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Healthy Home Ec

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

An inviting aroma wafted through Yorktown High School in Arlington as I walked down the hall from the principal's office. Inside Rosemary Molle's classroom, I discovered the source: paella, the Spanish mix of rice, chicken, shrimp, sausage and plenty of seasoned onions, peppers and other vegetables. Remarkably, I found 18 students -- mostly boys -- happily cleaning up after cooking and eating their mouthwatering creation.

"If my mom had made paella, I don't know if I would have eaten it," said sophomore Greg Croswell. "But since I actually made it, I wanted to try it, and I liked it."

That's the goal of family and consumer sciences, once known as home ec. It's time for such a school-based approach to cooking to make a comeback in the face of the obesity epidemic and the need for greater nutritional knowledge and practical skills. Not only can people who cook control the ingredients in their food, but by making meals from scratch, they can often eat more economically.

I learned those lessons as a seventh-grader at Frost Junior High School in Jackson, Mich., from our home ec teacher, Mrs. Merriman.

All seventh-grade girls were required to don a hairnet and an apron that we had sewn ourselves before learning such basic cooking skills as creaming and sifting. We made biscuits and gravy. But this was strictly girl stuff. In my day, the boys were sent to "shop," where they learned how to wield hammers and screwdrivers and to do woodworking.

On the rare occasions when I sift flour, I flash back to the class, which provided an invaluable culinary foundation and fostered a love of cooking and an interest in nutrition that I turned into a career.

Today, the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences says that 5.5 million middle school and high school students annually take life-skills courses that teach everything from financial literacy and balancing a checkbook to healthful nutrition, culinary arts and food preparation.

In middle schools, classes are evenly divided between boys and girls. But in high school, the ratio switches to 60 percent boys, 40 percent girls. At Yorktown High School, boys outnumber girls by about 2 to 1.

What motivates teenage boys to enroll in cooking classes?

"I took the class because I thought it would be fun," said Simon Kilday, 17, who quickly added that he has no desire to become a chef. "I get really hungry during the day. So I've learned a lot about food. Before this, all I could make was cold cereal."

Now, he can whip up Greek cuisine, funnel cake and tiramisu. Those skills have expanded the food repertoire of this tall, lanky teen -- a change that his mother, Lynn, has noticed. "He's really enjoyed the class and made some great strides in eating," she said.

Nebeu Teffera, 18, of Falls Church, likes cooking because it puts him in control of his food. He makes cookies and macaroni and cheese. "I cooked before, easy stuff like eggs," Teffera said, "but I wanted to learn how to cook if I'm going to live by myself one day. . . . Guys should know how to cook."

Family and consumer sciences is a popular elective. Snagging a spot in one of the five classes taught by Molle is viewed as a prize. "My friends said, 'Oh, man, you are so lucky!' " said Henri Collaku, 17.

Parents like it, too. "It's perfectly fine for him to learn to cook on his own and not make his mom cook all night every night," said Sukhbaatar Sanjdorj, whose son, Turmunkh, 17, is in one of Molle's classes. On Mother's Day, Turmunkh prepared chicken fajitas for his mother. He also regularly makes spanikopita, the Greek spinach pie. "He never ate spinach before," said Sanjdorj. "Now he even goes out and buys all the different ingredients."

Shifting toward healthier eating habits is a key goal of family and consumer science classes. And it's working for Andy Laso, 17. Before taking Molle's class, he often avoided peppers, onions and other vegetables. "Now," Laso said, "I eat them regularly at home."

That doesn't surprise Carolyn W. Jackson, executive director of the consumer sciences group. "When you cook it," said Jackson, "you know what's in it and what you like to eat."

As for less nutritious fare, students learn that it can have a place in a balanced diet as "sometimes foods."

"Just about everything we cook in here is healthy," said Ann Joyce, 17, one of seven girls in a class of 26 students.

And as Kilday noted, "When you spend all that energy cooking it, it would be a waste of time not to eat it."

That kind of knowledge can pay off for these kids. By learning how to cook cheaply and healthfully, they can help fight the battle of the bulge -- and put great-tasting, healthful food on the table for the rest of their lives.

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