What do a food trend and instructional design have in common? Well, actually a lot—or at least more than you might think. If you’re curious to know more, in this article we will deep dive into the learning structure that makes dinner kits enjoyable and effective. But, guess what, It all starts with a cooking story.
Like many, journalist Bryan Walsh was a “noncooker” for a long time. And it wasn’t just due to his busy schedule as an editor and writer or the sweet temptation to just order food from the couch.
But, one day this all changed – with a dinner kit.
In How I Taught Myself to Cook – With a Kit, Walsh tells the story of how, through its hands-on, experience-first and step-by-step educational design, he, and anyone else, can learn to cook – or do just about anything, from scratch.
Starting from this story, we tried to uncover all the learning strategies dinner kits leverage to create meaningful – and fun – cooking (and learning) experiences.
As we consider how dinner kits work, we can see that there are several instructional design features: you are faced with a challenge, you’re guided through a structured learning path, and – eventually – you learn by doing. But, first things first: what are dinner kits?
Also called meal kits, dinner kits are services that, on a weekly basis, ship a box with measured out ingredients and instructions for recipes previously chosen by the user.
From Hello Fresh to Blue Apron, the offer is wide and varied. But be careful not to confuse them with your regular food delivery: these are not pre-cooked meals! Dinner kits are not comparable to online grocery shopping either, precisely for their educational format, designed to guide you towards cooking independence.
But, how come these kits work so well? Why do people gain cooking abilities almost out of nowhere? The answer might lie – guess what – in a secret ingredient: instructional design.
There’s a preliminary element of the dinner kit experience that’s worth mentioning: being challenged to expand your culinary horizons and step out of your comfort zone. Normally, it’s super easy to go back to the three-four meals you know how to cook. But with dinner kits, you actively choose to be “forced” to try new ingredients and new techniques… with the right amount of risk.
You enter what educator Tom Senninger calls the Learning Zone. Starting with Lev Vygotsky’s psychological theories, the idea is that we can learn effectively only when we are challenged just right: enough to step out of our “Comfort Zone”, without feeling overwhelmed.
Instructional design, the systematic art of crafting effective learning experiences, can help us shed light on this phenomenon. In instructional design, we speak of learning methodologies (aka learning practices and strategies), which are principles and procedures to put learners in the best position to develop skills and acquire knowledge. Dinner kits’ educational design integrates two of them: learning by doing and microlearning.
🧑🍳 LEARNING BY DOING
Dinner kits are pretty straightforward. No theory or teacher is needed: you learn to cook by cooking, whether it’s chopping vegetables, boiling water for the broth, kneading minced meat to make meatballs. That’s the fundamental insight: practice first. We also learn best through repeated experience, building habits and gaining confidence along the way. Or at least that’s what more than 95% of instructors think – according to a recent study.
This doesn’t mean that theory is completely useless: we’re talking practice first, not practice only. More formal study and reflection can help transform the almost unconscious how-to understanding into true mastery. And in fact, some services provide learning content on specific techniques or basic cooking concepts as an (optional) integration to their more empirical approach. Blue Apron’s How-To’s or Hello Fresh’s Kitchen Hacks are good examples.
Remember what Walsh said? In a way, dinner kits “dumb down” the cooking process – and that’s ok. However, this doesn’t mean that some steps are missing or that they propose only easy recipes (on the contrary, you’ll do much more complicated things than you used to!). In this context, “dumbing down” involves two handy instructional design elements:
- Bite-sized content format: the recipes are divided into steps, and each step is in turn divided into end-to-end actions.
- Easy-to-follow design: all the steps are written with beginners in mind, with pictures and tips to personalize your dish.
That’s microlearning at your service. It seems almost obvious and superficial, but this chunking and simplifying process is crucial to making cooking accessible to all (read: guided and with just the right amount of complexity). Short, easy-to-follow, well structured: that’s the spirit of microlearning.
Dinner kits can teach you how to cook, and not only. Dinner kit design shows how people learn best: through an accessible framework to guide us through repeated practical experiences with new challenges.