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Time to Bring Back Home Economics?


One of the most frequent solutions offered for the obesity epidemic is to reintroduce or increase physical education classes in schools.

In a commentary, published in this week’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Alice Lichtenstein and David Ludwig suggest bringing back home economics education, which used to be a fixture in US secondary schools (at least for girls) in the 1960s.

At the time, the underlying concept was that future homemakers should be educated in the care and feeding of their families, but as the authors point out, in the light of the current obesity epidemic, instructing adolescents (both boys and girls) in the art of basic food preparation and meal planning may be a very real part of the obesity solution.

Although Lichtenstein and Ludwig applaud Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign—with its emphasis on improving the quality of food and beverage in the schools and the community— they fear that better choices in schools will have limited effects if children do not have the ability to make better choices in the real world.

As they rightly point out, not only do many today lack nutritious, affordable alternatives to fast food, but also lack the knowledge about how to prepare nutritious food at home with inexpensive basic ingredients.

While regular consumption of restaurant food, take-out food, and prepared snacks lowers dietary quality and promotes weight gain, there is a growing consensus that people who regularly eat home-prepared meals are far less likely to become obese.

Because many parent and caregivers today themselves lack basic cooking skills, they cannot be expected or relied on to teach children how to prepare healthy meals.

“Not only do many children seldom experience what a true home-cooked meal tastes like, much less see what goes into preparing it. Work schedules and child extracurricular programs frequently preclude involving children in food shopping and preparation. The family dinner has become the exception rather than the rule.”

Of course the authors do not suggest bringing back the old courses with with gender-specific stereotypes. Rather, girls and boys should be taught the basic principles they will need to feed themselves and their families within the current food environment: a version of hunting and gathering for the 21st century.

They suggest a combination of pragmatic instruction, field trips, and demonstrations aimed to transform meal preparation from an intimidating chore into a manageable and rewarding pursuit.

“A comprehensive curriculum to teach students about the scientific and practical aspects of food might include basic cooking techniques; caloric requirements; sources of food, from farm to table; budget principles; food safety; nutrient information, where to find it and how to use it; and effects of food on well-being and risk for chronic disease. This curriculum would provide adolescents, especially at the high school level, with the skills they need to become confident in selecting, handling, and preparing food. To minimize competition with other curricular activities, many of these topics could be integrated into existing science, math, economics, physical activity, and social studies coursework. Some additional time during the school day would be required for hands-on cooking classes and field trips.”

Will a similar proposal in Canada fly? Will governments, school boards and teachers welcome this or roll their eyes at these suggestions?

I wonder what my readers think.

AMS
Edmonton, Alberta

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Lichtenstein AH, & Ludwig DS (2010). Bring back home economics education. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 303 (18), 1857-8 PMID: 20460625

10 Comments

  1. Arya,
    Great article and what a great point! I’m a big advocate for our environments and the role they play in our behaviours, to this day I can still make the homemade pretzels I learned in home-ec in junior high. This lends itself nicely to the recent paper looking at risk profiles for obesity and how family’s the eat dinner at the table together are more likely to not be obese.

    Keep up the good work!
    Steph

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  2. Dr. Sharma,
    Albeit a simple concept, cooking and handling fresh food is crucial to weight management. The best place to start is in school when kids are learning to understand their environment. Cooking classes are offered at every private school here in SoCal!

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  3. I think this is a great idea and could be easily integrated into life skills classes. I took foods in jr. high where we learned how to cook and bake. Exposing kids to cooking and how to choose/use packaged foods to create nutritious meals would go a long way in countering the perception that home cooking takes longer than ordering out.

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  4. Home ec classes are great and actually are being taught in public high schools in parts of Canada. Here in northern BC it is one of the few electives that high school students can choose from. I think every student should learn the basics and be at least able to follow a recipe. I’m 27 and the oldest of 4 children and we can all cook, my mother thought it was a priority so she taught us from the time we were young and took us shopping with her. But I have a cousin who my aunt always said that she could learn to cook later, but the later never came. My cousin then moved away from home and had no idea how to cook for herself so of course relied on prepared choices. Making food and cooking needs to become a priority again and compete with other activities successfully for time in our days.

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  5. I don’t remember back to 1060, but in the 1960s they were starting to call it “bachelor survival.” And they even finally let the girls take Shop class in the 1970s!

    Seriously, I am appalled at how many young people can barely even open a can. They are missing out on a lot of fun as well.

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  6. I also think they’d benefit from starting something even before adolescence. It would be neat.

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  7. I agree that all highschoolers should be encouraged to learn to cook. I took home ec and foods classes in high school and that is actually how I became interested in Nutrition and eventually became a Registered Dietitian. I now counsel people trying to lose weight, many of whom consider convenience based frozen foods that come out of their own oven to be homemade food. We need to get back to the basics – cooking real food!

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  8. I’m not familiar with the infrastructure in Canada, but in the states, we do still have the home economics instruction in many public high schools; nationally and in most states we now call it Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS). These programs cost more to run than ‘academic’ core classes, so many administrations are choosing to omit the FACS teachers and their programs from their schools.
    We also have community education programs available that teach not only consumerism but also relationships and related fields of interest. It is going to be a combined effort to discuss and change our obesity and overweight issues.
    Thanks for this article!
    -A current FACS (Home Ec.) teacher

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  9. I am actually shocked how many people cannot cook …. attended home ec classes back in Europe in the 80’s.

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  10. Daily “home ec” should be promoted as aggressively as “daily physical activity” has been – perhaps with a name change. My 4th year nutrition students advocate changing it to “food and nutrition” with more of a “science” than “domestic” focus, in part because of the gendered stereotypes that still surround domestic food preparation as “mundane,” non-academic work. Whatever it gets called – we need it as a cornerstone of basic healthy living. We can find all kinds of time in the curriculum for computer training (for more gaming? social networking?) but equipping kids with the science and skill to do the important job of feeding themselves seems to have fallen off the radar. This mirrors the value of domestic food preparation in wider society (can you say Costco?) A case in point: one home economics teacher I have spoken with shared a story of her class sitting down to eat after preparing a meal – a fellow teacher spotted the set table and, surprised, commented on how “cute” it was that the table was set – because, who does that any more!!?? scary…

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