get home until just before dinner time. We need to teach quick-to-prepare foods, as well as easy-to-prepare foods that can be made ahead (such as the night before) and reheated.

Although Oliver is likely right that home-cooked meals could save money--as would snacking less--the results of a recent study on the influence of providing nutritional information on the menu boards in fast food restaurants demonstrate that people are not always logical when it comes to food. In fact, many people may eat for emotional reasons or have emotional connections to the foods they eat (i.e., they associate the food with a pleasant experience they had, such as food eaten at celebrations).

I don't want to suggest that we should promote giving food as rewards or using food to show love. But rather than trying to get people to cook meals because it will save money, Oliver might want to market cooking as a way to create positive memories that may make your family eat better now and well into the future. One of my favorite quick and nutritious meals I learned from my mother and now I make it with my daughter. Hopefully when she grows up she'll make it with her children.

It is an enormous battle to take on the many and heavily marketed prepared and semi-prepared foods. Oliver should be commended for forging in, wielding knives--and forks.