Collaboration: A Driver of Behavior Change for Healthy Eating Patterns
This is the third article in a new series to illuminate key ‘drivers of behavior change’ around healthful eating. After 20 years of designing, evaluating and retooling curriculum to increase successful behavioral outcomes among all ages, we have identified 10 distinct behavior drivers. We are currently investigating these 10 drivers in a new study in collaboration with Columbia University’s Teachers College, Program in Nutrition. Our goal is to open a new area in the scientific literature that illuminates successful delivery and communication techniques. Over time as other practitioners and researchers add to this body of research, we can achieve consensus about what constitutes effective Teaching Kitchen curriculum.
When a child is scared or intimidated, they reach out for support from an adult, sibling – anyone to help them feel more safe. Making major changes in our lives is very intimidating. Especially if we fear the change will be restricting, reduce or even eliminate basic pleasures, or is impossible to achieve and will lead to failure.
These are common fears when a diagnosis of diabetes or pre-diabetes is received and digested. The future can look gloomy and bleak. So much so that patients can feel defeated and think “Why should I bother? It’s too hard to afford healthier options. I have no time to cook, with multiple jobs and family responsibilities….” When we are asking anyone, but especially patients, to make huge changes in their very sustenance, they worry how this will affect the ones they love. Food is the embodiment of the nurturing role of the family. It’s a bonding element in often hectic and very stressed lives. Perceived disruption is naturally another cause of stress and fear.
Understanding this then makes offering a teaching kitchen dynamic that is lively and collaborative essential to success. Participants need to feel part of a level playing field – a “we’re all in this together” experience. For this reason, a one on one cooking class – while helpful to coach for certain skills and answering of specific questions, is less effective than a structure where everyone is part of a team. The group experience, when structured carefully, becomes a safe environment for each participant to address their fears, confront their trepidation of trying new foods, explore new cooking methods and embark on a discovery process to arrive at an exciting truth: healthful food is utterly delicious.
It’s as if the ‘pain’ of confronting the unknown (new taste/flavor, ingredient, culture’s food concept…) that is the whole point of a teaching kitchen class, is somehow lessened when shared by others who also need to get over their fears of what’s new. In the last 12 years since we developed our adolescent program, Teen Battle Chef, I personally have heard no less than 50 young people swear that the stress of weekly exposure to a very foreign food concept is “really scary.” When pressed to elaborate, they explain it’s “Because you don’t have any idea of how it’s gonna taste.” Yet in their next breath they add “but it almost always tastes pretty good and well, I’m not alone. We’re in this together!”
By virtue of being part of a team or group, individuals are predisposed to discover that simple meals can utterly transform quite ordinary and previously shunned ingredients. For example, a poached egg atop a sautéed mound of grated root veggies – pennies to procure, is a feast for the eyes and palate. A yogurt-based cold cucumber soup is both refreshing and will keep in the fridge for days, affording multiple ‘veggie shots’ on hot summer days.
The concept of ‘safety in numbers’ is very real when it comes to challenging what our good sense deems ‘safe to consume.’ It’s a chaser where the group mentality is actually braver and more adventurous than going it alone. The group dynamic truly facilitates overcoming barriers together. As a result this success of surmounting barriers imprints long-lasting associations of “good feelings” and comfort with healthy eating. And that is the secret sauce to motivating behavior change.