By Michael Crupain, MD, MPH
Last week there was an interesting Op-Ed in the NY Times calling for the resurrection of Home Economics classes in schools. The article, by Professor Helen Zoe Veit, makes many good points about many Americans not knowing how to cook and therefore relying on processed and prepared foods for nourishment. She suggests that Home Ec is a great venue to teach America’s youth about healthy cooking and that by doing so we could combat the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease that we face.
I really enjoy cooking, but when I think back to my Home Ec cooking class, I do not have many pleasant memories nor do I remember doing any healthy cooking. I do remember making apple pie, coffee cake, cheese steaks. I also remember that if the person measuring out the ingredients for the day made any mistakes then our whole group failed for that day! This class clearly was focused on recipes, but it would have been better to focus on the techniques of cooking. While we learned the technique of measuring ingredients (to be fair, as a result of this strict measuring policy, I learned the difference between a wet and dry measuring cup), we did not learn many other cooking techniques that we could apply to multiple foods or throughout our lives. If we are going to combat obesity by bringing back Home Ec, there are going to have to be some major changes in the curriculum.
Nutrition education as you may know is focused on teaching nutrition science. Students are taught about fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, calories and the dietary guidelines, but do not learn anything about how to actually cook nutritious foods. Nutrition science is very important to understand, but just knowing what is best to eat, is probably not enough. It is more important to actually be able to eat healthy foods and the best way to do this is to be able to cook it your self.
So, I could not agree more with Professor Veit’s assertion that healthy cooking needs to be taught in school, but instead of reviving Home Economics, I believe that we need to rethink the way Health Education is done. Lets shift the focus of nutrition education in school in a more practical direction and put teaching student how to cook under the purview of health education. After all, we eat three meals a day and there is probably not a single more important health skill that a person can learn than how to cook (washing your hands is part of cooking!). These classes could integrate knowledge about nutrition and cooking techniques and thereby arm students with the both the knowledge and the ability to prepare meals that maintain a healthy weight and prevent chronic disease.