The Influence of TV Cooking Shows on Our Food Choices

by Ella

With the 14th season of the Great British Bake Off captivating four million viewers each week, it’s not just about entertainment anymore. Television cooking shows have a remarkable influence on our culinary preferences and eating habits, reinforcing the age-old adage that we are what we eat. These shows play a dual role, reflecting and shaping our food culture. They impact our diets, spark new cravings, and even inspire us to try our hand at the stove.

Frans Folkvord, a professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, has delved into the power of TV in shaping what we eat. His research suggests that cooking shows act as catalysts, priming our taste buds for specific foods and modeling cooking behaviors. The impact is profound and undeniable.


However, when we look at popular cooking competition shows, a disconcerting trend becomes apparent. Many of these shows revolve around preparing copious amounts of meat and sugary confections. For instance, consider the recent season of Top Chef: Houston, where meat-laden dishes dominated the winners’ podium. Braised pot roast, pork tenderloin, brisket curry, and Mongolian lamb became the stars of the show. The same trend continued on Chopped, where contestants had to turn bizarre combinations of ingredients into dishes, often featuring red meats like bison, elk, lamb, boar, and pork, even in dessert rounds.


Alicia Kennedy, author of “No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating,” raises a pertinent question. She notes that it’s unusual for a cooking competition show not to revolve around meat challenges. The perpetuation of meat as an essential part of a good meal often goes unquestioned, despite growing concerns about the environmental and health impacts of meat consumption, particularly beef.


The United States holds the title for the highest beef consumption globally, with each person consuming around 274 pounds of meat annually. Such dietary habits have far-reaching consequences, contributing to the climate crisis.


Experts contend that television plays a dual role. It both creates and reflects our food culture. It raises our culinary expectations by bringing restaurant-quality food into our homes while celebrating the dishes we already love. As Fabio Parasecoli, a professor of food studies at New York University, puts it, “You eat what you aspire to be.” In other words, the food choices we make are influenced by the lifestyles we envision for ourselves.

Cooking competition shows entered the US television scene with the advent of the Japanese program “Iron Chef” in 1999. Within a year, it became the most-watched show on the Food Network. Before that, the network primarily aired daytime cooking shows catering to women, focusing on teaching family recipes. The addition of competition shows that emphasized battling it out in the kitchen drew in a more gender-balanced audience overnight.

By 2006, Bravo introduced “Top Chef,” followed by the Food Network airing shows like “Chopped” and “Cupcake Wars” in 2009. These shows experienced success, partly due to the 2008 recession, which led to more men embracing domestic responsibilities and a shift towards reality television during the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike.

While cooking competition shows may perpetuate some unhealthy eating habits, they also serve to expand viewers’ culinary horizons. Vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli’s appearance on “Cupcake Wars” marked a turning point, as she became the first vegan chef to win a cooking competition show. Since then, competitions exclusively focused on vegan cuisine have emerged, and even unlikely hosts like Guy Fieri praise vegan food. Representation in cooking shows can significantly influence what viewers choose to purchase at the grocery store, challenging the notion of meat as a requirement for a satisfying meal.

Furthermore, these shows broaden our palates by introducing us to global flavors. Last season’s Bake Off winner, Syabira Yusoff, impressed judges with south-east Asian flavors, showcasing dishes like coconut, pandan, and caramel mousse cake, satay macarons, and Malaysian prawn sambal pizza. Cooking shows often create connections and foster an appreciation for diverse foodways, paving the way for viewers to aspire to replicate these experiences.

Interestingly, as cooking competition show viewership has risen over the past two decades, the rate of people regularly cooking at home has declined. Research suggests that watching others cook on TV doesn’t necessarily translate into increased cooking at home. This paradox raises questions about the emotional connection between what we watch and what we actually do in the kitchen.

So, while the latest season of Bake Off may not send you rushing to your oven, it does provide an opportunity for introspection about thecravings it leaves behind. The influence of cooking shows on our diets, culinary choices, and eating habits is undeniable, and understanding this dynamic can help us make more informed decisions about what we consume.



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