New Recipe for Home Economics: Reintroduce Cooking, Nutrition in Schools

Leading researchers say lessons in food preparation necessary in age of childhood obesity

BOSTON -- At one time, teen-age girls could expect to leave school  with a strong command of the kitchen but, in recent years, home economics classes have all but disappeared from high school schedules. With childhood obesity posing a serious health threat to American school children, Tufts University Nutrition Scientist Alice H. Lichtensten, DSc, says it is time to reintroduce food preparation and nutrition in the classroom, and not just for girls but for all students.

In a commentary published in the May 12 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Lichtenstein and co-author, Children’s Hospital Boston Physician David Ludwig, MD, PhD, call for the development of a modernized home economics curriculum in U.S. schools to educate children about the basic principles of food preparation, menu planning and nutrition. With fewer adults in the kitchen to serve as role models and greater use of foods prepared outside the home, many of today’s school children are not exposed to basic food purchasing and preparation skills.

“We are in the throes of a pediatric obesity epidemic that is threatening public health due in part to our growing dependence on convenience foods with far more calories than nutrients. If we don’t teach children how to cook healthy meals, it will be difficult for them to take control of what they eat to reverse course,” says Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts. “It is unlikely they will learn these skills at home, as many parents have come to depend on take-out and convenience foods to feed their families.”

Because of the prevailing attitudes in popular culture, Lichtenstein and Ludwig believe children view cooking as labor intensive and complicated. They envision a program that is “a version of ‘hunting and gathering’ for the 21st century,” which would include hands-on food preparation classes, as well as field trips to grocery stores and farmers’ markets, food safety instruction, and information about nutrition. “The curriculum would familiarize them with healthy food choices readily available at their local supermarket that are affordable and easy to prepare such as bags of prewashed salad greens, prewashed bags of  vegetables, and whole grain pasta,” says Lichtenstein, who is also the Stanley N. Gershoff Professor at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.  

Although cooking instruction is a key component of their vision, the authors suggest a curriculum that goes beyond the traditional home economics model and most importantly includes both girls and boys. “Schools would have to carve out some extra time out for cooking classes, but nutritional themes can easily be incorporated into the existing curriculum,” Lichtenstein says. “Discussions about diet-related diseases and calorie requirements can be folded into a science lesson. Math class is an opportunity to discuss food budgeting and calorie counting with older children and, in the lower grades teachers, could use nuts to teach counting instead of candy.”

The authors believe the impact will transcend the school environment. “Ideally, the instruction would mark the beginning of a lifelong diet pattern that students would eventually share with their children. We hope the increased knowledge would create a demand that will put pressure on restaurants and supermarkets to offer more healthy choices as the default option rather than the exception.” Lichtenstein says. “If that happens, these efforts will have a direct impact on reversing the climbing rates of diet-related diseases that are severely impacting the quality of life in this country.”

Lictenstein, AH and Ludwig, DS. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 2010. (May 12); 303 (18): 1857-58 . “Bring Back Home Economics Education.”   

About Tufts University School of Nutrition

 The Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University is the only independent school of nutrition in the United States. The school's eight degree programs which focus on questions relating to famine, hunger, poverty, and communications, are renowned for the application of scientific research to national and international policy. For two decades, the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University has studied the relationship between good nutrition and good health in aging populations. Tufts research scientists work with federal agencies to establish the USDA Dietary Guidelines, the Dietary Reference Intakes, and other significant public policies.

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