Public supports bringing back home ec cooking lessons for the health of it

October 14, 2016
Written By:
Laurel Thomas

Kids cooking. (stockimage)ANN ARBOR—Gone are the days when most Americans learned how to cook from a parent or during a mandatory school home economics class.

But new University of Michigan research finds that the public is in favor of putting such lessons back into the schools, in order to promote healthier eating.

Lessons in food preparation are all around us today. We have an abundance of TV cooking programs, even a Food Network devoted to shows about cooking. Our Facebook feeds are filled with “Tasty” videos showing a pair of hands making a tantalizing treat or easy-peasy entrée, and the internet is an abundant source of recipes.

Yet, when asked where they learned to cook, few survey participants cited these resources, saying they see these more as entertainment.

“Only 15 percent of adults say they learned to cook in classes or in school,” said Julia Wolfson, first author of a School of Public Health study that finds even though two-thirds of adults surveyed learned some cooking skills from their parents, they aren’t always using those skills or recipes to cook meals on a day-to-day basis.

The way people cook has changed as Americans increasingly rely on fast and convenient food options. While most in the survey said they learned from their parents or by teaching themselves, they felt children today are not learning the skills, and may be missing out on important lessons about creating healthy food choices.

“Cooking one’s own meals can be a key strategy for avoiding obesity, because it gives people control over the ingredients in what they eat,” Wolfson said. “However, cooking frequently and healthfully can be difficult, and participants in the study recognized that more needs to be done to teach cooking skills and make it an everyday activity, not something reserved for special occasions.”

The research involved a survey of more than 1,100 adults across the U.S. and feedback gathered from 53 people who served on seven focus groups conducted in Baltimore.

While adults in the study overwhelmingly identified parents as primarily responsible for teaching cooking skills (90 percent), they also saw a role for government (15 percent), the food industry (24 percent) and schools (42 percent).

“In spite of most Americans saying they have learned to cook somewhere along the line, there is a need to invest in teaching the next generation these skills, and our research shows strong support for some form of modern home economics in schools,” said Wolfson, assistant professor of health management and policy.

Requiring schools to teach cooking as part of health education was supported by 64 percent of the public, and mandatory home economics courses focused on teaching how to cook and shop for health food were supported by 67 percent of respondents in the study.

Some schools have a form of nutrition education as part of a health class or through the regular curriculum, Wolfson said, but many abandoned home economics courses some time ago. Even when those courses were part of the curriculum, they were not aimed at healthy cooking, she added.

A number of experts have advocated greater involvement of schools in culinary education, Wolfson said, noting that the team’s research demonstrates broad bipartisan national support for that position.

“To me, there are still a lot of unanswered questions,” she said. “What are the skills that are needed and at what age and what grade level should they be incorporated? Does this get incorporated in science, math, literature, social studies or become a standalone area of the curriculum? How do we complement what’s already happening?”

Wolfson also noted that technology, particularly using social media, could allow for creativity in how cooking gets promoted in an economically feasible way.

Others authors were from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


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