When Combating Childhood Hunger, Cooking Matters

cooking mattersBoston's Cooking Matters program director, Alicia McCabe, preps veggies at a March 29 demonstration at the Kirkland Tap & Trotter. Photos by Emily Cassel.

Can a cooking class make families healthier?

The people behind Cooking Matters think so—and now, they have the evidence to back it up.

Cooking Matters is a part of the No Kid Hungry campaign, a national movement aimed at solving childhood hunger in America. The program offers six-week cooking classes that teach families to cook affordable (and delicious) meals that kids will actually want to eat, in the hopes that doing so will encourage them to make a lifetime of healthy choices. And the organization has always collected evaluations from the participating families—one on the first class, one six weeks later—to determine if the classes have changed the way they cook.

According to Boston’s Cooking Matters program director Alicia McCabe, these surveys have traditionally shown that the program worked, that families were more likely to, for example, use the nutrition facts panel more often after taking the Cooking Matter course. She says they’d speak to parents who, years after participating, said they were still using recipes they learned through the course.

But, she explains, “We had all this anecdotal evidence … but we didn’t have the hard numbers to back it up.”

That’s not the case any longer. McCabe was at the Kirkland Tap & Trotter last week to share the results of a recent year-long study, which was conducted by the Altarum Institute and involved more than 1,600 participants. (Tap & Trotter Chef Tony Maws is an active supporter of No Kid Hungry; “It’s such a positive and effective organization that we go out of our way to work with them,” he said recently.) The institute compared the dietary habits of families who took the Cooking Matters course with those that didn’t.

“What we found was that the families that participated in Cooking Matters made significant changes that were lasting,” McCabe says.

cooking matters

Participants try their hands at cooking a frittata, one of many healthy, easy-to-prep recipes from the Cooking Matters program.

The effects, according to the study, are long-lasting. Six months after the course ended, Cooking Matters participants were choosing low-sodium options 11 percent more often and low-fat dairy options 9 percent more often. Participating families were more likely to choose fruits and vegetables in the grocery store. And they were also better able to budget—McCabe explains that knowing how to cross-utilize ingredients and purchase foods in the right quantity can really help families stretch their dollars. “The most expensive food you buy is the food you throw out,” she says. That’s significant, as many of the program’s participants receive support through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Less tangible, but equally important, was the way the course made families feel. The study found that participants were 10 percent more confident in their cooking abilities, and families were 17 percent more confident in their ability to stretch their food dollars thanks to Cooking Matters’ meal planning lessons and information about comparing unit prices.

“It was exciting to get the data back,” McCabe says, “and really see the confirmation that a nutrition and cooking intervention such as Cooking Matters can really change a family’s life and the trajectory that family is on.”

You can help support Cooking Matters at Restaurant Day, which will take place on April 11. Learn more about the event and find tickets here