The programme in Glasgow gave parents one cookery class per week and practical guidance on how to choose healthier foods while shopping for their families.
Nutritional experts who studied its impact found the scheme resulted in participants significantly cutting back on sugary food and drinks and making more meals from scratch.
Around 23 per cent of parents reported eating takeaway foods less frequently, while 33 per cent bought fewer ready meals and 37 per cent bought more ingredients to make their own dishes.
The healthier habits also filtered down to their children, who consumed fewer sugary soft drinks, crisps, biscuits, sweets and chocolates as well as fewer chips, pies and pastries.
The researchers at the University of Glasgow also found that participants ate more portions of fruit and vegetables after completing the course than before, and checked food labels more frequently.
The six-week programme – Eat Better Feel Better – was developed, organised and funded by the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board and involved more than 500 people.
It consisted of a weekly two-hour cookery class, including healthy eating and practical activities, and included extra information on food labelling and understanding the traffic light system.
Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the researchers said the programme had “an immediate positive impact” in reducing children’s consumption of unhealthy foods. Noting that healthier habits of eating more fruit and vegetables were maintained in most cases ten months after the course ended, it said the programme could be rolled out more widely.
“Cooking programmes have been extensively used as a vehicle for provision of practical cookery skills and for the delivery of healthy eating advice,” said lead researcher Dr Ada Garcia. “There has been critique of their value because they suffer from limited evaluations, with small sample size and a lack of hard outcomes related to health.
“However, cooking programmes such as Eat Better Feel Better that have been planned from the start to include an evaluation component have shown improvements in participants’ eating behaviour and are therefore valid tools to promote dietary behaviour change.”