Cooking and nutrition skills are crucial to a happy, healthy life. So why don't schools teach them? By Hillari Dowdle
Credit: Illustration: Gail Anderson and Joe Newton

In 1964, my mom, Nancy, received the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow award for the talent she demonstrated in home economics. She took the class four years in a row, learning to sew, maintain a tidy house, and care for children, as well as plan menus, balance food budgets, and cook nourishing dishes. She fully expected to become a housewife and raise a family. Which she did.

By the time I reached high school in the late '70s, the women's movement was in high gear. No way would I bother with the details of domestic life. I fully expected to go to college and have a career. Which I did.

For me, home ec had not been required, recommended, or—in many cases—available at all. What's more, it seemed like a faintly embarrassing relic of a life I never expected to live. Until, of course, I did. At 40, I quit my job, had a baby, and began playing house for the first time in my life to a sometimes comic, sometimes catastrophic effect.

Looking at the statistics, you'd never know that there is an entire generation of "lost girls" like me (and boys) who graduated from high school with few practical home-making skills. That's because the percentage of students who participated in Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS, as home ec was rechristened in 1994) was roughly the same in 2005 as it was in 1962, when my mom was in her heyday: about 25%, according to Carol Werhan, PhD, professor in FACS education at Pittsburgh State University. But the numbers don't tell the whole story.

"It used to be that when you took home ec, you took it for a full year at a time," Werhan says. "Now kids can take only one nine-week period, and there's no way to tell how comprehensive their education is. And beyond the question of quantity, the quality of education is vastly different."

In today's tight economic times, what remains of home ec has morphed into something more like vo tech. "FACS classes have had to shift their focus to the jobs market," Werhan explains. "Now you get classes designed to help train young chefs, caterers, hotel and restaurant managers, child-care workers, and fashion merchandisers. What you don't get are the skills everybody really needs: basic household management." Cooking and nutrition—two of the central tenets of traditional home ec curricula—have all but disappeared.

"We fought throughout the '70s and '80s to make the case that [home ec skills] were the skills everyone would need to survive in the world," says Marilyn Wagner, who has taught FACS at East High School in Pueblo, Colorado, for 23 years. "But when we lost the battle for a comprehensive education in the field, we ceded nutrition to science teachers—many of whom just don't teach it. And cooking skills fell off the map altogether."

East High is an International Baccalaureate School, known for its academic excellence and success in prepping kids for attendance at the best universities in the country. "We are so focused on getting them ready for college, but we're not preparing them for life," Wagner says.

Public health experts , nutritionists, and educators are beginning to realize that the lack of basic life skills, like cooking, presents a serious problem: Americans are growing up ignorant about the whats, whys, and hows of eating healthy.

Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University, believes this has a direct link to the obesity epidemic. Since 1980, as traditional home ec classes waned, the rate of obesity among children ages 2 to 19 tripled.

"Prevention is more powerful than treatment, but it is difficult when our education system is not teaching children how to prepare fresh food," Lichtenstein says. "Every child—male and female—should have those skills, but many don't grow up in an environment where there's someone to teach or model them."

Werhan and Wagner agree that change will only happen when parents demand it—when women like me begin to realize we lost out on something important and demand that our kids receive the education we missed.