October 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 5 // Research in Brief // 5RIB5

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College Women and Their Food Preparation Ability

College women may be losing their fundamental food preparation ability. The study reported here identified specific foods that college women could or could not prepare and the reason(s) they did not prepare these foods. The two dominant reasons for being unable to prepare most foods were they had never been taught and they had no interest in learning. Insufficient time and inadequate kitchens were contributing, but minor, reasons for their inability to prepare certain foods. Extension professionals have access to young people and are thus in a favorable position to influence the youth regarding the importance of acquiring food preparation abilities.

LuAnn Soliah
Baylor University
Waco, Texas

Janelle Walter
Baylor University
Waco, Texas

Deeanna Antosh
Galveston College
Galveston, Texas


In the United States, cooking and baking practices within the home have changed dramatically in the past 50 years (Bowers, 2000). Recent surveys have revealed that many Americans believe they lack the knowledge necessary to cook well for themselves or their families (Bowers, 2000).

Contemporary consumers demand food that tastes great, requires little or no preparation, and is served in large portions (Wardlaw, 2003). These new food requirements are not healthful practices, but they do represent the current reality. Furthermore, when people frequently eat outside the home, obesity rates increase.

There are four primary reasons why Family and Consumer Science (FCS) professionals should encourage the preparation of family meals. These reasons include:

  • Improved health (reduced exposure to high kcal desserts, delicious bread, baskets of tortilla chips, etc.)

  • Family communication (talking, learning, and encouraging)

  • Self-sufficiency maintenance (increased eating out leads to decreased cooking ability)

  • Better food choice (more fruit, vegetables, and dairy foods and less fried food and sodas) (Gillman, 2000).

When we lose basic food preparation skills, we lose more than just practical abilities. On a national basis, there has been a gradual decline in FCS funding at the secondary level. Family and Consumer Science Extension professionals have the skills to intervene and educate the public regarding food preparation.

Women have the primary responsibility for food purchasing and preparation within the home (Bowers, 2000). Seventy-three percent of women are responsible for home food preparation in the United States (Harnack, Story, Martinson, Neumark-Sztainer, & Stang 1998).

Adults between 18 and 27 years of age are considered the most independent, busiest, and mobile generation so far, compared to individuals born between 1947 and 1976 (Sloan, 1998; U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1997). Despite the importance of nutrition during young adulthood, relatively little is known about the eating behaviors, let alone the food preparation abilities of young women. The study reported here is unique because it looks behind the scenes to examine actual food preparation ability of college women.


The study was designed with three purposes:

  1. To examine food preparation ability of college women,

  2. To assess the reasons why they do not prepare specific foods, and

  3. To determine frequency of eating outside their home.

Survey and Methods

Questionnaire Development

A questionnaire focusing on food preparation was developed to study current food preparation skills. The questionnaire was reviewed, revised, and tested for content validity by food science and statistical professionals. College students majoring in Family and Consumer Sciences pilot tested the instrument for practical use. Ten categories of common foods in the American diet were selected (Figure 1). Within each of these categories, three to 10 specific foods were chosen. The participants were asked to evaluate each food by answering these questions:

  1. Do you ever eat this food?

  2. Do you know how to make it?

  3. Have you ever made it?

  4. If you do not prepare the item, what are the reasons?

In this article, baking and beverage production will be discussed. The information and data about cooking skills is published elsewhere (Soliah, Walter, & Antosh, 2006). The questionnaire also included questions on the subjects' age and weekly frequency of eating outside the home (dining in a restaurant, ordering take-out or home-delivered food).

Figure 1.
The Questionnaire's 10 Food Categories.*

Questionaire's 10 food calories.

* The foods were from traditional cookbooks used in the southwestern region of the United States.


Participants (n=115) in the study were females enrolled in freshmen and sophomore Food Science and Nutrition courses. FCS majors were selected because of their interest in food and the strong link between food and their career choice.

The JMP program SAS, Inc. (2002) was used for data analysis. Percentages were calculated to determine the percent of students who knew how to prepare particular foods and the percent of students who actually prepared the food, if they had the knowledge. Frequency statistics were used to illustrate the main reasons why students were unable to prepare some foods.


The food preparation abilities for baking and beverage production are presented in Table 1. A large percent (>70%) of the students knew how to make pancakes, muffins, cookies, and cakes. In contrast, a relatively small percent (<50%) of the students knew how to make tortillas, pizza dough, angel food cake, or applesauce.

Table 1.
High, Medium, and Low Food Preparation Ability for Baking and Beverage Production













Banana Bread








Sliced Bread




Dinner Rolls


Pizza Dough






Cinnamon Rolls






Pie Crust


Fruit Crisp


Roll Cookies




Angel Food Cake


Choc. Cake


Graham cr. Crust


Cream Pie Filling


Bar Cookies




Fruit Pie Filling




Pound Cake


Coffee Cake


White Cake


Lemon Mer. Pie


Sponge Cake



Fruit Cobbler


Upside-down Cake






Carrot Cake




Dairy Foods




Hot Chocolate






Ice Cream




HFP - High Food Preparation
MFP - Medium Food Preparation
LFP - Low Food Preparation
% - Percent of students who prepared the certain foods


A general observation (from Table 1) is that, if the students had the food preparation ability, they were very likely to prepare the food. A specific observation is that even if the food was classified as low food preparation ability, it was prepared with high frequency by the students who had the knowledge. For example, very few of the women knew how to prepare tortillas, but if they had the food preparation knowledge, then 94% of the students actually prepared the tortillas.

The various reasons why students were unable to prepare certain foods are illustrated in Figure 2. It is clear that the two major reasons cited were 1) never been taught and 2) no interest in learning. The students also cited "lack of time" and "inadequate kitchen resources" as contributing reasons for their inability to prepare certain foods.

Figure 2.
Reasons College Women Cannot Prepare Bakery Items and Beverages

Graph of reasons college women can't prepare bakery items.

The data were also analyzed for equality of proportions based on the weekly frequency of eating outside the home. Most of the subjects in this study (59%) ate out one to three days/week; the remainder (41%) ate out four or more days per week.

When the data were analyzed for eating out frequency and food preparation knowledge, four foods were significant at the α = 0.05 level. They were banana bread, lemon meringue pie, upside down cake, and sponge cake. In all of these examples, the students who ate out frequently were the least likely to know how to prepare these particular foods.

Based on eating out frequency and actual food preparation practices, five foods were significant at the α =0.05 level. Those foods were pizza dough, banana bread, upside down cake, applesauce, and pound cake. The students who ate out frequently were the least likely to prepare these foods.


The study approached food preparation from a skill level, rather than the typical food intake approach. The reasons why college women were unable to prepare certain foods were also reported. The sophomores in this study generally had their own apartments. The freshmen lived in dormitories, but often cooked their own meals because residential dining plans were frequently limited to 5-15 meals per week. Nevertheless, the focus on this research was food preparation ability, not recent food production.

Most of the college women in this study knew how to prepare pancakes, muffins, cookies, brownies, and cake. One explanation for this ability is that these foods are sweet. Another explanation is that women had been taught how to prepare these foods in their youth.

Only 44% of the college women in this study knew how to prepare coffee cake, and only 57% knew how to prepare gelatin. When the ability to prepare simple foods is lost, future generations might become dependent on bakeries, delis, or restaurants. In addition to the practical reasons for maintaining food preparation skills, there are three other reasons to be concerned about maintaining food production ability. They are health benefits, improved family connections, and preservation of family food heritage.

Franciscy, McArthur, and Holbert (2004) studied college men and food preparation interest. The majority of the college men in their study wanted to learn more about food preparation. Perhaps college women have the same favorable attitudes? Extension professionals should not assume food preparation is a subject matter from a "former era."

College women in this study ate out frequently. This is a noteworthy finding because health status could be compromised by the multiple food temptations of restaurant dining.

Many professionals believe that restaurant dining and obesity are linked. Post and Gerald (2004) studied the relationship between restaurant eating and recognizing "normal" food portions. Their results indicated that as the frequency of restaurant dining increased, portion sizes also increased. They concluded that serving sizes have become distorted as a result of increased eating outside the home (portion distortion).

Implications for Extension

College women may be losing their motivation to prepare food. They indicated the major reasons for not preparing food were "never been taught" and "no interest in learning." We often assume that "insufficient time" is the main reason, but it was only a minor reason.

Future research needs to be conducted to determine the interests and attitudes of young people as they transition from college to career and then to family living. Many important factors will simultaneously compete for their time and energy. It would be regrettable to observe the decline of health and family well-being because of a busy, time-pressured life. It would also be regrettable to observe a continued trend toward increased weight problems because of decreased food preparation ability.


Robin Scott, Lynn Southard, Stephanie Moore, and Lauren Crawford are acknowledged for their research assistance. The Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and the Department of Statistics are thanked for their research support.


Bowers, D. E. (2000). Cooking trends echo changing roles of women. Food Review, 23(1), 23-29.

Franciscy, D. M., McArthur, L. H., & Holbert, D. (2004). College men and their interest in food purchasing and preparation. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 96(2), 28-33.

Gillman, M. W. (2000). Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. JAMA, 22: 2911.

Harnack, L., Story, M., Martinson, B., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & Stang, J. (1998). Guess who's cooking? The role of men in meal planning, shopping, and preparation in US families. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 98(9), 995-996.

JMP Program, SAS, Inc. (2002).

Post, L., & Gerald, B. L. (2004). The relationship of body mass index to ability to estimate restaurant portion sizes. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 104(8), A-55.

Sloan, A. E. (1998). Food industry forecast: Consumer trends to 2020 and beyond. Food Technology, 52(1), 37-44.

Soliah, L., Walter, J., & Antosh, D. (2006). College Student Journal, In press.

United States Department of Labor, 1997. Consumer expenditure survey; Quarterly data from the interview survey, Report 912. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics, Washington, DC.

Wardlaw, G. M. (2003). Energy balance and weight control. In Contemporary nutrition: Issues and insights, pp343. Boston, MA; McGraw-Hill.