How Should Kids Learn To Cook?

In a lot of ways, home cooking has become a lost art. Is a return to home economics classes the solution? We talked to a few food writers about how they learned to cook, and how we could teach a generation of kids.

In the Times, Helen Zoe Veit writes of a home ec class in Wales where she learned to make vegetable soup and savory pies. She says, "it was the first time I had ever really cooked anything." Veit argues that a return to teaching home economics could improve health and reduce obesity: "teaching cooking — real cooking — in public schools could help address a host of problems facing Americans today." She's right that most Americans these days don't learn to cook in school, and that home ec has something of a bad name. The course was offered at my junior high in the nineties, but the room always smelled awful, and I didn't know anyone who took it. Aside from a few health class assignments (I remember a loaf of bread that came out looking like a pair of lungs), I didn't have any cooking lessons in school. Most of my skills came from living in a co-op in college, where I learned how to make a stirfry and what rotten beans smell like (very, very bad). The chefs and food writers I talked to had similarly extracurricular learning experiences. Says Kim Severson, author of Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life,

I learned to cook from my mom, with a little help from a Girl Scout cooking badge and these odd classes that the electric company in Houston offered. I learned kitchen safety and how to make these mini corn dogs. Why they had a bunch of elementary school kids thrusting little pieces of hot dog on toothpicks into hot oil is beyond me, but it was a kitchen experience.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz of Post Punk Kitchen told me she learned to cook as a teenager, with a group of friends who had all become vegetarians. Once they mastered a couple of basic techniques, like sauteing, they started making up their own recipes. Says Melanie Rehak, author of Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid, "I learned to cook first from my mother, especially at holiday time when there were a lot of traditional things she always made (by which I mean traditional not only for the holidays, but for our family in particular) and then later, during my college years and after, by a combination of experimentation and sheer force of will." And Grace Young, Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories, got an early start:

I learned to cook when I was about 10 years old. My favorite tv show was The French Chef with Julia Child. I had only grown up eating Chinese food and was mesmerized with all the "exotic" French dishes Julia cooked. I bought Julia's books and tried following the recipes. Eventually I asked my parents if I could take cooking lessons. Fortunately, not far from our home I was able to study with an extraordinary French cooking teacher, Josephine Araldo. I studied with Josephine all through my high school years and I was lucky to get an internship program working in the Test Kitchen of Dole Pineapple and also with a gifted recipe developer and food stylist Stevie Bass.

All these women were lucky enough to learn cooking skills without being offered classes in school, but not everyone is so fortunate. And while not everyone will grow up to cook as part of his or her livelihood, everybody deserves to learn some basic techniques. But as Veit points out, home ec has a bad name. Rehak notes that, in decades past, "usually girls took Home Ec and boys took shop." She adds that "part of the problem is also that so many men still think cooking is women's work. So if women are working more, it stands to reason" that nobody's cooking at home. So if schools do offer home economics, it can't be the old girls-learning-to-cook-for-their-future-husbands variety. Instead, Rehak recommends an age-appropriate approach:

I think cooking should be taught in schools in various ways to various age groups. For elementary school kids, I think it's great to have them learn simple recipes and see how ingredients are combined and turn into something else. [...] Middle school is kind of a wash, but I think it's later on, like in high school, where it can really come into play and I think a cooking class would be a great requirement for all teenagers. It needn't be gourmet, but imagine how different college and life after would be if everyone knew how to go shopping for and make the basics like eggs, pasta with a simple red sauce, a roast chicken, a piece of baked fish, a good salad, etc.

Young outlines some basics all kids should learn: "every student should know how to fry an egg; cook rice; roast a chicken; make a stock and then a soup; steam, stir-fry, and grill vegetables, prepare a simple pasta sauce; make a salad dressing and salad; bake a custard, bread and cookies." She also praises school vegetable garden programs as "a great first step in understanding how much work goes into growing our precious food and educating students to taste how superior vegetables are when they are just harvested." Severson, too, argues for farm-to-table education:

I think taking children to the market, to farms, to their own garden and then taking what they find into the kitchen is how we need to teach kids to cook. That garden can be in the school, certainly. And the kitchen can be in the schools, too.

Moskowitz agrees. She notes that everyone cooks in different ways, and that lots of different approaches could be helpful, from bringing professional chefs into the classroom to assigning kids to follow a favorite Food Network show. But, she says, "ideally I would like to see an entire course" devoted to cooking, and "I think it should start with gardening." She remembers pulling a beet out of the ground as part of a kindergarten project, and says, "the memory of that beet stayed with me for longer than years of math classes." However we go about it, this should be the goal: teaching kids simple skills that will stick with them til adulthood.

Time To Revive Home Ec [NYT]

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