Home cooking + food agency

Photograph of cake frosting taken by Alexander Grey for Pexels
University of Vermont
Ethnographic observation, videotaping, interviewing, coding, and thematic analysis
project year



Lead researcher, collaborating with a small research team


Building on an existing ethnographic study of home cooking practices initiated by a small team of academic researchers, I designed and led further research activities to yield deeper insight into the full spectrum of actions, behaviors, and skills that are required to prepare a home-cooked meal in an everyday context. I followed a sequential exploratory mixed methods research design using ethnographic observation, videotaping, semi-structured interviews, and grounded theory thematic analysis of cooking practices to inform concept development and the creation of a quantitative survey instrument to measure an individual’s level of “food agency”.


Determine the skills, strategies, and types of knowledge that are required to cook a meal in an everyday context.

Assess if there is a capacity (or capacities) that separate those who cook with ease from those who struggle to incorporate cooking into their daily routines.

Compile findings and insights to inform the development of two deliverables: (1) a quantitative survey instrument that can be used to measure the food agency level of participants, and (2) a curriculum that will empower individuals to prepare meals even when faced with the challenges and constraints of daily life.


I recruited, scheduled, and conducted in-person videotaped ethnographic observations and semi-structured follow-up interviews of the routine everyday home cooking practices of three beginner and two advanced home cooks. These research activities were designed to supplement existing ethnographic video footage of the practices of twenty-seven intermediate home cooks, which I analyzed separately before identifying a gap in the cooking skillsets portrayed. Through grounded theory coding and thematic analysis, I 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 exhibited a basic scaffolding for food agency, yet the degree to which each had developed fluency in any given area was contingent upon personal experience. I discovered that food agency is an actively acquired and dynamic capacity best understood as fluid rather than dichotomous, and the thematic findings helped to inform the development and design of both a quantitative assessment instrument that can be used in survey-based research contexts as well as a curriculum to help empower individuals to prepare meals.

End Result

Distilled the complex and varied process of meal preparation by practitioners at different experience levels into a concise set of metrics that can be used to assess food agency capacity in a survey-based context.

Informed the development of a food agency-based culinary education curriculum that empowers individuals to prepare meals in diverse contexts.

Published and disseminated the results, reaching a wide network of scholars, practitioners, and educators—as evidenced by 80 citations in scholarly publications.


Find ways to immerse other team members and collaborators in the research experience.

Having been personally struck by the deep insights that can be drawn from an everyday activity like preparing a home-cooked meal when the research is approached with a genuine curiosity to learn about the person behind the task, I wanted to find ways to share moments from my research in more immersive ways. I selected and compiled illustrative video clips from the home cooking visits and used these to demystify my research and meaning-making processes for a variety of stakeholders—including other members of the research team, my thesis committee, students enrolled in research methods courses, and audiences at academic conferences. This allowed me to walk them through the stages of observation, discovery, sense-making, and storytelling from my vantage as the researcher.

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