Monday, July 12, 2010

Studying Food Skills: A Public Health Perspective

Why are food skills important?

Food skills are necessary for the provision and preparation of foods for ourselves and our households. As dietitians, we speak the language of food skills in our professional work. In Practice - Fall 2007, Christine Chou asked "Where have all the foodies gone?", noting prophetically that focus on the science and therapeutic role of food could be at the expense of its soul. Well, I am grateful to see more foodie dietitians baring their souls and moving "beyond nutritionism" (Practice - Winter 2009). Without food skills, I believe people surrender many choices for what they eat, becoming increasingly dependent on what the food industry provides. In Canada, our food supply is the primary driver of our nation's growing prevalence of obesity, afflicting ever-younger individuals in the population (Slater et al., 2009). Everyone, from an early age, needs to develop good food skills, to be competent and self-reliant, able to follow Michael Pollan's good advice to "eat food, not too much, mostly plants" (2008).

Focus on food skills in Ontario

In the Ontario Public Health Standards (2008), Health Units are required to provide ‘opportunities’ for food skill development among priority populations. There is however, no published research available that describes the level of food skill among individuals within our communities, though many of us, in addition to the media have bemoaned the ‘de-skilling’ of our population. In Fall 2008, Region of Waterloo Public Health had the opportunity to include two pages of questions about food skills and food activities in the Waterloo Region Area Survey conducted by the University of Waterloo Survey Research Centre. The results of this cross-sectional, random survey from 703 adult respondents aged 18 years and over gave us a snapshot of self-reported food skills and kitchen activities within the general adult population of Waterloo Region. The research findings were presented on January 20, 2010 via a Fireside Chat through CH-NET entitled "Food Skills of Waterloo Region Adults" - the slides and podcast are available at A report by the same title is now available on our Public Health website at (under Resources - Reports and Fact Sheets; topic-specific - Food). While there will certainly be differences between communities, I believe this data provides a baseline description of Ontarians' (perhaps Canadians'?) reported food skills.

Food skills of Waterloo Region Adults

Based on responses to 13 food skill questions, the prevalence of ‘good’ food skills for everyday kitchen activities ranged between 64.6 - 93.5%, with fewer adults reporting ‘good’ skill in food preservation (freezing/ canning). Data were analysed to examine differences in skills by gender, age and household incomes. Information was also compiled about the amount of time taken to prepare the ‘main meal’ in the home, the frequency of ‘from scratch’ cooking, and the relationship between gardening and food preservation skills.

How shall we proceed?

The challenge for us as dietitians remains; we must regard our own skills with food as an important continuing education activity, and we need to consider what we know about the food skills and food activities of our audience/ clients as we plan programs and services. Some of the questions we can ask are: WHO might benefit most from developing their food skills?; HOW do we facilitate the provision of opportunities for food skills in our communities?; WHAT is the best way for the target learners to learn; and WHERE and WHEN would this happen? Certainly, we can all begin in our own homes. Children need to learn and develop skills with food from an early age. When people develop food skills, they increase their eating choices, relying less on industrial processing or restaurant offerings. To promote health, to stem the rising tide of obesity and the increased burden on healthcare systems, everyone needs food skills - how to choose it, how to prepare it, and how to eat it.

For more information and discussion about food skills and our research at Region of Waterloo Public Health, check out the posted materials and/or contact us.


Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion (2008). Ontario Public Health Standards. Available at: program/pubhealth/oph_standards/ophs/index.html

Slater J, Green CG, Sevenhuysen G, Edginton B, O’Neil J, Heasman M. (2009). The growing Canadian energy gap: More the can than the couch? Public Health Nutrition, 12(11): 2216-24.

Pollan M. (2008). In defense of food: An eater's manifesto. The Penguin Press: New York, NY.


Pat Vanderkooy, MSc, RD
Public Health Nutritionist
Waterloo ON


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