A new report released today examines whether Canadians are more food literate now than before the pandemic. Survey says? Slightly. Photo: Max DelsidThe Halifax Examiner is providing all COVID-19 coverage for free. Please help us continue this coverage by subscribing.

Since the pandemic began 10 months ago, Jackie Atwood finds herself spending far more time in her kitchen.

“I chose things to make that would take a long time whereas before the pandemic, everything I cooked was whatever I could cook the quickest,” the Barrington, N.S. resident said in an interview.

Atwood’s particularly proud of creating her first ever quiche, a “really, really good” lobster version made during lockdown. She baked biscuits at least twice a week, whipped up lobster mac and cheese, and added at least 10 new recipes to her repertoire. She also dug out old cookbooks and rediscovered a few long forgotten favourites.

It turns out Atwood was in the minority.

A new report released today suggests that only 35.5% of Canadians have learned at least one new recipe (defined as at least three steps and three ingredients) since the pandemic began.

Only 37.5% believe their ability to manage meals throughout the day has improved during the pandemic, while 31.5% say their ability to manage snacks throughout the day has improved during these COVID times.

The report — a collaboration between Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab and Ontario-based research firm Caddle — examined whether Canadians are more food literate now than they were before the pandemic.

It involved a nationwide survey last month of 10,004 Canadians to examine how our food-related habits have changed.

“We actually went into this project thinking that probably people know more about food than ever before. We’re way more domesticated, we have spent more time at home collectively,” Dalhousie University researcher and report co-author Sylvain Charlebois said in an interview.

“But I’ll be honest with you, I was a little bit disappointed…There’s clearly an interest there, but I’m not entirely convinced that Canadians have actually taken or considered COVID as an opportunity to learn more about food because really, changes were not as significant as we were expecting.”

Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois. Photo: Dalhousie University

Food literacy is described by the report’s authors as “understanding the impact of one’s food choices on one’s health, the environment, and our economy.” It’s also about our trust in food systems and how much knowledge we have about food overall.

The report found 86.7% of us have heard the term food literacy, but only 39.5% of those surveyed knew it well enough to explain it. However, 91% said they supported teaching food literacy in schools.

“Food literacy is an important issue. I can’t recall the last time I saw a report on food literacy in Canada. This is likely the first one since COVID started,” Charlebois said.

“I think it’s important to continue our conversation on food literacy and how you empower younger generations to really get to know more about food, how it’s grown and where it comes from and so on.”

Asked about awareness of how food choices can impact aspects of our lives, 70.5% of Canadians believe health is most important, followed by the economy at 52.7%. The environment took third place at 28.3%, while community came in last at 23%.

Are Canadians more food literate as a result of COVID-19?

Only 24.3% of respondents said they’d prepared all the meals they consumed since the beginning of the pandemic, while 55.9% believed they’d prepared “most” meals themselves.

“I was expecting at least 50% had prepared all meals, if not more. I actually am a little bit disappointed,” Charlebois said.

“The key question here is, are Canadians more food literate as a result of COVID, or not? The answer in my mind is slightly. Slightly. At best.”

A total of 48% of survey respondents said they’ve used a new ingredient for the first time during the pandemic. Of those, 67.5% had tried new spices, followed by 36.9% who’d tried a new vegetable and 27.9% who tried different oils.

“The oils or the spices were number one, which points to how unsophisticated the learning process has been. You got to add thyme, and that makes you an innovator in the kitchen? Well, try rabbit or duck or a vegetable you’ve never seen or used before,” Charlebois said.

“Those are substantial changes. But when you use oils or spices, those are really minor changes when it comes to cooking…It changes the flavour, but it doesn’t really get you to learn a new product, something that can actually fundamentally change the diet of your family. It’s not a staple.”

The survey suggests Nova Scotia has lost its crown as the cooking capital of Canada. The average resident knew 7.7 recipes pre-pandemic. Over the last 10 months, that dropped to 7.5 recipes. In Manitoba, the pre-COVID-19 figure was 7.4. It now stands at 7.7.

“I think Nova Scotians are busy in the kitchen and we were busy before COVID and we remain busy,” he said. “It’s just that in other provinces we’ve seen a greater shift.”

The Boomer generation knows the most recipes on average, 7.6 recipes now compared to 7.4 before the pandemic.

Generation Z was identified as knowing the least number of recipes. Before the pandemic, a member of that group knew on average 4.7 recipes compared to 5.6 now.

Generation X followed the Canadian average in terms of the number of known recipes, before the pandemic (6.2) and now (6.7).

Millennials learned to cook the most. Before the pandemic, the average Millennial knew 4.9 recipes. That number has jumped to 6, the highest increase of all generations.

Canadians have also embraced home gardening during this time, with 51% stating they grew fruits or vegetables at home in 2020. In 2021, 58% said they intend to do so.

“A lot of people are getting into gardening, which is great,” Charlebois said.

“But on the cooking side, I think even though we’re selling a lot of cookbooks, I’m not sure (if) people are actually reading them or just looking at the pictures.”

For this report, a total of 10,004 Canadians were surveyed in January, 2021. The sample carries a margin of error of +/- 1.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.


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Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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6 Comments

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  1. Although Im usually not a fan of quiche, Id love to try Jackie Atwood’s version of lobster quiche…Living in that area,she likely has a better supply of good lobster..Wondering what else she does with lobster

    1. The article mentions lobster mac and cheese as well. I love a good homemade mac and cheese! I’m not the biggest fan of lobster; but if there’s lots of cheese I might not even notice it. I wonder if Ms Atwood would deliver? 🙂

  2. Knowledge of recipes seems like a very strange thing to measure. Why would I learn a recipe when it is in a book. What does it mean to learn a recipe. Who knows a recipe for cookies? I know if it has flour, sugar, eggs, and chocolate chips; but I don’t know the exact proportions… do I KNOW this recipe? Diversity of dishes cooked in a given month or week would be a much better measure of food literacy.
    How about the rate of adoption of new ingredients before the pandemic. We are a year into this mess. I’ve used lots of new ingredients since its start and I’m not sure which are related to the pandemic and which are not.
    These sorts of issues are common in Dr. Charlebois’ work in my opinion. The formula seems to be, launch a widespread survey on a topic related to food that no one gives much thought to > extract the most surprising/pleasing/relevant to pop culture/disappointing results > write a press release about it. It doesn’t seem to add much value to the discourse in my opinion.
    With all due respect to Yvette, this article above is mostly a rewritten release directly from the Lab and professor mentioned in the article. Claims within it go uncontested and uncontrasted, bringing little value beyond the press release from the lab.

    1. I looked up the actual report because I agree it with many of your comments and I wanted to see if it made more sense once you looked at the original material – nope.

      Does anyone really prepare 100% of their meals? What does that even mean – no take out ever? no shortcuts with prepared food? does only the main household cook get to answer yes?

      I don’t know how they calculated the average number of known recipes when half their respondents answered that they knew more “more than 10 recipes”. I’m the primary cook for my family. If I were to estimate the number of 3+ ingredient recipes I “know” – even using the most stringent definition of know that I can think of: memorized and with no shortcuts – my number would be quite a bit higher than 10. If I count the recipes I frequently use but refer to a recipe for proportions or steps it would be in the hundreds. I don’t think that makes me all that unique, but I also don’t think they considered that there is a big difference in how a casual cook versus an experienced cook would answer those questions.

      I also found the focus on using new ingredients in a time when there were hitches in the food supply chain was odd. I wasn’t going to order exotic meats when I was trying to order groceries a week in advance online, but I did do a fair amount of using ingredients in different ways. For example made ice cream with evaporated milk when someone had a craving and we didn’t have any in the house and didn’t have fresh ingredients. One week we didn’t get any eggs so we baked cookies using applesauce and oil instead. IMO being able to adapt to shortages shows a lot more understanding of food science than knowing a fixed number of recipes and was a topic that they could have studied.