Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Food Systems

First Advisor

Amy B. Trubek


According to popular and academic sources, home cooking is in decline. Nutrition and public health scholars concern that a loss of cooking abilities may diminish individuals' control over their food choices, thus contributing to poor health outcomes. Yet, there are still many unanswered questions. What skills, strategies, and knowledge sets are required to cook a meal on any given occasion? What capacity separates those who cook with ease from those who struggle to incorporate cooking into their daily routines? I propose that this difference is determined by an individual's capacity to employ a range of cognitive and technical skills related to meal preparation. I call this capacity 'food agency'. Drawing upon discourses of human agency developed in the social sciences, this food-specific theory considers how a home cook employs cognitive skills and sensory perceptions, while navigating'and shaping'various societal structures (e.g., schedule, budget, transportation, etc.) in the course of preparing a meal. Thus, to have food agency is to be empowered to act throughout the course of planning and preparing meals. To better understand the form and function of food agency in everyday contexts, this thesis has pursued two ethnographic explorations.

The first study explored food agency from the vantage of routine performance by looking at the everyday practices of twenty-seven home cooks in the Northeastern United States. Data was collected through videotaping and observing the home cooks as they prepared typical dinnertime meals, followed-up with semi-structured interviews. The data has revealed a working model of the interrelated components seen as essential to consistent cooking practice, and thus to food agency'a conglomeration of skills, techniques, and strategies; structural and sensory guidelines; confidence and self-efficacy. All the home cooks were found to possess a basic scaffolding for food agency, yet the degree to which each had developed fluency in any given area was contingent upon personal experience. This supports the view that food agency is an actively acquired and dynamic capacity best understood as fluid rather than dichotomous.

The second study explored food agency through guided progression, by following a cohort of eight college students at the University of Vermont as they learned how to cook during a semester-long food and culture course. Data was collected through videotaping the students as they cooked, and by interviewing them about their food behaviors and experiences at the beginning and end of the semester. The findings outlined the students' various trajectories as they progressed in many of the component areas involved in food agency'for example, skills, techniques, organizational strategies, sensory engagement, and a sense of individual and collective efficacy around meal preparation. While the longitudinal scope of this study was limited, these results suggest a need to develop similar curricula for hands-on cooking interventions that can be offered in a more diverse range of settings and contexts.



Number of Pages

195 p.