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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