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Dr Jennifer Utter is an associate professor in public health nutrition at the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health. Her main research interests are in adolescent eating behaviours, weight control, and obesity prevention. In recent years she has co-authored a number of papers on cooking skills and cooking programs.


#1 Do cooking skills in emerging adulthood predict better nutrition? 
The answer is possibly. The findings of a study (based on self-reported data) in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior suggests that developing cooking skills as a young adult may have long-term benefits for health and nutrition including fewer fast food meals, more meals as a family, and more frequent preparation of meals with vegetables in adulthood.

Utter and colleagues collected data as part of the Project Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults longitudinal study conducted in Minneapolis-Saint Paul area schools (USA). Participants reported on adequacy of cooking skills in 2002–2003 when they were 18–23 years old. Data was then collected in 2015–2016 on nutrition-related outcomes when participants were 30–35 years old.

Most participants perceived their cooking skills to be adequate at age 18–23, with approximately one quarter reporting their cooking skills to be very adequate. Later in adulthood those who perceived their cooking skills as adequate ate less fast food meals and, for those with children, had more frequent family meals and had fewer barriers to food preparation. The authors conclude that “ongoing and new interventions to enhance cooking skills during adolescence and emerging adulthood are warranted but require strong evaluation designs that observe young people over a number of years.”

#2 Cooking programs for kids – more than good nutrition 
That certainly was the case for GI News editor Philippa Sandall. She and her classmates at Remuera Intermediate donned white starchy aprons with big bows for cooking classes for two years. The big bow was the undoing. She and her cooking partner Helen Budd were having a chat as something bubbled away in a pot on the gas stove. It must have been a pretty interesting conversation because they didn’t notice Helen’s burning bow until Margaret Howie dashed up and doused the flames with a pan of water. Many lessons learned.

This comprehensive program review by Utter and colleagues in Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition describes the experiential cooking programs for children and young people that have been conducted and evaluated to date. They report that youth cooking programs appear to result in better nutrition and cooking skills and that cooking programs may also positively influence social aspects of well-being. However, the jury is out on the true impact that cooking programs can have on nutrition and social well-being as to date evaluations of these programs have been limited, and large-scale, randomized controlled trials are needed to quantify.

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It’s a common refrain that our grandparents were raised in simpler, more natural times, before processed foods and ubiquitous screens gave us all sorts of lifestyle diseases. But how true is that assumption? Were our grandparents really healthier than us? Or are we just romanticising a bygone era? Tegan Taylor of ABC Health and Wellbeing has put together a useful summary. She covers life expectancy, diet, activity, and medicines and medical care. Her verdict: “Looking at diet, the claim that our grandparents had healthier lives than us seems a little dubious, and we’re definitely able to access better health care and preventative medicine than they had access to. But they were probably healthier in terms of the amount of physical activity they did throughout the day.”

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If we could go back 100 years in a time machine, what would kids be like? They’d be shorter, leaner, probably dirtier and less well-fed — but would they be fitter? It turns out reports Prof Tim Olds in The Conversation that we actually have a beautiful window on the past.

“In 1919, a young woman named E.M. Bedale started postgraduate research at University College London, an uncommon undertaking for a woman at that time. Her studies focused on energy balance in children, which led her to spend several years at a serendipitously eponymous school called Bedales in rural Hampshire. During her two years at Bedales, Miss Bedale measured the energy expenditure and intake of the school’s students, using methods that are still considered to be gold standards today. Her data provide a startling contrast to our time. Children from almost 100 years ago were 50% more active than kids today. They accumulated over four hours more of physical activity and sat for three hours less than today’s kids –  every day.”

And it’s not just the kids. He points out that: “In the 1960s, half the jobs in private industry in the United States required at least moderate-intensity physical activity, compared to less than 20% today. Work in factories and farms has given away to office work, and that has amounted to over 400 kilojoules less each day that adults expend at work. This difference alone results in a weight increase of about 13 kilograms over 50 years, which pretty closely matches actual changes in weight. The situation is similar here (Australia).”

He concludes: “The roots of inactivity go deep into the cultural and socioeconomic logic of post-industrial societies. In many ways, the whole ethos of ease now saturates our society, and efficiency is the hallmark of modernity.

Think about it this way – nobody is in the market for a labour-creating device. Sit-on mowers, leaf blowers, self-opening doors and automatic car windows, robot vacuum cleaners, sensor lighting, dishwashers and microwaves all yield daily microsavings in energy expenditure that add up to hundreds of kilojoules. In 1900, the average American housewife spent an estimated 40 hours every week in food preparation. Today, that time is barely four hours – and it appears to have reached an absolute minimum.

What can be done about it? We’re not going to wind back time to the days of kids playing cricket in the street, families driving the Vauxhall Viva with wind-down windows, dads pushing hand mowers and mums using wringers. The challenge is to fashion spaces where alternative forms of active leisure can be pursued. And we’ve already started: the gymnasium is such a space, internalising the lost world of manual labour. Exergaming (think Wii), which transposes outdoor play spaces into virtual worlds, is similar. We all need to re-imagine physical activity if we’re to overcome this malaise of post-industrial society.

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Indian cuisine offers a variety of healthy meals including mains, salads and sides such as pickles and raita. On top of that opt for:

  • Meat (lamb, beef and goat), chicken, fish and other seafood curries
  • Vegetable curries including aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower); palak paneer (cottage cheese and spinach); and baingan patiala (eggplant and potato)
  • Tikka (dry roasted) or tandoori (marinated in spices and yoghurt) chicken, prawns or fish
  • Dhal (a good low GI choice)
  • Unleavened breads such as chapatis, plain naan or roti 
  • Rice, birayani and pulao – Basmati rice is lower GI but watch the quantity. 

Dahl with Basmati rice