New York Times Op-Ed on Bringing Back “Home Ec” to Fight Obesity

by Bettina Elias Siegel on September 6, 2011

I’ve often discussed here on TLT the critical need to teach home cooking skills to American children, most recently in my post “My Son Learns to Cook But Who Is Teaching the Rest of Our Kids?”  There I argued that merely lowering the price of whole foods (as recently proposed by Mark Bittman, among others) won’t get us anywhere in solving the obesity crisis unless we also teach Americans – accustomed to processed, convenience foods, and spending less time in the kitchen than any other nation surveyed – how to cook those staple items.

That’s why I was interested to read in this morning’s New York Times an editorial by Helen Zoe Veit, an assistant professor of history at Michigan State, advocating for the return of old-fashioned “home ec” classes in American schools.  Doing so, she writes, would “put the tools of obesity prevention in the hands of children themselves, by teaching them how to cook.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Veit’s premise, and even made the same proposal in the essay I wrote for the Slate magazine anti-childhood-obesity Hive.  But since writing that Slate piece, I’ve become less optimistic that we can put the responsibility for teaching home cooking at the doorstep of the public school — at least not now, when districts are so preoccupied with shrinking budgets and standardized test results.   (Veit notes these problems, too, in the concluding paragraph of her piece, but doesn’t offer any solutions.)  And bringing back home ec also means bringing back in-class kitchens, a significant financial investment at a time when many schools don’t even have cooking facilities to prepare their own school meals, let alone to teach cooking to children.

I fervently hope that school districts eventually do acknowledge the importance of teaching this critical life skill to kids and that someday all schools will have working instructional kitchens and dedicated teaching staff.   But in the meantime, I’m holding out more hope for other ways of providing this education.  Last week, for example, I shared with you my happy discovery of Jamie Oliver’s UK site, “Jamie’s Home Cooking Skills,” replete with videos, still photos and text to teach a wide range of basic cooking techniques to the novice cook.   Private groups like Purple Asparagus and Recipe for Success (with which I regularly volunteer here in Houston) are also reaching as many children as they can with cooking classes.  And, as many TLT readers pointed out in their comments to “My Son Learns to Cook But Who Is Teaching the Rest of Our Kids?,” schools could at least provide much needed nutrition ed classes right now — which incorporate math, science, biology and other academic subjects — without the need to invest in equipment for hands-on cooking.

But my own quibbles aside, I’m still glad the Times published Veit’s piece this morning and brought national attention to the issue.  We desperately need to get this country cooking again — not rarefied-“Top Chef”-spectator-sport cooking, but the ability to put wholesome food on our tables with minimal fuss on a regular basis.

Until then, for many stressed, overworked Americans, the siren call of cheap, pre-prepared fat-salt-and-sugar-laden processed foods will almost always win out.

 

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan N. September 6, 2011 at 8:32 am

I would be all for this at some point if the cooking classes were taught by nutritionists, perhaps on a volunteer basis to go easy on the overall budget. Short of that, it may be another excuse for our schools to inadvertently teach poor eating habits. If they were teaching how to cook spaghetti and meatballs, for instance, would they use whole grain pasta? What sort of bread in the bread crumbs for the meatballs? And what sort of meat? Or am I just being paranoid?

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 6, 2011 at 9:09 am

Susan: I totally take your point, but I’m less worried when I consider the alternative. In other words, if the choice is between a home cooked meal of white flour pasta spaghetti and meatballs and a fast food meal, I’d much rather folks were eating the former. Even if not nutritionally ideal, a home cooked meal allows for control over fat, salt and sugar, it reinforces cooking skills and hopefully also gets a family to sit down at a table to eat together. I also think eating well progresses with baby steps. A move from McDonald’s to convenience food served at home is one step, cooking from prepared foods is the next, and then, hopefully, comes cooking from scratch. What do you think?

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Dana Woldow September 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

I’m with you, Bettina. For me, it’s more about getting kids feeling comfortable with cooking; choosing the most healthful ingredients can come later.

For example, my son is currently living for the first time completely on his own. For three weeks between semesters, he is subletting a small apartment near his college campus and living there alone while working in a lab at school. There is no school meal plan operating during these three weeks, so he is cooking his own dinner every night. What this means is that I generally get a phone call while I am cooking dinner, asking for guidance. Then he texts me a photo of the finished meal.

Last night he wanted some advice on how to make an Asian style fried noodle dish; he was attempting this without benefit of a recipe. I gave him some guidelines (cook the meat and veg separately from the noodles, then add them in after the noodles are done) and awaited the photo. Imagine my surprise when the “meat” he had said he would be using turned out to be cut up hot dogs – served on top of boiled-then-fried thin white pasta! EWWW! And yet he said it tasted fine, and he was proud of having done it.

Next time, he will likely buy a more appropriate cut of meat, but what he gained from making this nitrite-and-refined-carb extravaganza was the understanding of how stir fry works, that it is not very hard, that it is quick and can be a good cheap way of cooking for numerous servings at once, and most of all, that he is capable of doing it.

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Kate September 6, 2011 at 9:50 am

All children in our school district take an introductory home ec that is one trimester in length. This is at the junior high level. I’m not sure how much cooking they actually learn…we’re going to find out.

Students can take additional cooking classes if they have room in their schedule. If they are taking other electives like music and a foreign language…chances are there is no room for a cooking class.

Getting kids interested in cooking starts at an early age. I think you should let kids participate at an age appropriate level. Kids who are younger seem naturally curious. Kids can start out by making a pizza, or help put together a lasagna. Later they can help cut up veggies etc.

My junior high age daughter has picked out a few recipes to try. She bakes regularly.

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Karen September 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm

The things I learned in home ec, taken during middle school, were how to prepare Bisquick at home cheaper than what you could buy in the store, and how to then bake coffee cake. I hated every single minute of my home ec class, and, being a daughter of the 70s, was bitterly resentful that I was made to take that class while the boys were made to take shop.

Still, I think it is very valuable to get todays kids, both boys and girls, into a classroom setting where they can learn some basic cooking skills. My kids learn from me, when they have the time and patience to stay in the kitchen while I prepare dinner, but those times are few and far between these days. They are interested though, and I am confident that they will end up cooking their own meals when the time comes. They do that already, to some extent.

The bigger issue is for families who already have significant challenges in managing their home life – finding time for homework, for reading, for sitting down to eat together. Teaching children to cook, especially if the parent has little or no experience, has got to be waaaaay down at the bottom of the priority list.

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Susan N. September 6, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Bettina: Excellent points in response to my paranoid reply. :0) I guess it’s a selfish response on my end because we’re already avoiding white flours, high sugar content, high saturated fats, high sodium content… we eat together 7 nights a week, I pack lunches… I worry that the school will come along and undo some of the stuff I’ve worked so hard for. It’s always tough explaining why what they’re learning in school is wrong, kwim? But yes — many students would surely benefit. Typing on the fly, so excuse the lack of eloquent wording…

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Jamie (@va_grown) September 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm

I think there is so much more to what Home Ec should be than just cooking (although that’s vital too!). How about creating a meal plan and shopping list and budgeting, and couponing. How about strategies such as crock-pots, freezer meals, and the difference in cooking for one or two and cooking for a family of 4 or 6, or a party/picnic?

I think the difference between white flour pasta and whole wheat pasta–while valuable!– is minimal to the difference between homemade spagetti and a can of Spagetti Os. I would think we should teach them to cook balanced, reasonable, AFFORDABLE, and quick meals with as many whole foods as possible and THEN talk about even healthier substitutions. Especially from a cost perspective. Why teach them to cook stuff they think they’ll never be able to afford anyway (such as organics, low sodium, etc.).

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Maggie September 6, 2011 at 2:40 pm

It sounds like a positive step to me. I think in most discussions about the nation’s nutrition challenges we do realize that there need to be changes on many levels – school meals, returning to home prepared/grown meals and food, learning the skills to do those things…and so on. This sounds like a step in the right direction.

Personal comment – Like Karen, I was in high school in the 70s. I can’t recall really learning a whole lot in HomeEc. I’m not trying to sound bold, but, we knew how to cook and sew by the time we were in high school – we knew those skills from home. Oh, and girls got to take shop when we were seniors – the HomeEc teacher probably just wanted us out of there.

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Libby Clephane September 6, 2011 at 3:57 pm

I SO agree with Jamie! I think that HomeEc classes can be made or broken by how seriously a school corporation/teacher takes them. While I understand that any homemade meal is a step in the right direction from convenience food, I would like to believe that such a class would really work to broaden my child’s horizons by teaching the value of all steps of real nutrition – budgeting, shopping, label-reading, etc. Cooking, while important, is actually only a small part of the entire equation… all of which desperately needs addressed.

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Jinni September 6, 2011 at 5:58 pm

I’m older than the asst. prof./author of the NYT piece. I took home ec in 1983 or 4. In addition to doing quick meals in the classroom – I only remember cookies because they fit within the time (there were full kitchenettes – about 6, I think) – we did have meal planning, shopping, etc., and as homework had to prepare meals at home where our parents rated the food and we were graded on that. My mother cooked a lot and I already had a broad base in cooking at home, so I’m not sure whether it broadened my understanding any – but by no means did I think it a waste of time. At our school it was a quarter (10 weeks) and shared that space with sewing, shop, and something else I can’t remember.

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm

FYI to everyone who’s commented here — I just asked fans of The Lunch Tray Facebook page to share their Home Ec memories as well, and I think I might do a follow-up post sharing some of these stories and recollections.

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Melissa House September 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm

I am a (once called home ec) teacher, now called family consumer sciences, FCS. Not employed now, 2nd year, due to budget cuts. The FCS cluster falls under the career and technology education CTE, in high schools now. FCS has many parts from food, children, interior design, and such. Almost every school has a kitchen with 6 units. There are many schools now building commercial kitchens. What I found disturbing during interviews, is they want a teacher to teach the kids to cater for the school. The school uses the catering business to the child labor standards I don’t agree with.

Since starting back to school as a sub once again in Texas, (Texas so called create job stance has eliminated thousands of teacher jobs) the HS I have visited have discontinued half of their CTE programs.

All I can say about the entire situation is, until me make nutrition as a core subject, things will never change. Maybe this obesity problem will get the attention us food nutrition and culinary teachers want to teach, and I will one day be employable.

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Beth September 7, 2011 at 9:02 pm

The direct heir to the Home Economics classes of olden days is Family and Consumer Sciences. Required by the New York State Department of Education, many districts choose to disregard the mandates and have eliminated this life skills curriculum. FACS class includes instruction in conflict resolution, money management, career skills, nutrition and yes, cooking. All the boys and girls in my suburban middle school learn how to cook chicken veggie stir fry and make whole wheat pizza from scratch, among other healthy foods. The students debate controversial nutritional issues like irradiated and genetically modified foods. FACS class continues the tradition of teaching cooking, while updating the curriculum to include crucial current information on nutrition.

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