Bring Back Home Ec!

Parents don’t have time to teach kids basic cooking and housekeeping, so schools must do it instead.

50s Housewife.

Should the teaching of household duties be a part of school?

Photograph by Istockphoto.

Read more from Slate’s special issue on the future of food.

In 2010, Ikea commissioned a report on the “future of the kitchen.” The final product sketched out three possibilities for the kitchen of 2040: an “emotionally intelligent” room that coaches you on nutritional needs and respond to your moods; a self-sufficient “back-to-nature” model that is eco-friendly, garden included; and a “smart” kitchen, complete with apps and touchscreens to help anticipate your needs. But no matter which most appeals to you, one thing is certain: We’ll still be cooking, even if it’s with genetically engineered food from farms worked by autonomous machines.

The question is, then, how to make sure that the men and women who own these kitchens know how to cook. If parents can’t teach kids healthy eating and basic cooking, then schools should. Let’s teach them some basic budgeting, cleaning, sewing, and even child care, too.

Once, kids—well, girls—learned how to make a meal and keep a home by helping their mothers. Around the turn of the 20th century, home-economics classes codified this knowledge, introducing future wives to nutrition, budgeting, hygiene, and, of course, cooking. But, as Helen Zoe Veit wrote in a 2011 Op-Ed for the New York Times, those lessons eventually so permeated society that “they came to seem like common sense. As a result, their early proponents came to look like old maids stating the obvious instead of the innovators and scientists that many of them really were. … Today we remember only the stereotypes about home economics, while forgetting the movement’s crucial lessons on healthy eating and cooking.”*

Though we think of home ec as a throwback, it never really disappeared from U.S. schools. It was rebranded “family and consumer sciences” in the late ’90s and can still be found in school districts across the country. A survey published in 2006 found that in the 2002-03 school year, almost 25 percent of students had taken an FACS class—about the same proportion as in 1959.

But according Carol R. Werhan, who studies the field of FACS and co-authored the survey, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Twenty-five percent is the number of students who took at least one FACS class at some point. That could mean as little as a nine-week course in middle school. In the ’50s, girls who took home ec spent one hour a day in the class for at least a year—and sometimes four years. Werhan, who will conduct a new survey this summer to update the stats, suspects that the number of FACS students has dropped since the 2002-03 school year, thanks in part to testing pressures. At that time, No Child Left Behind was just gearing up. According to a 2010 Gallup report [PDF], one in five principals says that high-stakes testing has led to less time at recess. It’s not hard to imagine that FACS has also been a casualty.

You could make the case that home ec is more valuable than ever in an age when junk food is everywhere, obesity is rampant, and few parents have time to cook for their children. Rather than training girls to be housewives, home ec today can teach students to cook for themselves after work once they reach adulthood. More immediately, kids can take what they learn and make easy, healthy meals when their parents are too busy working. Werhan notes that lots of middle- and high-school students are responsible for preparing meals or “making decisions,” such as deciding what to buy at the grocery store. (One of the first things I learned to cook as a child was a simple roast chicken, which I would make for my brothers and me when our mother was working late.)

A stronger home-ec curriculum could also rebut the myth that heavily processed foods are cheaper. A recent USDA report concludes that this isn’t so. A student who learns four or five easy recipes incorporating healthy, cheap ingredients such as chickpeas can ease the financial and time burden on her parents while helping her family eat better.

Moreover, FACS class time doesn’t necessarily have to take away from other courses. Werhan argues that if students aren’t performing well in reading, simply spending more time on the subject won’t always help. Instead, FACS teachers can work with their colleagues to bring reading, math, and writing into lessons on nutrition or budgeting.

In my middle school in Pennsylvania in the ’90s, family and consumer sciences was required. In addition to learning how to use a sewing machine (the boys made blankets for homeless men, the girls for what we called “crack babies,” though now that expression makes me wince), my classmates and I spent a little time in the kitchen. In cooking French toast and microwave chocolate cake, I learned a few valuable skills, such as packing down brown sugar with the back of a knife or raising a measuring cup to eye level. They seem common sense to me now, but I’ve seen adults who don’t realize that you can use a knife to skim the excess flour off a measured half-cup. I do wish we had instead learned the proper way to chop an onion or mince garlic. Inevitably, that would have led to another must-know lesson: how to bandage a minor wound.

In 2010, an opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association made the case that revamped home-ec classes could help combat childhood obesity and called for “a mandatory food preparation curriculum.” The ridiculous emphasis on standardized testing aside, it’s difficult to argue against such a requirement. The basics of cooking, nutrition, and consumer economics will, for many students, be much more useful than algebra later in life—at least until kitchens start doing all of the meal-planning, chopping, and stirring for us.

Also in the special issue on food: five “food frontiers,” including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; smart packaging may help keep your produce from going bad; and small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

Correction, June 6, 2012: This article originally misspelled Helen Zoe Veit’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)