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.

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