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Identification of essential food skills required in skill-based healthy eating programs in secondary schools

May 28, 2011


Sandra Fordyce-Voorham – PhD Candidate, Deakin University, Victoria


Objective: to identify the essential cooking skills deemed essential to include in skill-based healthy eating programs in secondary schools. 

Design:  Participants were recruited by invitation, letter box drop and advertising in educational, community and recreational locations.  Data obtained by personally interviewing a range of food experts over a period of 3 months.

Participants: 51 food experts including home economics educators, chefs, nutritionists and dietitians, community educators, homemakers and young people living independently participated.

Phenomenon of Interest: Identification of essential cooking skills in skill-based healthy eating

programs by food  experts.

Analysis: Data were reviewed for emerging themes, and themes were coded applying content

analysis procedures.

Results: The essential consumer, food preparation and cooking skills required for young people,

were identified and described under the four themes of ‘Knowledge’, ‘Information’, ‘Skills’ and


Conclusions and Implications: These four themes were identified as the areas of expertise

required for young people to live independently.  A shared understanding of these essential skills

would support teachers in designing programs that would address behavioural capabilities to

improve young people’s eating behaviours.                       

Key Words: Skill-based healthy eating programs, Competency based education, Independent living skills, Adolescents


Increased rates of childhood obesity 1-5 and inadequate dietary intake of healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables, of young Australians 1 are a significant concern for health professionals.  As health professionals working in schools, home economics educators have a significant role to play in young people’s lifelong learning about nutrition and healthy eating behavior 6-7.  They have the nutritional background and pedagogical expertise to understand young people and their world, a crucial element in designing successful healthy eating programs 8.  Moreover, their professional background in practical food training skills makes them well-placed to design healthy eating programs and to teach young people cooking skills which prepare them for life 9.

Anecdotally, we know that home economics educators design and facilitate many programs 6, 9-10 However, these skill-based programs seldom articulate what these essential skills are.  They adequately describe the ‘macro-level components’ including methodology, program design and outcomes but what they do not describe, and is argued in this article as fundamental to describe in program design, is the ‘micro-level components’ that underpin program planning.   These micro-components include an operational definition and program content: what are ‘cooking skills’ and what content should be included so that the essential skills are taught? 

Part of the reason why the micro-components are overlooked is that program designers report to health professionals working in the same field and therefore assume that there is a shared and implicit understanding that these micro-components, a ‘cooking skills’ definition and essential skills content, are the same for everyone.  Furthermore, it is argued here that this unspoken understanding of these micro-components is insufficient and does not provide a strong enough foundation on which to design a successful and sustainable skill-based program which withstands the rigors of evaluation. 

There is, however, some evidence of skills reported in well-designed skill-based studies 11-13.  These projects describe the macro-level components but do not adequately discuss its micro-level components – definition or content.   Program designers need to outline what they think the essential skills are to be taught and this needs to be made explicit in every skill-based healthy eating program.  It cannot be left to chance that skills are implicitly included ad hoc or coincidentally in program design.  This of course raises the question, ‘do program designers know what the essential skills are?’ It once again assumes an implied and shared understanding of a cooking skills definition and what are the essential skills. 

Therefore, it is important firstly to have an operational definition that provides health professionals (usually home economics educators) working in this area with a benchmark on which they can evaluate the cooking skills component of a skill-based program.  For the purposes of this study, cooking skills are defined as, “the process of purchasing, preparing and cooking food materials (ingredients) using available resources to produce well-balanced and tasty meals appropriate to the age and needs of the individuals consuming them.”  Secondly, whilst this definition provides a useful starting point, health professionals also need to have a shared understanding of the essential skills so that they can embed these (the ‘micro-components’) into program design.  For this reason, the aim of this study was to identify these essential ‘need to know’ practical skills underpinning all skill-based healthy eating programs (and provides the foundation on which the actual recipes are planned and taught) by interviewing six groups of food experts and determining common themes.   These common themes were then used to develop a checklist on which to evaluate existing skill-based healthy eating programs operating in secondary schools.  This evaluation can then be used as the preliminary basis of determining successful and sustainable skill-based healthy eating programs.

Discussion, Implications for Research and Practice, Description of the Intervention or Description of Evaluation or Lessons Learned.



Selection of Participants.

Participants (the ‘food experts’) were identified and selected on their potential to be able to identify the essential cooking skills required for a skill-based healthy eating program.  The six groups of food experts included home economics educators, chefs, nutritionists and dietitians, community educators, homemakers and young people living independently.  ‘Professional’ food experts were selected for their nutritional knowledge or food handling and cooking skills knowledge or experience with working with young people or sometimes all of the above.  Young independents and expert homemakers were also considered to be food experts as their experiences were deemed essential to include in the interview process.  Young independents live independently from their parents and plan, shop, prepare and cook their own food.  They are considered to be food experts as they understand what knowledge, information and skills are required to make meals now that they have left home.  They are three to ten years older than the targeted school-aged participants and therefore were selected for providing a retrospective insight into the essential skills required to be taught and practised in a skill-based healthy eating program in schools.  Likewise, expert homemakers were selected for their minimal ten years experience in planning, shopping, preparing and cooking meals for their families.  They are considered to be food experts as they understand what knowledge, information and skills are required to make family type meals. 

Recruitment of Participants

The six groups of food experts were from a range of backgrounds and were obtained by advertising in community centers, universities, local gyms and youth centers, professional association newsletters, conferences and websites or identified and contacted by mail or personally and invited to participate in the research.  If the participant responded and agreed to participate in the research they were briefed fully about the research process and then supplied with a Plain Language Statement and Consent Form.


Interview Questions

The interview questions framed around the categories of ‘Knowledge’, ‘Information’, ‘Skills’ and ‘Resources’ were designed to generate data about consumer habits (food-related shopping skills, including decision making), food planning, preparation and cooking skills.  Through face-to-face semi-structured interviews using open-ended questions, information was sought from each of the six groups of food experts on what they considered to be the essential skills required for young people to live independently.  Prior to the interview, participants were provided with a written (on request) or oral definition of the terms used in the Interview Questions (see Table 1 below).  These definitions were provided to ensure that participants had a clear and equal understanding of the terms ‘knowledge’, ‘information’, ‘skills’ and ‘resources’.  These terms are closely linked and often used interchangeably and it was important for the purposes of this study that the data generated was precise for clear categorization.

A pilot test of a random selection of three experts was used to test the face validity of the four questions to ensure that they would generate the responses desired to identify the essential skills in a healthy eating program. 


Data Analysis

Interviews were audio-taped, transcribed and analyzed using the N-Vivo 7 software program. This software program helps researchers to manage and explore qualitative data and link ideas and construct theories about the data.  The subsequent content analysis focused on identifying the themes emerging from the food experts’ responses.  Content analysis is the process of interpreting the transcribed text through the systematic classification process of coding by identifying themes and patterns within the transcribed text 14.  The qualitative software program N-Vivo allows researchers to conduct content analysis of the transcribed text (inductive category development and coding identification) systematically in order to generate common themes that is, the essential cooking skills, in the case of this study. 

Coding was also manually checked by returning to the N-Vivo program to check that the text content matched the coding of specific concepts.  For example, text describing the concept of ‘motivation’ but did not specifically use the word ‘motivation’ was able to be pinpointed through a manual check.  This immersion process also allowed comparisons and contrasts to be made between the food experts.  Scrutinizing negative cases between food experts also aimed to minimize bias towards one group of food experts (home economics educators) sharing the same professional background as the researcher.

The immersion process also helped to ascertain saturation, the point at which there were no new ideas and insights generated from the data.  At saturation, strong repetition in the categories was observed which signaled the next stage of the data analysis process – selective coding.  At this point, the transcribed text was organised and integrated into selected codes to form the preliminary categories of ‘Information’, ‘Knowledge’, ‘Skills’ and ‘Resources’ deemed important to include in a skill-based healthy eating programs in schools.  Several coding categories (consumer, hygiene and safety and meal) overlapped.  After checking for duplication of content through the iterative process of data analysis, several of the original sub-categories were conflated into categories depicted in Figure 1.   From these categories, ‘themes’ emerged which signaled the point of interpreting the issue under investigation.



The results of the interviews were based on the four questions (knowledge, information, skills and resources) posed to the six groups of interviewed food experts.  The responses generated the coding categories and sub-categories of the essential cooking skills required for a skill-based healthy eating program and depicted below in Figure 1.  

On the basis of Figure 1, the Twelve Essential Skills checklist includes

ü  Consumer knowledge, information and skills

ü  Hygiene and Safety knowledge and skills

ü  Meal knowledge and skills

ü  Nutritional Health knowledge

ü  Cookery Methods knowledge

ü  Equipment knowledge

ü  Food exposure knowledge

ü  Seasonal Produce knowledge

ü  Troubleshooting knowledge

ü  Sources information

ü  Terminology information

ü  Skills acquisition


Consumer Knowledge

Food experts spoke about the importance of taking young people to markets and local fruit and vegetable shops to help them recognize quality fresh food in season and to provide opportunities for them to develop consumer confidence by consulting with food vendors.  Market visits were cited as a vehicle to broaden young people’s shopping experiences and to address their perceived and actual over-reliance on supermarkets for their food purchases (as verified by the young independent food experts).  Knowledge of the costs and uses of different cuts and varieties of meat and whether it was organic was also indicated as an important factor enabling young people to make effective consumer decisions.  Emphasis was made on schools taking responsibility for increasing young people’s awareness on environmental sustainability and ‘food miles’.  One dietitian explained:

I think schools have a responsibility in helping children understand environmental sustainability in terms of food and the costs of food practices and production – and how young people can make better choices, particular in regards to knowing about ethical farming and manufacturing practices.

Cookery Methods Knowledge

Food experts spoke about knowing different cookery methods so that individuals could select and apply the appropriate method to achieve the best product outcome and how a cookery method could be substituted in a recipe so that the nutritional value of a dish was tailored to meet the health and dietary demands of the consumers.  Chefs, homemakers and home economists talked about individuals evaluating the time, energy and labor cost involved with preparing and cooking food depending on the method and meat cut (cheap or expensive) selected and factoring these into their purchase decision-making.

Equipment knowledge

Without exception, and nominated by all six groups of food experts, the most important item of equipment for individuals to have and to know how to use in the preparation and cooking of food is a sharp cook’s knife.  Home economists and chefs recommended introducing young people to a cook’s knife rather than compromising with a small utility knife to develop confidence and proficiency in an environment where young people could practise safely and experts could oversee and correct technique.  Homemakers, home economists and chefs nominated basic items of equipment to stock a kitchen but recognized that young independents would not have the money, nor would be willing to spend that money, on what could be perceived as unnecessary kitchen gadgets or ‘toys’.  For this reason, these food experts spoke about the need for young people knowing about cheaper or substituted alternatives if the appropriate item of equipment was not available: 

… on cooking shows they don’t show you a substituted utensil or item of equipment – for example you don’t need a whisk – you can use a fork to whisk up scrambled eggs. So those very practical skills and knowing what to do when you don’t have a particular item of equipment.

Food Exposure Knowledge

Both professional and young independent food experts focused on encouraging children and young people to try new foods so that food preferences are broadened.  They agreed that it is important for adult carers to take initial responsibility to tap into children’s innate enjoyment and curiosity of experimenting with food by helping in the kitchen.  Often parents are resistant to this as food preparation tasks take longer and are messier when children are involved.  More often than not, young people do not have the opportunity to cook at home as parents are too tired or sick or do not have the skills to cook and subsequently, experience their first time cooking and trialing new foods at school.  For this reason, schools as a critical source, need to expose young people to positive food tasting and cooking experiences, particularly for those young people who have had limited access to positive food and eating experiences with their families. 

Home economics educators in schools were nominated by all food experts as having an important role in exposing young people to new food taste experiences outside their traditional and culturally acceptable foods.  Taking students to restaurants and markets or having them host international days at school were identified as opportunities that help young people to culturally and socially enrich their outlook, not only by exposing them to different foods but also establishing links between food and people from different cultures. 

Hygiene and Safety Knowledge

All food experts identified hygiene and safety as an important component to incorporate into healthy eating programs.  Chefs, home economists and dietitians outlined specific hygiene and safety measures already incorporated into their training programs and daily practice whilst homemakers mentioned that their knowledge often came through their own experience.  Like homemakers, young independents indicated that this knowledge was acquired frequently either through trial and error by experiencing an unpleasant bout of food poisoning or through their training at fast food providers.

Meal Knowledge

All food experts spoke about the need to plan ahead and make a shopping list based on the meals scheduled for the week and the household budget.  Planning ahead in advance of shopping means consulting with household members to accommodate their dietary and sensory (likes and dislikes) requirements and checking pantry and refrigerated food stock.  Homemakers indicated that planning ahead allowed time for young people to consult information sources such as recipes, web sites (and mothers!) to ensure that a variety of interesting and flavorsome meals using seasonal produce is produced instead of them over-relying on the usual narrow range of meals always consumed.   Professional food experts (chefs, home economists, dietitians) advocated maintaining a stock of food items and knowing about the versatility of ingredients that could be used for ‘emergencies’ whilst young independents mentioned struggling with this:

I like to cook but when it’s just for me I can’t be bothered so I’ll end up having toast. It would be good to know what things I can have in my pantry that I can use to cook quickly and easily to make a meal. I mean that’s a gap in my knowledge.


Chefs and home economics food experts discussed household economy in terms of substitution of resources – young people saving money by purchasing cheaper cuts of meat but investing more time and work in planning shopping, preparing and cooking time.

Not surprisingly, several dietitians highlighted budgeting and healthy meal planning based on the five food groups, complementary protein sources (animal protein replacements to reduce costs or to cater for vegetarians), food combining and fresh produce.  One nutritionist provided this valuable tip to guide young people on meal planning:

I always emphasize and use the Healthy Living Pyramid to show how that 60 per cent of your weekly food dollars should be spent on the eat most section, 32 per cent on the protein section and 10 per cent on the high sugar and high fat content part of the Healthy Living Pyramid.

Nutritional Health Knowledge

Food experts were keen to emphasize that nutrition knowledge be taught in the context of enjoying a wide variety of food and fulfilling an individual’s daily activities.  Those experts working with young people acknowledged that teaching young people nutrition in terms of short or long dietary health outcomes was pointless and that it was more productive to focus on the energy and stamina producing qualities of food and how nutrient dense food would contribute to ‘looking good’ and achieving optimum body shape and weight.  Verifying this, young independent food experts made no mention of wanting to know about nutrition in terms of their short or long term health.  Instead, they were keen to know about nutrition to help them make effective food purchase decisions as they felt that food shopping was confusing. They wanted nutritional knowledge about food additives, food portion sizes and vegetarian diets and making healthier food options tastier.

Seasonal Produce Knowledge

Chefs, dietitians, home economists and homemakers all nominated seasonal produce knowledge as the basis for selecting recipes according to the seasons when fruits and vegetables are usually at their best and cheapest.   Interestingly, this component was not nominated by any of the young independents.

Troubleshooting Knowledge

Food experts (chefs, homemakers, home economists and dietitians) talked about troubleshooting as an important component to include in a skill-based program to reassure young people that mistakes do happen but can be anticipated with cooking practice and experience or avoided by assessing recipes and reading and following instructions before and during the cooking process.  Troubleshooting was not identified specifically by the young independent food experts.


Consumer Information

Unanimously, food literacy was nominated by all food experts as a critical component to include in a skill-based healthy eating program.  Food literacy means an individual’s ability to read, understand and act upon labels on fresh, frozen, canned, frozen, processed and take away food.  It includes discriminating between “best before”, “use by” and “sell by” terms which is a food safety as well as a consumer issue.

It also means that individuals have access to information about acceptable levels of additives so that they can discern between the same type of food product.  Food experts discussed how food manufacturers and advertisers promote their products for market share and acknowledged how bewildering this is for consumers making effective food purchasing decisions.  One young independent food expert spoke about making young people aware of product placement in the supermarket “and for them to realize that the most accessible foods within easy reach are not always the healthiest.”  Providing opportunities for young people to deconstruct food label information by interpreting food additives presented in 100 grams or serving size amounts (and what is serving size and how do you adjust it anyway?) was mentioned by several home economics educators.  It becomes even more important for consumers to be food literate as more people experience food intolerances and allergies.  One young independent food expert articulated this:

Food labels are ambiguous – even if you can read labels then how does that equate to the individual and what they need and where does that fit into the daily diet? Also a product might be 99 per cent fat free but it might be higher in sugar and sodium. So it’s not simply having an understanding of being able to read the food labels it’s more about understanding the nutritional background. And it’s not just a matter of picking off something off the supermarket shelf and saying that’s low in fat – because it might be low in fibre or have high sodium as a trade off.


Consumer information advertises new product availability and also enables individuals where to source and how to use and evaluate items of kitchen equipment appropriate for their own requirements.  It also includes information on using an item of equipment for a particular function: why a metal spoon is more effective than a wooden spoon for folding in egg whites, for example.  Typically, microwave ovens were selected by home economics educators to exemplify large equipment information: adjusting “cooking” and necessary standing times using different powered microwave ovens to produce a satisfactory result.  Chefs and home economists nominated consumer information about purchasing a good set of knives, chopping boards, mixing bowls and saucepans as basic equipment items but acknowledged that other individuals might consider those same items as optional extras.


The following sources of information were compared and explained how they could be used by young people to further develop their skills. 

Point of Sale Food Sources – Supermarkets, Farmers Markets, Markets and Food Expos

Recipe cards and supermarket magazines were nominated by young independents and homemakers as useful sources of information to help individuals with quick meal ideas based on pre-prepared and fresh ingredients available in the supermarket.  All food experts talked about people’s tendency to make impromptu meal decisions at the time of shopping so recipe cards at the point-of-sale were helpful, particularly when listed food ingredients had other recipe ideas on the label or were on special or were bundled together near the recipe card location.  Supermarket magazines were also considered by the same food experts to be useful and more accessible than ‘static’ and expensive cook books.

Cook books

All food experts nominated cook books as a useful source if they included pictorial, step-by-step instructions, a glossary of culinary terms and terminology of processes, including such terms as basting, whisking, sautéing, blanching and folding in.  Nevertheless, chefs and home economists bemoaned that whilst ‘coffee table’ cook books looked attractive they were too expensive, complex or ‘static’ (provided no variations).  Conversely the ‘perfect’ cookbook provided all the attributes listed above and included ‘no fail’ recipes.


All food experts nominated the Internet as the most popular source of recipe ideas for young people.  Young independents verified this and spoke about the ease of googling an ingredient to identify recipes but also expressed feeling overwhelmed when too many different recipes or recipes using unfamiliar terminology or imperial measures were returned.  Other food experts shared these experiences and spoke about the need for young people discriminating between web sites in order to generate accurate food and nutrition information as many Internet –sourced recipes are not properly trialed and ‘don’t work’.  Home economics educators took responsibility in ensuring that their students were well equipped with ICT literacy skills to help them locate those sites and sources of accurate information about food produce and nutrition:

They will get their information from the Internet and to some extent from magazines – they are bombarded with information- there is no shortage of information but accurate information from the Australian Consumers Association and Nutrition Australia would be helpful. But I think that the Internet and even SMS and podcasts are good sources of information; however, these need to come from credible sources and it’s important for teachers to teach their students consumer literacy so that they can discern between the information put out by a food manufacturer, compared with a fast food chain compared with Nutrition Australia.  Schools have ICT and visual literacy but they also need to have food and nutrition literacy.


All food experts debated the merits of television, particularly television chefs, as a practical source of food and nutrition information.  Cooking programs were perceived as fun but were considered to be more ‘infotainment’ than educational.  Chefs and home economists felt that the recipes produced by television chefs were too complex and not relevant to families and were screened at times that did not reach target audiences.  Food and health information on television had potential but food experts from the community youth worker, young independent and chef food expert groups felt that this advertising did not fulfill consumer needs either nor was screened at times which had the most impact on young people and families. 

Terminology information

All food experts talked about needing clear, generic and accurate terminology so that individuals have a shared understanding of how to confidently follow recipe instructions and produce successful meals and food products.  A glossary of culinary terms in hard copied sources including cookbooks and school texts are considered to be essential as individuals source more recipes (with no or limited or inaccurate terminology) from the Internet. 

Equally important, chefs, dietitians and home economists recommended health or instructional terminology to help individuals make effective purchase decisions, respond to recipe or health promotional information.


Consumer skills

All food experts share food shopping as an experience so understandably consumer skills were nominated as an integral component to include in a skill-based healthy eating program.  Experienced food experts (home economists, chefs, dietitians, homemakers) all identified strategies to increase young people’s consumer skills.  With planning, shopping and preparation skills young people are empowered  to make their own meals from fresh food produce and flavoring ingredients instead of relying upon take away food and expensive convenience foods.  Experienced food experts acknowledged that young people were discriminating consumers but recognized that their confidence in negotiating with food vendors at markets, local greengrocers and butchers, and possible limited access might preclude them from buying quality and cheaper produce from these sources and subsequently relying upon supermarkets for their food requirements.  Young independents reported using sources other than supermarkets: they shopped around for bargains, understood marketing terms, recognized value-for-money produce and used this knowledge to help them make purchase decisions. Whilst young independents agreed that supermarkets were convenient as a ‘one-stop’ shop, issues such as family-sized packaging created storage and scaling down recipe problems.  Finally, experienced food experts spoke about consumer skills that would help young people evaluate and purchase value-for-money food produce: buying second grade vegetables for soup, identifying seasonal and ripe fruits and vegetables and fresh meat, fish and poultry.  ‘Buying the best they can afford’ was a recommendation made by several chefs to ensure that the end product was successful and consumed by other household members.   Home economists and chefs also suggested teaching young people about cheaper but equally nutritious food alternatives to expensive premium meat and fish and how best to store food in preparation for successful cooking.

Skill Acquisition

All food experts felt that the process of learning was equally important as learning the essential skills.  Whilst working in teams, young people learnt co-operation and scheduling skills but it was also important to allow young people to work individually to develop their independence.

And for those young people with special needs, opportunities to practise and repeat tasks are essential for their skill acquisition.  One home economics educator working with special needs students explained:

With special needs children it is important that we address their needs so that we can modify their tasks so that they can acquire skills in the kitchen. Parents can be reluctant to let their children cook – perhaps an occupational therapist or the home economics teacher needs to visit the parents to identify the problem so that they can learn and can succeed. Those children need more practice not less and in a school situation they are often the ones who hold back and let others take over.

Meal skills

Meal skills incorporate all stages of the food preparation and cooking process from the moment a meal component is taken from the pantry or the refrigerator, to it being prepared and cooked ready for meal service.  It means choosing and applying food preparation techniques (peeling, slicing, dicing, chopping and browning) safely and correctly and matching appropriate technique with the style and purpose of the dish.  It also means adapting meal components and basic food preparation skills to create meal variations.  Young independents nominated this as a useful skill.

Food experts also included preliminary tasks such as thinking through the meal process and carefully reading recipes deconstructing them into manageable tasks so that the meal components are prepared and cooked sequentially, ready for service at the same time.   Homemakers and young independents nominated that coordinating the cooking process is an important, but one of the hardest skills to learn and to get right.  Many commented that food timing and sequence were skills they learnt through trial and error whereas chefs and home economists talked about this being a crucial component that they taught in their skill-based programs. 

Food experts including chefs, dietitians, home economists and homemakers spoke about skills in assessing, tailoring and matching food preparation tasks with product outcome: for example, an individual investing more time and effort dicing vegetables when used in a clear vegetable soup (compared with roughly chopping vegetables in preparation for a pureed soup) so that the soup was presented attractively and stimulated the appetite of the diners.  

Finally, chefs and home economists recommended teaching young people how to manage cleaning tasks pre- and post- food preparation and cooking as part of the process of meal preparation.

Hygiene and safety skills

All food experts nominated hygiene and safety skills in the kitchen as a fundamental component to include in any skill-based program.  At the operational level, these included an individual’s ability to safely use and store sharp knives and cooking equipment (saucepans, baking trays, blenders, food processors, grillers and ovens) to prevent cuts, scalds and burns.  They all spoke about the importance of individuals preparing themselves for food preparation tasks: tying hair back, washing hands before and after food handling and wearing an apron and applying first aid skills when necessary.   One homemaker spoke about skills in acting upon food labeling and evaluating whether food should be stored or discarded.  Other food experts spoke more generally about food storage skills: transporting food home from the supermarket, how best to store fresh food produce (particularly fresh meat and poultry) to prolong freshness and quality and how best to safely thaw frozen food and to preserve its quality.  

Food experts including home economists, chefs, community youth workers and homemakers also nominated kitchen management as an important skill.  These skills included cleaning, maintaining and storing equipment (knives and other utensils, saucepans, chopping boards) and cleaning work surfaces to reduce food cross-contamination and rodent and insect infestation.  Those food experts working with young people explained that they trained young people to incorporate these tasks as an essential component, and not an adjunct, to the routine and process of preparing and cooking meals. 


Question four focused on ‘Resources’ and provided opportunities for food experts to identify components (additional to knowledge, information and skills) that they perceived as essential to include in a skill-based healthy eating program.  Rather than specifying individual assets, however, food experts interpreted the term ‘resources’ more broadly as recommended strategies that they had experienced (young independents and homemakers) or had incorporated into, and used successfully in their own programs.  Resources are those components which support the success of skill-based healthy eating programs but they do not form part of the essential skills checklist; rather they consist of recommendations identified by the food experts on how best a healthy eating program could be supported.  Based on the interviews of food experts, resources were classified under three themes: motivation, parental involvement and community (friends, peers, community and government) involvement.


One of the recurring themes throughout the interviews was the topic of motivation: food experts perceived this to be integral to the success of the program and the key that engaged young people.   All food experts spoke about the importance of creating a positive and fun atmosphere which allowed young people to experience success through practice, trial and error.  Food experts working with young people spoke about the importance of engaging the peer group, recognizing that young people value each other’s opinion.   They encouraged young people to keep an open mind when trying new food and to participate in program design.  They recognized the role of television in young people’s world and subsequently provided opportunities for them to have fun with food by simulating television cooking shows.   Food experts including homemakers, home economics educators, chefs and dietitians also spoke about engaging young people through food related projects tapping into young people’s environmental awareness by involving them in growing their own vegetables at home or at school.  Professional food experts (home economics educators and chefs who delivered community-based cooking programs) successfully used ‘story telling’ and ‘games’ to engage not only young children but older young adults, linking history, amusing anecdotes and culture with the food, especially new food that was beyond the realm of their taste experiences.

Experienced food experts including chefs, home economics educators and homemakers spoke about how they prepared young people for independent living (students and their own young adult children leaving home for the first time) so that they associated cooking with enjoyment.  Making tasks easier by giving them a selection of basic tools and equipment, a list of essential pantry items and basic favorite recipes along with the opportunities for them to practise the associated skills beforehand were amongst the recommendations made.

Parental Involvement

All food experts acknowledged that parents are a major influence on young people’s eating behaviors, certainly in the childhood years, and this is endorsed in the literature 11.  Some of the strategies that food experts used to involve parents included inviting parents or grandparents along to workshops, special celebratory occasions or cultural days at schools but they agreed that it was difficult to involve parents in these events if both worked during school hours.  A skill-based program involving parents also provides opportunities for parents to learn new food skills and eating rituals alongside their children (particularly if the parents have limited skills or are recent immigrants).  Food experts spoke about supporting and encouraging parents to allow their children to practise food skills at home and be more involved in family decision making related to shopping, preparing and cooking family meals.  Homemakers and young independent food experts agreed that parents needed to take responsibility in allowing their children to build up their food experiences, praising them for the effort and overlooking the ‘mess’ as that is part of the learning process too. 

Community Involvement

Food experts spoke about community resources for two groups of young people: those able to access skill based healthy eating programs in schools and those who needed to rely upon community resources for help with developing their independent living skills.  For those young people unable to access skill-based healthy eating programs in schools, there are community resources available to them but they need to know how and where to access them and to be able to afford them.  For this reason, food experts endorsed skill-based healthy eating programs in schools as the most accessible means of young people developing their skills required for independent living.  Further, they recognized that community resources could ‘value-add’ to existing school programs by extending and enriching program content, making it more interesting and fun for the learners and connecting them with their local community.  Restaurant and market visits, street culinary tours, guest speakers from industry and chefs-in-residence are all examples of community resources cited by food experts that could be incorporated into program design.   Non-government (for example, Nutrition Australia for the Healthy Living Pyramid) and government agencies (for example, Department of Health and Ageing for the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating Model) also contributed health promotional information via web sites and pamphlets that also enriched and validated program content.  Food experts spoke too about the importance of exposing young people to these community resources so that they were aware of them once they left school and lived independently. 

Food experts described friends and peer group of young people in addition to parents as a collective community resource available to help young people once they finish school and live independently.  Friends and peer group remain an important source of information and skill development through recipe exchanges and communal food making in each other’s homes, thereby extending the team work experiences gained through skill-based programs at schools. 



Food experts identified many different components which they considered to be essential to include in a skill-based healthy eating program.  They also identified and recommended strategies to be included as part of program design.

This study is unique in its identification of the essential food skills and components which underpin skill-based healthy eating programs.  No skill based program has explicitly listed these essential skills and for the first time a comprehensive list, including itemized examples within the list, provides program designers with a foundation on which to build their programs. 

The ‘Twelve Essential Skills’ checklist was compared with existing skill-based healthy programs to ascertain if some or all of the essential skills were described.  For reasons outlined earlier, program designers seldom report a descriptive outline of the content of their program (the ‘micro-components’) and therefore it is difficult to assess whether or not the essential skills are included in program design.  Providing evidence for this, content outline was rudimentary even amongst well-designed skill-based healthy eating studies 11-13,15. Auld 15 described components relevant to parental and community involvement but limited describing cooking skills in program reporting as ‘inclusion of food preparation activities’.   Liquori, Koch, Contento and Castle’s The Cookshop Program 13 listed recipes but failed to match these with the essential skills that would be developed when students prepared and cooked these recipes.  The CookWell program 16, designed for low income adults in several Scottish communities, included some components of the essential cooking skills including safety and hygiene skills, terminology and food storage as did Thonney’s 17  Cooking Up Fun Program.  Demas’ 18-19 Food is Elementary program, designed for primary school aged children, incidentally outlined several essential skills alongside its recipes list, including ‘basic preparation’ and knife skills, consumer skills including reading and evaluating food labels (for older children), seasonal produce and food exposure knowledge, hygiene and safety knowledge and skills.  Currently in the stages of evaluation at the time of writing, the Licence to Cook 20 program provided the most comprehensive list of essential skills which were matched with the listed recipes.  It also provided for young people a series of pictorial self-assessment tutorials on the web site  which covers the majority of the essential skills specified by the food experts. 

In Thonney’s 17 Cooking Up Fun program, the designers used the vehicle of a skill-based healthy eating program to not only develop hands-on cooking skills but to ‘promote positive youth development’.  Food experts (notably home economics educators, Technical and Further Education chefs and youth community workers) spoke here about the importance of skill-based programs contributing to young people’s (especially those with special needs) confidence, self-efficacy, self-mastery and self-esteem in a practical and valuable life skill subject.  Other recommendations made by food experts and endorsed in the skill-based programs 16-17 were to the facilitators themselves about program delivery: provide opportunities for participants to work in small groups, to repeat and practise tasks and how to make them feel involved, included and comfortable working with the team. 

Of all the skill-based healthy eating programs, Licence to Cook 20 comes closest to achieving all the components of a successful skill-based program based on the findings of the food experts.  This program also incorporated ‘resources’; motivation and parental and community involvement, the other components identified and described by food experts as strategies essential for program success.  

Motivating factors are seen as an essential influence on young people’s eating behaviors 21.  One way of ensuring that young people’s motivational factors are accommodated into healthy eating programs is to involve them in the early stages of program planning and design.  Listening to young people, allowing them to guide program designers, is essential for developing effective programs (M. Caraher. Cooking Skills and Young People, unpublished work, 2007).  It is wise to do this as young people are at an age in their emotional stage of development when they are questioning adults and their authority so program involvement supports that they are being ‘listened to’ by adults in their world.  This was raised by food expert professionals working with young people and was one of the reasons why young people were involved in the program design of the Cooking up Fun program 17. 

Program designers of skill-based programs 17, 20 used various strategies to motivate and involve young people in their programs.  These matched with the recommendations made by the food experts and included allowing young people to select and cook their own recipes, which also helped to accommodate any vegetarian and general eating preferences.   Likewise, Klepp and Wilhelmsen 11 in their healthy eating program ensured that students were motivated from the outset by involving them not only in recipe selection but also in the program design by allowing them to participate at every stage of the learning progress.  In the Klepp and Wilhelmsen 11 study, peers were trained to help implement small group activities, the researchers recognizing that using this avenue of ‘community involvement’ ‘addressed the students’ ‘social environment’.  In their discussion based on the comparisons of two intervention and two control schools in Bergen in Norway, the home economics educators participating in the study made three recommendations: more directly involve students and their parents in menu planning and implementation (Parental Involvement), address social influences and local food availability as part of the curriculum (Food exposure knowledge, Consumer knowledge and information) and utilize technical aids such as personal computers as part of their training (Sources information).  They also recommended that a closer collaboration between schools and other community organizations (therefore ‘Community Involvement’) would achieve a “more substantial and long-lasting impact on adolescent eating behavior”, although it was not made clear how the involvement would do this.   Other programs effectively involving parental and community involvement included Licence to Cook20, The Cookshop Program 13, and Food is Elementary 19.   Involving parents, either as volunteers or by simply informing them of initiatives, seems to be the key in program design (M. Caraher. Cooking Skills and Young People, unpublished work, 2007); however, several food experts (and program designers) spoke about the difficulties of actively involving parents in the programs (mostly due to their own paid work commitments at the same time the school programs were delivered) either by working alongside their children as volunteers or as guests or helping to evaluate programs by overseeing and assessing their children’s food production at home.  Some programs 15,20  overcame this constraint by offering ‘Family Fun Nights’ or after school or Saturday Food and Fitness Clubs  whilst The Cookshop Program13  involved available parents in the school community by recruiting them through the Parents Association and paying them a ‘small stipend for their efforts’ to be trained to work alongside the staff membersOther programs 11,13 effectively used regular newsletters to disseminate program news and to provide parents with general information about food preparation and cooking matched with what was being delivered in the classroom.  

Involving members of the community and community organizations was considered to be another key factor in contributing to successful healthy eating programs.  Community resources included key stakeholders represented by members of both the school (food service personnel, school administration and ground staff) and larger community (local food shops and services, local government and recreational facilities).  Food experts and program designers reported on how they utilized and involved community stakeholders to enhance program content and delivery and more broadly in establishing school food policy which affects all members of the school community. 

The method for this study was well suited to its purpose.  The findings confirmed the essential skills identified in the healthy eating programs reported in the literature.  Consistency in the different themes and categories was stabilized after half of the interviews were analyzed, with the remaining interviews confirming the interpretations.  The limitations of this study include a relatively small-sized group of some food experts and the use of a localized and convenience sample of food expert participants who may not be representative of food experts elsewhere.  The results of this study may be helpful to program designers working with similar populations; however, their transferability can be assessed through further research.




The main aim of this study was to identify the essential cooking skills required by young people in order to meet their dietary needs and to live independently.  These novel results, based on the interviews of fifty-one food experts from a range of backgrounds, age groups and experiences, generated a list of twelve essential cooking skills recommended to be included in skill-based programs designed to increase young people’s self-efficacy, specifically in the shopping, preparing and cooking of food.  Hitherto, no skill-based program has explicitly listed these essential skills so the outcome of this study provides valuable data which can be utilized and incorporated into skill-based programs in the future.  The results also generated data that supported the findings that skill-based programs need to involve key stakeholders in program design – young people (and how to motivate them), their parents, teachers, school and community. 




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