Changing Cooking Habits: How to Cook Healthy Food for your Family

SBM: changing-cooking-habits-how-to-cook-healthy-food-for-your-family

Nicole Farmer, MD; National Institutes of Health Clinical Center

Today, people and families are spending more time together within the home, which has resulted in spending more time cooking at home. Although most American households reported cooking dinner for most nights of the week before the pandemic, many American families now face cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even for those who are comfortable with cooking, this increased demand may lead to feelings of – 'Can I do this, today and again tomorrow?' What if this doesn't taste right? What if I mess it up this time? Today, I felt upset about so many things, and now I have to cook?'

All of this can lead to a kitchen setting in which skilled home cooks may not even feel prepared for the ever-changing yet ongoing demands of meal preparation.

As clinicians and scientists interested in behavior, we are not only observers of this recent phenomenon. We are also, in many cases, participants within our households, however small or large.

The following presents a view of how to cook healthily, especially in current times.

This article is inspired by the five points of behavior change related to compatibility and motivation as recently described by Michie et al.1

  1. Create a mental model
  2. Create social norms
  3. Create the right level and type of emotion 
  4. Replace one behavior with another
  5. Make the behavior easy

The goal of these five steps is to serve as a guide for cooking healthy food.

Step 1: Create a mental model:

Mental models allow people to develop external representations of their thoughts and form the basis of reasoning and decision making. Mental models related to cooking may include:

'I am going to cook a delicious meal the result of this is I get a nutritious meal, have some fun and get to save money.'

In the end, the use of motivating mental models may be important to have with cooking, and developing these models may involve tips provided in the steps below.

Step 2: Develop Social Norms

Social norms are rooted in the human desire to be a part of one's community. In this manner, social norms can serve as mediators or barriers to behavior.

Creating a social norm within your home or personal daily routines around cooking may help you initiate or sustain cooking in your life.

The creation of a social norm can help to alleviate concerns about what others may think of the behavior change, a significant barrier that may arise within a mental model.

Think about watching others cook on social media, or including other household members in the cooking process. Doing these small changes may help to create a household norm for cooking healthy food.

Step 3: Create the right level and type of emotion

Emotions are intricate reaction patterns and influence our attitudes and judgments, and as a result, may influence our behavior decisions.

Basic emotions even evolved to handle fundamental life tasks, such as cooking. Enjoyment is a noted primary emotion invoked during cooking, especially with the use of scratch (basic) ingredients or among individuals who identify themselves as a cook.

Positive emotions, such as enjoyment, have obvious benefits, such as increasing our ability to interact with each other. But positive emotions can also help us make decisions, allow us to consider a broader set of options, and decide quicker.

Therefore, awareness of emotions, especially positive ones, could be a primary goal to help keep us cooking happily. Identifying prompts within cooking may help build awareness of positive emotions, or that may help you transition through moments of negative emotions. For example, many find listening to music while cooking or observing nature through windows as helpful. 

Step 4: Replace one behavior with another

In terms of dietary behaviors, cooking is likely to replace purchasing food away from home. Current times have made this a more comfortable replacement. Cooking may, however, be a good vehicle for other dietary changes. For instance, participating in cooking may provide a segue to changes in food shopping behaviors or eating behaviors, such as family meals.

Step 5: Make the behavior easy

The kitchen environment, defined as the placement of equipment and ingredients, makes cooking easier. The use of mise en place in the kitchen, easy-to-recognize labeling of food containers, and organizing based on typical usage can help make kitchens welcoming environments during the cooking process. Involving oneself in cooking, creating a sensory cooking experience, while planning and doing can lead to an appreciation of the experience, which may help shape the enjoyment and lead to a multiplicity of effects.


1. Michie S, West R & Amlôt R. Slowing down the covid-19 outbreak: changing behaviour by understanding it. March 11, 2020


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