Teaching Teens to Cook Associated with Improved Diet Quality, Family Relationships

The busy lives of teenagers (and their parents) can be physically, mentally and emotionally stressful as school and outside activities make multiple demands on their time and often interfere with family meals.

Evidence shows an association between children and teens (3-18 years) who share meals with their families three or more times per week and being less likely to be overweight, eat unhealthy foods, or engage in disordered eating and are more likely to eat healthy foods in comparison to those who shared fewer than three family meals per week. In addition, family meal sharing is associated with less likely engagement in risk behaviors, such as substance abuse, among adolescents. Learning to cook and contribute to family meals, as new research suggests, may help teens have better quality diets, stronger family connections and feelings of well-being.

A study published in 2015, surveying the cooking skills and behaviors of a nationally representative sample of more than 8,000 high school students in New Zealand, found that children’s cooking ability was positively associated with better diet quality (meeting fruit/vegetable recommendations, less frequent consumption of fast food/soft drinks), better indicators of mental well-being and stronger family relationships. Interestingly, when looking at the frequency that children reported cooking, those who never cooked at all or cooked most days were more likely to report negative family relationships and depressive symptoms, compared to students who reported cooking a couple times per week or month or even a few times a year. As the authors explain, never cooking at all may reflect a teen’s disconnectedness with the family and teens who cook most days could be an indication they are carrying too much responsibility. So a balance between these extremes may be what is most beneficial. Contrary to what was expected, a higher reported cooking ability and cooking more frequently was associated with a greater body mass index – that the researchers say likely reflects the many environmental factors (other than cooking), that were not accounted for in this study, but that can influence what teens eat and their body size.

A study using data from two linked population-based studies, where adolescents and their caregivers provided self-reported data, showed that adolescent involvement in food preparation was associated with several markers of better dietary quality and better eating patterns (i.e., frequency of breakfast, family meals, less fast food intake). Specifically, being involved with food preparation in the last week was associated with eating more fruits and vegetables and greater consumption of iron, calcium, folate, vitamin D, vitamin C and fiber.

Diet quality is measured by scoring food patterns in terms of how closely they align with national dietary guidelines. Incorporating dairy foods into a well-balanced eating plan can help improve overall diet quality and is important for rapidly growing teens. Eating the recommended three cups of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods, such milk, yogurt and cheese, along with the calcium and vitamin D they contain for those 9 years and older are key to helping to build peak bone mass.

Teaching teens to cook and participate in making family meals can be a great way for health and wellness professionals and chefs to make a positive contribution to improved diet quality and overall well-being of adolescents and their families. It provides teens an opportunity to develop life skills, learn habits of healthy eating and make a positive contribution to their family.

So let’s help get teens cooking! Here are some recipes that teens may find delicious and easy to prepare, including Capture the Flag Pizza and Saturday Night Date Shake.