Monday, 14 November 2016

Keep Calm and Cook On

You’re running late this morning and all you can think about is that Grande coffee with your name on it. You don’t have time to prepare any food so you purchase your breakfast and lunch at a fast food outlet. Sound familiar? I’ve certainly had those days.

Given the overwhelming number of fast food restaurants available to us, it is not surprising that about 1 in every 16 calories consumed by Canadians is derived from fast food. In addition, research suggests that over the past few decades there has been a decrease in time spent preparing and cooking food at home and an increase in restaurant dining, particularly at fast food outlets. We also know that fast food consumption is linked to higher intake of sugary beverages and fat, and preparing food at home is linked to higher consumption of fruits and vegetables. While many fast food outlets have made positive changes to their menu to include healthier options, it could still be argued that knowing how to prepare and cook a meal for yourself is an important life skill. A number of initiatives have been developed in attempt to encourage Canadians to skip the drive-thru and prepare meals at home. In fact, one Canadian company will create your weekly dinner menus and deliver the ingredients straight to your door in a refrigerated box!

There is a large body of research on fast food consumption and the associations between eating-out and various health, social, and emotional factors; however, research on food preparation is scant. Currently, the research on this topic suggests that a self-prepared meal is more likely to beat out a pre-made meal in a taste test. Why might this be?

The IKEA-effect.

One possible explanation is that the concept known as the IKEA-effect might also apply to food. If you have ever cursed at an instruction booklet or been brought to tears over a missing screw, only to look at the finished piece as a product of your own genius, you can likely relate to this phenomenon. The IKEA-effect is the tendency for people to like and overvalue objects they have made themselves. With respect to food, it is possible that we overvalue a meal that is the product of our own efforts. 

Does self-prepared food taste better?

One recent study explored the question, “does self-prepared food taste better?”, and the results revealed some interesting findings. The study sought to evaluate whether self-preparation lead to an increase in liking for different foods. For the experiment, participants were assigned to either prepare and taste a raspberry smoothie, prepare and taste a chocolate smoothie, taste a pre-made raspberry smoothie, or taste a pre-made chocolate smoothie. All participants filled out a questionnaire measuring their liking and perceived healthiness of the food, as well as their hunger and attitudes about food intake. Results revealed that when participants prepared their own “healthy” (i.e., raspberry) smoothie, they liked it more than the participants who tasted the pre-made smoothie. Conversely, participants who prepared their own “unhealthy” (i.e., chocolate) smoothie did not like it more than those who did not make it.

The researchers offered a few explanations for these findings. First, they noted that the results provide further support for the IKEA-effect in its application to food. In addition, they propose that self-preparation aids one in assessing the healthiness of a food, which in turn influences food liking. However, given that all participants were aware of the ingredients in their smoothie (recipes were provided to all participants), it may be that the physical act of preparing the food is necessary to influence the liking of a “healthy” food.

As a student and a skeptic, it is important to note that this study used a sample consisting of only females of which the majority were students. Further, an individuals’ financial resources and time available for cooking differs widely. Despite these limitations, the take-home message follows that that we all ought to encourage ourselves and others to prepare our meals at home when we can.

Instead of purchasing your lunch every day this week, aim to pack a simple meal for yourself (the smoothie recipe used in this study contained only 3 ingredients!). Your stomach and your wallet might thank you in the end. Further, build-your-own meal options are available at many schools, grocery stores, and shopping centres for those days where preparing food at home is not realistic. Small changes just might make a difference.

Courtney Cadieux 

Black, J. L., & Billette, J. M. (2015). Fast food intake in Canada: Differences among Canadians with diverse demographic, socio-economic and lifestyle characteristics. Can J Public Health, 106(2), 52-58.
Dohle, S., Rall, S., & Siegrist, M. (2016). Does self-prepared food taste better? Effects of food preparation on liking. Health Psychology, 35(5), 500.

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