My Son Learns to Cook, But Who Is Teaching the Rest of Our Kids?

Lately my nine-year-old son has shown some interest in helping me out in the kitchen, so I recently enrolled him in a five-day cooking class.  On the first day he was reluctant to go but when I picked him up a two hours later he was positively brimming with excitement, eager to tell me (and later my husband) every detail about what he’d cooked that morning.

I assumed his enthusiasm would wane when the class ended, but that hasn’t been the case at all.  Here are just a few of the dishes he’s prepared for us (mostly or entirely by himself) in recent days:

(L-R: brown rice sushi; scratch-cooked tomato soup with homemade croutons; stir-fried chicken with cashews; summer fruit ripple; orange-scented iced cookies)

Meanwhile, while my son has been busily cooking away, a lot has been going on in the blogosphere that has me thinking about the issue of cooking literacy and kids.

When I commented last week on Mark Bittman’s proposal to tax junk food and subsidize healthy foods, I noted that the presence of cheap rice and beans and vegetables in every local convenience store, while great in the abstract, is no guarantee that Americans — long accustomed to fast food and convenience food  — will have the knowledge or desire to prepare those foods. Then, coincidentally, the next day I reported on a new study indicating that kids are getting more of their calories than ever from food cooked outside the home.  I also shared the news that Americans rank dead last among twenty nations surveyed in terms of time spent cooking (a factoid that Mark Bittman retweeted and which got shared all over Twitter that day).  Meanwhile, inspired by my Bittman post, Bri of Red, Round or Green wrote a great post on the decline of home cooking, and then a few days later Andrew Wilder of Eating Rules (one of my new fave blogs) also wrote an excellent piece urging his readers to eat out less and cook more.

It’s not like I’m just waking the importance of home cooking, of course — that’s been a regular topic on The Lunch Tray since its inception.  But the question of cooking illiteracy among America’s kids is really troubling to me.  For those kids not lucky enough to learn cooking by osmosis at home (unlike the kids of most Lunch Tray readers, I’m guessing), who is going to teach them?

Home economics classes have generally gone by the wayside.  And while there are many wonderful organizations around the country giving kids hands-on cooking experience (Purple Asparagus, featured here last week, and Recipe for Success, with which I regularly volunteer here in Houston, are just two), I’m enough of a realist to acknowledge that even these laudable, private efforts can’t possibly reach every child in the country who needs them.

In the winning essay I wrote for Slate’s anti-childhood-obesity Hive, I laid the responsibility for basic cooking instruction at the doorstep of public schools.  I wrote:

. . .  while we’re working to restrain harmful messages from corporate America, we also need a complimentary, wholesale effort to provide every school child in America with a basic course in food literacy.  Just as schools have stepped in to teach hygiene, sex education and driving skills (all “extracurricular” topics once taught only by parents), they can also provide bare-bones information on nutrition and cooking, arming kids with critical information about the effects of their own food choices and how to eat healthfully for life.

But in another context (criticizing Jamie Oliver, not responding to my Slate essay), school food reformer Dana Woldow once left this comment on TLT:

. . . if the people of this country want nutrition education taught in schools, then it needs to be one of the tested subjects, because education in this country has devolved to the point where the ONLY material that gets covered is that which will be on the standardized tests. . . .

I am all for nutrition education; I truly believe we will get nowhere with getting kids to eat better in school just by changing the food – kids need to have some skin in the game, and the best way for them to get it (and JO does do this quite well) is through nutrition education. But seriously, pretending that it is the fault of the schools that the current teach-to-the-test mania doesn’t allow time for frills like nutrition ed, is beyond ridiculous.

As a public school parent of two, I can’t deny the truth of what Dana says here.  With drastic cuts to education budgets and with the current, relentless focus on test scores, asking for widespread cooking education in schools right now seems hopelessly naive.  And putting aside the question of limited time during the instructional day, many schools lack the facilities to even cook their own school meals, let alone teach cooking to students.

So what do you think about all this?  How do we teach kids from non-cooking homes to be able to cook for themselves as adults?  Is it fair to turn to the schools to meet this need?  Are private groups the answer?  Would a public health campaign make any difference?

Whatever your thoughts, it seems to me that the ability to cook our own food is critical to taking responsibility for our health.  When we completely cede the cooking to processed food manufacturers, restaurants and take-out shops, we may get convenience and delicious flavors (read: heavy on the salt, sugar and fat), but the price — as evidenced by our declining national health — is just too high.




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  1. says

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see more nutrition education in schools, but I don’t know if I think that always has to mean cooking classes. I DO, however, quite obviously want children to learn to cook before they reach adult independence.
    I don’t know the answers totally…but there’s something about the idea of reaching FAMILIES, not children, that needs to be explored. We may run the risk of thinking of the kids as the “target patients” and trying to teach them a bunch of skills that then will not necessarily be supported or followed up on in their homes. However, if you work with whole families and make sure the family unit is one in which there is at least a functional knowledge of food and cooking, you may have better success in growing a future generation of better eaters/home cooks.
    There’s also something in my brain about colleges. While most college students have their meals provided for them in dining halls, they are at the age where 1) their parents’ home environment and habits have a bit less sway over them; and 2) they are about to embark on independent living, whether they are prepared or not. Many colleges have freshman seminars, group learning experiences, and other mandatory “college acclimation” types of programs. Wouldn’t it be lovely if they also took advantage of their existing kitchen facilities and their captive audience to teach a few basic cooking and nutrition skills to those students? Something as simple as an Independent Living 101 mini-course at colleges across the country could lay a real foundation for future success.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Bri – that’s an excellent point. When I work with kids via Recipe for Success here in Houston, I do wonder how many of the cooking skills we teach get used by the kids if they’re in a home that doesn’t support it (lack of equipment, time, parental encouragement.) I guess the hope is that those kids take the memory of cooking with RFS with them and apply it when they can in later life. But reaching kids in college, as you suggest, or even high school, may be the better approach. And I like what you say about reaching families – but hard to figure out how.

  2. says

    While the cooking experience is wonderful for children and I am so happy that some children DO at least get that during the school day (and/or at home), I think it is idealistic to expect that there is going to be time for that in the school day. What do kids *need* to know? Why can’t basic nutrition info be integrated into the ‘Health’ curriculum or even science class? Of course I would LOVE to see more-OF COURSE. However, we aren’t expecting the kids to be dietitians or biochem majors-they just need basic nutrition knowledge to arm them as they go through their day to day life. That’s not something that needs to be a completely separate class. I’m trying to think of a realistic solution that won’t subtract a chunk of time from other ‘required’ lessons but will be valuable nonetheless. I think, at a minimum, it would be good if someone could teach them–even en masse by school or grade–2-4x/school year on major nutrition topics. It would be a start…

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Very good point, Louise. This year on the SHAC [Louise and I co-serve], I want to better understand what this CATCH curriculum is all about and where it’s being used. Right now I’m totally in the dark.

  3. Maggie says

    Probably not going to be able to come up with a solution until it’s known *why* people are not cooking. And there are probably so many different factors there…along with lack of grocery stores and homes with suitable kitchens in some places, I’m taking a guess that in other areas, it is because food prep is an easy and socially acceptable chore to pass of to someone else. And, as you say, then the next generation doesn’t learn.

    I love to cook, but I’ll say this… if there was a “clean my house” drive-thru, I’d be there in a second!

    So, how to change the mindset? I sometimes think the cooking shows are a negative influence. It doesn’t have to be a showpiece every day. Sure, fresh & local veggies are good, but rather than throw in the towel if you can’t get that, frozen is not a bad idea.

    No good answers I guess. The solutions are probably going to be different depending on the area and the “problem” that has lead to the lack of home cooking.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Maggie – I agree that the whole cooking-as-sport phenomenon has contributed to the death of home cooking — Michael Pollan had a great NYT magazine cover story on just that point a while back. But meanwhile, I’m just dreaming of a “clean my house” drive thru! :-)

  4. says

    First, bravo to you for enrolling your son in a cooking class. I took a similar course one summer while still in elementary school and not only did I absolutely love it, but still make some of those recipes today.

    As for the comment on nutrition being covered in standardized tests in order to be important…maybe that’s not the only way. Veggiecation provides awesome education while incorporating food and nutrition into the program. I’ve also always been one to think that nutrition/cooking should be a requirement in jr. high/high school and be combined into a class with things like balancing bank accounts, how loans work, applying for a job, etc. (i.e. things you need to know, but aren’t really taught). By that time a lot of the standardized testing (outside of SATs and ACTs) is mostly over in many areas and there’s a little more focus on preparing for college and/or the real world.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      CRP -Commenter Bri also suggests a “life readiness” type of class, although she would do it in college. I never had such a class in either grade level and I’m sure I would have benefitted from it a lot! :-)

      • says

        I had one that was very very very basic and not a requirement. I did carry a few things along with me, but I think with the right teacher, the right plan and some great speakers thrown in, it could be something that would not only teach young people to be able to take care of themselves, but could help prevent a lot of the issues that end up effecting others. Just think about if more people were educated on just a few things: cooking (more healthy eating, lower risk of health issues later in life, lower healthcare costs), finances (better budgeting/money management, fewer foreclosures and bankruptcy filings, stronger/smarter economic spending), how to job hunt (better qualified candidates and again a stronger economy).

        It’s amazing how just a few semesters (or even one) dedicated to teaching life skills could potentially put our country and it’s citizens back on track.

  5. says

    Cooking, at it’s basest essence, is about MATH, with a little bit of science added. As a food writer, I totally forgot this until I decided to teach my son to cook and found he was ahead of the game in many things at school. He knows how to scale a recipe, (algebra, fractions, ratios) he knows how acids and bases interact, he knows about density, but most of all…he knows about pi…and Pie…and how the two interact in our kitchen.

    So, yes, bring Home Ec classes back, and don’t separate them by gender…but USE them to illustrate the basic principles you’re teaching in other classes. Is your district concerned about test scores? Cooking is a way to really drive those lessons home.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      All true, Michele — I was just going over fractions with my son when the measuring spoon he wanted was in the sink and we had to figure out a substitute. But I guess the question of time, facilities and expertise remain. Can schools today realistically bring back home ec? I feel like I was among the last cohort to get those classes (in middle school.) I wonder how that classroom is now being used – I’d bet that all the kitchen appliances were stripped out decades ago.

    • says

      Good point Michele. I have to say, I was never very strong at math, but baking has definitely forced me to learn pieces of it that I would have otherwise probably never know. Another way to learn about math that is somewhat food related is teaching how to tip in precentages at a restaurant. It’s something most adults do on a fairly regular basis, yet when percentages are taught in school they can seem pretty useless to your future.

  6. says

    Lovely post and a valid question.

    I teach kids how to grow food and cook from scratch at a number of non-profit community spaces here in Vancouver, Canada.

    What we are seeing happen here in Vancouver is an emergence of non-profit organizations who are meeting the kids where they are – schools, neighbourhood houses, community centres. They are run by chefs, volunteers, parents, food security activists and agriculture professionals. The responsibility of food education is not falling strictly on the school per-se, rather the schools provide a support and framework.

    When these cooking programs are linked with school and community gardens, they provide an amazing hands-on experience that builds knowledge of ecology, argriculture, botany, chemistry, math, different cultures – you name it. Bringing the community into the classroom and the classroom into the community is, I believe, the only way to build a sustainable, meaningful food-education system. It acknowledges that schools are working with limited time and money and that food is inherently *about* community.

    And as Joel Salatin says – Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, first. It’s ok if it’s only happening in fits and starts. Just one workshop can be enough to plant a seed. More is better, but we can’t be afraid to do *something* just because we can’t do it all.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Stacey: I like that Joel Salatin quote! I tend to be an all/nothing sort of person — if it can’t be done across the board, I get discouraged. Important to remember that every small effort helps at least some people. Your program sounds amazing and I’m glad you stopped by TLT!

      • says

        @Bettina Joel rocks. Ever time I spend time with him I come away so reinvigorated. Don’t get discouraged! Look at what you’ve accomplished in this conversation alone.

        My entire business model is “slow food for a hurried life”. As people who care about the issues surrounding food we have to acknowledge that a lot of people have a LONG way to go. My goal with Tortoise & Hare is to empower people to take baby steps and have little victories along the way.

        I think the biggest problem with the food movement as it stands right now is that advocates are trying to convince people to take unrealistic leaps of change in their eating habits. Your other readers have made great points – lots of teachers don’t know how to cook, many people don’t even own pots to boil water, and those that do “cook” often consider boxed mac and cheese as home cooking.

        The lack of support at the family level is an important concern. @Elizabeth Do you have community kitchens where you are? They are a great way for people to get together to cook and eat and learn about food in a very joyful, democratic, un-intimidating way. The programs are free or very low cost. The kitchen space and supplies are provided and often mums will share childcare duties. Community kitchens exist here for every type of group imaginable – homeless men, single mums, mums who want to batch cook, gardener’s who want to preserve their harvest, seniors, diabetics you name it. Vancouver’s food bank has a great community kitchen resource:

        Also re: the nutrition education end of things, in my experience you don’t need to worry about it. Pitching classes as “health and wellness” doesn’t sound nearly as much fun as just come get your hands dirty and share a meal. The first trick is to get people to participate. The nutrition education happens naturally if you are teaching people to cook using fresh, whole ingredients. Particularly with kids, having them grow the veggies themselves gives them a ton of pride and makes them a lot more eager to try them!

        Thanks again for the great post!

  7. Elizabeth says

    Some of you may know that I encouraged my fourth-grade class to explore what they were eating for lunch and from where it came last school year. Please take that as evidence that I care about nutrition education.
    First, you are assuming that teachers can cook. I do. Values system aside, I’m married to a diabetic and my 12-year old is one of those peanut/treenut/shellfish kids. Said 12-year old is my only kid, so the evening activities aren’t as insane as in some households. There are other teachers I know who don’t cook – either because two kids need to be at dance and one should be at football, or they’re backed up on grading, or they don’t have the know-how or interest. (The number who scratch-cook would be even smaller. For a lot, “cooking” means the box of Kraft Mac and Cheese and hot dogs.) You’d need to do some serious staff development, and there isn’t money for that right now.
    Facilities are another issue. I’ve offered two use some of the many, many sick days I’ve banked to teach a once-a-month cooking class, but our kitchen is miniscule. I couldn’t have more than a dozen kids at a time in there. The fire marshall doesn’t allow hot plates in classrooms. That’s not such an issue in the older, more centralized school districts up North. My school in Ohio was a single-township, K-12 building. We had access to the high school’s large Home Ec kitchen. However, in the South, a population influx brought about a slew of sensibly, quickly built buildings designed to hold very large populations with little waste space.
    As for testing, there is some truth to it. Just know that emphasis on testing varies widely. It’s not a huge deal in my building, but some teachers choose to make it so anyway. I have found (and I’m starting year #19 in a couple of weeks) that those that live and die by the tests just aren’t creative people. Some are just lazy. They want the textbook companies to hold their hands and tell them what/how to teach. They find moving away from testing content scary. (Seriously!) Again, the need for staff development.
    So without the know-how and facilities, and with many scared to stray from the script, how are we supposed to do this? Honestly, I think it’s something to be taught at home. If society wants teachers to raise their kids for them, it’s time to consider public boarding schools. (Some charters do exist.
    On the other hand, what are some things I might try? Well, maybe a local church would be willing to let us use their kitchen and I could teach on Saturdays. Of course, I wouldn’t get paid for it, but I also wouldn’t have to include anyone who wouldn’t be able to handle it.
    It might be fun to get a class’ parents together as a group and bring the kids to one of those storefront places where you can make and freeze meals for a month. I’ve been invited to one of those parties, but didn’t go because of my family’s dietary hoo-ha. Are they legit? Do they cook?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Elizabeth – these are all valid concerns — lack of expertise, time and facilities/resources. I fear my suggestion in Slate was naive and it may well be that we need volunteer efforts like the ones you suggest. But of course as Louise and other commenters here have noted, there’s a difference between hands on cooking and a nutrition ed curriculum, and even if the former is impractical, the latter ought to be able to be worked into existing material. Do you agree?

      • Elizabeth says

        Grumble… That’s actually a tough question. The obvious answer is yes, but the problem with this is in creating a curriculum. How many stinking pyramids/plates do we have to endure? The girl across the hall from me was frustrated last year because half her poster projects came in with the wrong pyramid on them.
        I really do think that, as with any well-taught unit in any subject, there has to be a hands-on component. Shopping lists for snack, a garden, cooking stuff up needs to be included. Even so, a lot of teachers will revert to government or textbook-company produced worksheets and poster projects. Look at Scholastic and how they push products. Do we want them writing the curriculum? Each bloody time the Guidelines are changed, does an expensive curriculum get changed with it? I can understand something beats nothing, but I’m not so sure here.

  8. Maggie says

    Elizabeth’s post reminded me that when the school district I work for was putting together the mandated wellness policy a few years ago, the dietitian who was working with us (she’s employed partly by the district, partly by the local medical clinic) offered a class, open to the community. The details are sketchy in my memory, but I think it was one evening a week for four weeks. I think it covered food (not sure about hands on cooking), activity/exercise and other wellness/healthful living topics. If there was a cost, it was nominal. I know child care was provided.

    Was it well attended? No. Who did come? People that pretty much knew what was being covered already.

    I know, not an answer, just an observation.

  9. Karen Frenchy says

    I would love to see public schools teaching some cooking skills to the children, starting elementary school.
    I wouldn’t want this subject to be graded : we’re not asking the kids to be nutritionists or chefs, but simply to learn and enjoy a homemade & simple meal.

    I would imagine a set of lessons taught by a cook throughout the school year, to the class and everyone could help preparing the lunch they’re about to share together… Coming home from school, the kids would want to do the same thing in their kitchen, with their parents

    Okay, I’m daydreaming…

    I didn’t learn in school how to cook, I learnt from watching & helping my mother (who worked full time) and grand-mothers… That’s how I d with my daughter. Yes, for now it’s fun to help me make crepes or cakes but she also helps with real meals… I take the time to teach her how & what to eat (okay, I neglect my housework sometimes) but I’m lucky to have an office job, with normal office hours.

    I want to believe that families who rely on take-out/prepared meals/junk food do it because they think they don’t have a choice = work, schedules, financial problems etc….

  10. Elizabeth Skylar says

    Last year I began teaching an after school cooking class at a middle
    school in Napa. It was a difficult “sell” at first, to the administration. Fortunately, I had an advocate in the after school program. As the semester went on, the teachers and administrators were able to see how much the kids were learning, and participating This year I have been heartily welcomed back! I just attended our 6th grade orientation and met several families who are excited about the classes
    I will also start another class this fall at an elementary school.
    The challenges are many: facilities, support from the administration, logistics, equipment.
    However, funding is always the biggest issue

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      What a great success story! You know, I cook almost every night and my son was already popping into the kitchen now and then to help out, but something about taking a formal cooking class really sparked his interest and gave him a feeling of mastery. So, in a nutshell, all hail cooking teachers! :-)

  11. stef says

    What about encouraging parents to pack lunches with their kids (for those of us who pack lunches)?

    What about encouraging healthy foods if food is used at class parties and involve the kids in preparing it in some way (with accomodations made for allergies)?

    What about adopting that all school functions that include food make sure it is healthy food. and encourage fruits and vegetables in them?

    What about having play dates with friends and involving the kids in preparing the meal…and make it more than just pizza? Friends can help prep the salad, a hot vegetable, prep the entree, etc. Not just to bake cookies or cupcakes. Many of your readers cook…we should all take our friends kids under our wings and share our cooking with them too…not just our own kids.

    It will be gift that keeps on giving to them. And maybe a happy memory later in life.


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