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If you know your cooking style, you can make things more fun for you
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The Nutritional Gatekeeper and the Good Cook Next Door
"In most households, decisions about what to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks are determined by what foods the grocery shopper—the nutritional gatekeeper—brings into the house. Although they don’t always realize it, gatekeepers powerfully shape what food gets eaten both inside and outside the house.(1)
Suppose a teenager wants to eat Pop-Tarts, but there aren’t any in the cupboard? The gatekeeper has defacto decided they won’t be on the menu. This poor Pop-Tart hungry teenager either has to make a special trip to the grocery store, or pressure Mom or Dad to put them at the top of the next shopping list.
Exactly how much influence does a gatekeeper have?
On a steamy Manila-like August morning in Washington, D.C., in 2005, I met with hundreds of dietitians nurses, and physicians at a conference of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. These experts are paid to know how people shouldeat and how they do eat. They watch their diabetic patients— and their families—eat day in and day out. I asked them about the nutritional gatekeeper, the person who does most of the shopping and cooking in a household (around 90 percent of the time this is the same person). I asked them to estimate what percentage of the food eaten by these families—snacks, meals, out-of-the-house meals, everything—is controlled by the gatekeeper. Their answers surprised me.
They estimated that the gatekeeper controlled 72 percent of the food decisions of their children and spouse.(2) After all, they were the ones who bought almost everything that was eaten at home, they were the ones who either made their children’s lunches or gave them lunch or snack money, and they were the ones who influenced family restaurant orders by what they recommended or ordered themselves.
We have since asked over 2,500 parents to estimate this percentage. Some were 10 points lower or 10 points higher, but the answer was always in the same range. Only one group stood out, because their estimates were consistently high. These were people who also rated themselves as “good cooks.” This made some sense. It was in line with a study we did that showed that many veggie lovers claimed either to be a good cook, to live with a good cook, or to have had a parent who was a good cook. But exactly who were these good cooks, and why were they so influential?
We decided to track down the mysterious North American Good Cook, take some psychographic snapshots of the species, and decipher their influence. To do this, we surveyed over 300 “good cooks” who were considered “above average” by themselves and by at least one other member of their family. They came from a wide range of ethnicities, income levels, and education levels. Besides being good cooks, they all had one thing in common—they had never attended culinary school. Some had learned from a parent, others on their own; some cooked out of necessity, and some for fun. We asked them over 100 questions about how they cooked, what they cooked, when they cooked, what kind of person they were, and what they did in their spare time. We found that 82 percent of them fit fairly neatly into one of five personality profiles. We classified them as giving cooks, competitive cooks, healthy cooks, methodical cooks, or innovative cooks.(3)
All of these cooks—except one— appeared to help their families eat healthier. They did this largely through the wide variety of food they served. A varied menu makes eating more pleasurable and can lead family members to expand their tastes beyond the standard fatty, salty, sweet foods for which we have a natural hankering.
Which good cook seemed to have the least positive impact on adult eating habits? Interestingly enough, it was the most common one—the giving cook. Although giving cooks put the stamp of variety on their meals, it was mostly in the form of high-carb entrées, baked goodies, and desserts.
Does this mean that if you’re not a good cook, your children are destined to a lifetime of Domino’s Pizza and Fritos? No, of course not. One key take-away for us “not so great cooks” is the good we can do just by adding more variety to our meals. How? By 1) buying different foods, 2) trying new recipes (including ethnic ones), 3) substituting different ingredients (mainly vegetables and spices) into favorite recipes, 4) taking kids to the grocery store and letting them choose a new, healthy food, or 5) visiting authentic ethnic restaurants. (Sorry, McDonald’s is not a Scottish restaurant.)
When a child develops a taste for a wide range of foods, healthy foods can be more easily substituted for less healthy ones.(5) He or she may even discover favorites other than pizza, French fries, and Juicy Juice. Will your daughter learn tolove broccoli? Maybe not, but she’ll probably be more will- ing to eat it occasionally for dinner or with a low-calorie ranch dressing as a snack."
- Excerpted from Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, NY: Bantam-Dell, 2006
- See “Focus on Nutritional Gatekeepers and the 72% Solution,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association,(September 2006). Interestingly, we’ve repeated this with a lot of different people. Good cooks, non-cooks, young parents, empty nesters, grandmothers, single moms. They vary a bit, but all end up estimating right around 72 percent.
- See “Profiling Nutritional Gatekeepers: Three Methods for Differentiating Influential Cooks,” Food Quality and Preference 14:4 (June 2003): 289–97.
- See "Marketing Nutrition: Soy, Functional Foods, Biotechnology, and Obesity" (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005).
- See “Cooking Habits Provide a Key to 5 a Day Success,” Journal of the American Dietetic Assocation 104:11 (November 2004): 1648–50, with Keong-mi Lee.