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Is Home Economics Class Still Relevant?

"Too many Americans simply don't know how to cook," says a historian, and that has contributed to a health crisis

Perhaps it's time to start teaching kids useful kitchen skills in home economics classes. Image courtesy of Flickr user cafemama.

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “home economics”? Perhaps the image of a perfectly attired Stepford wife criticizing the texture of the first pound cake you attempted to make or memories of the flyby course you took when you wanted to put in minimal effort and come out with a passing grade at the end of the term. For many people, the class has a reputation for being an outdated course where the most you learn is how to make biscuits and maybe a cake from a mix and use uni-tasker kitchen appliances. (During a perfectly useless semester in seventh grade, I was made aware of the wonders of an electric sandwich press, but it’s not something I would ever include in my kitchen arsenal.) But with a little retooling and updating, home economics classes could be a valuable tool in the fight against obesity.

Home economics had its start in Lake Placid, New York during a series of annual conferences held between 1899 and 1910. Organized by MIT sanitary engineer Mary Richards, librarian Melvil Dewey and a host of other educators, the meetings were dedicated to finding ways to apply the latest in science and technology to improve life in the American home. In 1908, the conferences led to the creation of the American Home Economics Association, which lobbied the federal government to fund educational programs, and the resultant classes were a means of guiding young people through modern consumer culture. Between stocking a pantry, furnishing and maintaining a home, caring for children and managing a budget to take care of it all, there are a lot of issues a person has to juggle in order to make a home function smoothly.

But along the way home ec attained the reputation of being a relic, a gender-stereotyped course meant to confine women to domestic roles. Some school systems have managed to breathe new life into the course by divvying it up into more specialized classes—like courses that specifically address food preparation, which might be more attractive to prospective students in the age when Food Network-style programs inject fun and excitement into life in the kitchen. However, because home economics is typically classified as an elective course, it—like art and music classes—is prone to being eliminated from a school’s course offerings.

Furthermore, over time the cutting-edge knowledge about nutrition and sanitation that was the impetus for home ec in the first place came to be viewed as common sense. But is common sense really all that common? We hear all the time that Americans are getting fatter, and a cultural preference for prepackaged convenience foods isn’t helping matters. If this is the case, couldn’t a home economics course focused on planning and preparing nutritionally balanced foods help alleviate this problem?

It’s a question assistant professor of history Helen Zoe Veit explores in a recent New York Times oped. A victim of the stereotypical kind of class where you learn how to make doughnuts from prefab biscuit dough, she argues that instead of condescending to students’ fledgling abilities in the kitchen, classes should teach them how to cook real food. “Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook,” she says in the article. “Our diets, consisting of highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis.” Those sentiments are shared by nutrition scientist Alice Lichtenstein and physician David Ludwig, who wrote an editorial on the subject in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “irls 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 say. “As children transition into young adulthood, they should be provided with knowledge to harness modern conveniences (eg, prewashed salad greens) and avoid pitfalls in the marketplace (such as prepared foods with a high ratio of calories to nutrients) to prepare meals that are quick, nutritious, and tasty. It is important to dispel the myths—aggressively promoted by some in the food industry—that cooking takes too much time or skill and that nutritious food cannot also be delicious.”

Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I learned my way around a kitchen because I had a mom who cooked all the family’s meals. That’s the standard of living I want to maintain because I prefer the taste of “from scratch” food over the prefab stuff. If I didn’t have that kind of a model at home to follow, I might have ended up trying to sustain myself predominantly on convenience food. Wouldn’t giving home ec a much-needed facelift—and maybe even making it a graduation requirement—potentially turn out more savvy, self-efficient and healthy young adults?

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