SECTION 3 Importance of food skills
In a food environment where highly processed products have become the easy choice and sometimes the only choice, the promotion of food skills, as a component of food literacy, is an essential part of strategies aimed at supporting life-long healthy eating habits.
Food skills are needed to navigate the complex food environment and support healthy eating.
Food skills and food literacy
Food skills and opportunities to learn and share
Food skills and food waste
Cooking and food preparation using nutritious foods should be promoted as a practical way to support healthy eating.
Health Canada recommends cooking and preparing healthy meals and snacks using nutritious foods as a practical way to support healthy eating. Many Canadians are faced with a food environment where highly processed products are readily available, competitively priced, offered in large portion sizes, and heavily marketed.1 The transformation of the food environment that has taken place over the last few decades has shaped changes in patterns of eating.2 Other factors have led to a reliance on highly processed products, including changes in employment conditions (for example, irregular working hours) and to family life (for example, evolving gendered division of household labour).1
Over time, Canadian households have significantly increased the proportion of their food budget spent on highly processed products—particularly those that are convenient (ready-to-eat or heat).1,3 Canadian households also spend about 30% of their food budget on meals and snacks purchased from full-service restaurants, fast-food outlets and cafeterias, as well as refreshment stands, snack bars, vending machines, mobile canteens, caterers, and chip wagons.4 The types of meals purchased from these establishments have been associated with an increase in calories, sodium, sugars, and saturated fat. 5,6 Fewer Canadians are making meals from basic ingredients, and many are reliant on highly processed products that require fewer or different food skills.7
Further, the increased use of highly processed products has decreased the transfer of food skills from parents, caregivers, and extended family to children and adolescents. These routes have traditionally been the primary mode of learning these skills.7
Cooking and preparing food at home can help support healthy eating as described in Section 1.8 For example, when food is prepared and cooked at home, the amount of highly processed products purchased and consumed can be reduced. This change in eating behaviour can promote improvements to the types and amounts of food consumed over time by cooking meals using ingredients lower in sodium, free sugars, or saturated fat.
Food labels should be promoted as a tool to help Canadians make informed food choices.
Food labels are changing to help make the healthy choice the easier choice. Refer to Food labelling changes.
Food labels provide a prominent source of nutrition information for Canadians.9 This information can be used to make informed food choices, plan nutritious meals, and manage chronic diseases and conditions impacted by diet. Nutrition information on food labels are perceived as a highly credible source of information that consumers report using when making food choices.9
The use of nutrition information on food labels is higher among people with health conditions and special dietary needs and lower among children, adolescents and older adults.9 People with lower income and education are also less likely to use nutrition information on food labels.9 Interventions aimed at improving the knowledge and understanding of nutrition information on food labels can have positive results among some populations, such as those with a low income and literacy level.9
The Nutrition Facts table is a component of a food label that can help Canadians:
- learn about a food’s nutritional value,
- compare the nutritional content of food products, and
- better manage special dietary needs such as a low-sodium diet.
The Nutrition Facts table also declares a percent Daily Value (%DV) on core nutrients in a defined serving of food. Canada’s new labelling regulations require that the Nutrition Facts table include a footnote at the bottom of the table about the % DV. The footnote can help Canadians understand if a prepackaged food has ‘a little’ (5% DV or less) or ‘a lot’ (15% or more) of a nutrient. When Canadians use information on the food label, it can help them make healthier food choices.10 When these choices are made on a regular basis, it can help reduce the intake of sodium, free sugars and saturated fat from the overall diet. Reducing the intake of these nutrients over time can help reduce important risk factors for chronic disease in Canada.
The Nutrition Facts table provides information on the total sugars content of a prepackaged food or beverage. Total sugars with 15% or more of the % DV (equivalent to 15 grams or more) can help identify foods high in free sugars.
The list of ingredients is another way to identify if a prepackaged food or beverage contains free sugars. Canada’s new labelling regulations require that sugars-based ingredients be grouped in descending order by weight after the name “Sugars”. This will help Canadians identify all of the sources of free sugars and to understand the proportion of free sugars compared to other ingredients.
The list of ingredients is another component of the food label. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, beginning with the ingredient that weighs the most and ending with the ingredient that weighs the least. This can help Canadians identify if a food contains more of the ingredient (if it is found at the beginning of the list) and less of the ingredient (if it is found at the end of the list). It can also be particularly helpful when trying to avoid certain ingredients (such as allergens).
Taken together, food labels are tools that can help Canadians navigate the complex food environment. Food labels can help Canadians make informed food choices in various settings, such as grocery stores. Encouraging the use of food labels—along with promoting cooking and food preparation—can be an effective strategy to promote the selection of nutritious foods and support the preparation of healthy meals and snacks.
Food skills and food literacy
Food skills are important life skills.
A person with food skills has the information, abilities, and practices to acquire nutritious foods and prepare meals and snacks that are safe, nutritious, and culturally acceptable. Food skills can help to build a person’s understanding of the food supply or where foods come from.
What food skills include:
- Knowledge needed to read, evaluate and interpret nutrition information such as food and menu labels, and marketing of foods and beverages; to store and prepare food safely; to adjust recipes; to grow food, hunt or fish; to know where to find plants and berries to harvest.
- Skills in using the senses needed to assess texture, appearance, taste, and smell of foods; to determine ripeness of plants and berries to harvest.
- Planning skills needed to make a grocery list and stay within budget; to organize and prepare nutritious meals; to accommodate preferences and dietary needs of family members; to make good use of leftovers.
- Technical skills needed to use tools and techniques to make meals; to hunt, fish, harvest, or prepare and preserve wild foods.
— Adapted from Vanderkooy13
Food skills may also help support a mindful approach to eating: making conscious food choices; taking time to eat; paying attention to feelings of hunger and fullness; and avoiding distractions when eating.11 A mindful approach to eating can promote attentive eating, which is achieved when distractions are at a minimum. Distracted eating may increase food and beverage intake, both in the immediate and subsequent meals or snacks.12
Building a basic level of food skills (such as the ability to assemble a simple meal or snack using nutritious foods) can contribute to improved food choices and eating behaviours at any age, but particularly among children and adolescents.7 As knowledge and skills are learned and used, cooking and food preparation may become habitual and more time efficient. A basic level of food skills can particularly benefit those moving from one life stage or life circumstance to another, such as adolescents and young adults becoming responsible for feeding themselves, older adults who have lost a spouse who did the cooking, or people who have moved away from their extended families and have less opportunity for intergenerational learning and sharing of food skills.
Food literacy includes food skills and the broader environmental context.
Food skills are a component of food literacy and are interrelated with social environments, physical environments and other determinants of health. Many factors influence food choices and eating behaviours.14 Factors can include:
Food literacy includes food skills and practices that are learned and used across the lifespan to participate within a complex food environment. Food literacy also means considering the social, cultural, economic and physical factors related to food.
- peer and family supports,
- availability and accessibility of resources (such as finances, a functioning kitchen, cooking equipment, and a basic shelf of food),
- social, cultural and gender norms, and
- time constraints. (For example, people living on a low income or working several jobs may not have the resources or free time to reasonably improve their food skills.)
All sectors of society should strive to support people of all backgrounds to adopt healthy eating practices and prepare nutritious foods. Section 4 discusses the need for supportive environments for healthy eating.
Cultural food practices should be celebrated.
Cultural food practices can influence how food skills are learned and shared. These practices reflect the diverse cultural backgrounds and food traditions in Canada. Food traditions can influence how, what, and when Canadians eat. They can also influence where Canadians acquire food and how they prepare it. Celebrating cultural food practices can keep food traditions alive by sharing them across generations and with others. For example, organizing community events that celebrate with cultural foods can be a way to share knowledge and skills within and between cultures. Eating with others (see Section 1) can also foster connections between cultures.
Food skills should be considered within the social, cultural, and historical context of Indigenous Peoples.
Efforts to build food skills should recognize the unique histories, circumstances, and aspirations of Indigenous Peoples of Canada.15 This includes the historical context of residential schools, which resulted in many residential school survivors being disconnected from their lands, and becoming unfamiliar with the social networks where knowledge and skills about food systems of Indigenous Peoples were shared.15
Food systems of Indigenous Peoples include the food plant and animal species that Indigenous Peoples acquire from the land, water, and air using technologies and knowledge that have been adapted and passed through generations.17 This knowledge is key for sustainable harvesting and cultivation, as well as for the preparation, storage, consumption, and sharing of traditional food.
The emphasis should be on creating opportunities for intergenerational knowledge sharing and fostering cultural strengths and aspirations for a healthier future. This can be achieved when Indigenous communities lead, as well as participate in, policies and programs that aim to build, and improve, food skills. These efforts can lead to improved diet quality.16 These efforts may also foster greater self-determination and a revitalized cultural identity.
Food skills and opportunities to learn and share
Food skills can be taught, learned, and shared in a variety of settings.
Canadians can create opportunities to teach and share food skills wherever they are—at home, in daycares, at school (for example by integrating cooking skills into children’s education), or in other settings such as in community centres, in the garden, or out on the land. For example, local community kitchens may provide peer-to-peer support to newcomers to Canada who face limited access to cultural foods and ingredients, or who are unfamiliar with potential substitutes to prepare traditional recipes.18 The transferring of food skills can also take place when meal preparation is undertaken as a group activity during family or community celebrations.
The proper preparation and safe handling of food should be promoted to avoid risk of food-borne illness. The General food safety tips discuss best practices for food safety such as safe food handling, storing, cooking, barbecuing and reheating.
To safely harvest, store, and prepare traditional food, it is important to follow the traditional ways and consult with knowledgeable elders. Food Safety for First Nations People of Canada: A Manual for Healthy Practices discusses best practices in traditional First Nations food harvesting and preparation.
Transferring food skills to children and adolescents can build self-confidence and self-efficacy (belief in one’s own abilities), and provide a feeling of accomplishment.7 Taking part in food-related tasks can encourage young children to try new foods.19 Learning food skills in any setting can help support the advancement of behavioural norms around cooking early in life and can support life-long healthy eating habits. Creating opportunities to cook and prepare foods through school-based initiatives (such as home economics curriculum and breakfast programs) along with other community-based programs outside the school setting can support children and adolescents to develop and apply food skills.
This kind of knowledge transfer can also take place among adults. Programs aimed at improving food skills may particularly benefit adults who lack a basic skill level. People who have newly diagnosed diet-related health risk factors may be highly motivated to learn how to make changes to their diet in these types of programs. Focusing on creative aspects of food preparation or on making healthy, quick and cost-effective meals may encourage adults to participate in such learning opportunities.
Food skills and food waste
Food skills may help decrease household food waste.
Not all food that is produced is consumed. The annual value of lost and wasted food in Canada is roughly $31 billion.20 Almost half of all food waste takes place at the household level.20 Potential reasons why households waste food include: poor planning before shopping; impulse shopping; cooking, preparing or serving too much at meals.21 Improving food skills may make it easier for Canadians to reduce household food waste. For example, developing skills related to meal planning, storing perishable foods properly, and using up leftovers may help minimize waste.
Wasted food also puts pressure on the environment, using land, soil, and water to produce food that is not eaten.22 The environmental impact of food waste is further described in Section 1.