Home economics is health economics: Why we need to keep home ec

I read a great tweet last week noting that healthy foods are NOT more expensive than unhealthy foods, but they take time and practice to make tasty. It got me thinking about why, first as a struggling graduate student and, now as a working parent, I have always been committed to cooking healthy dinners.

I think a big part of it is that I grew up this way and I learned how to do it from an early age.  My grandmother was a home economics teacher in a small rural town, married to a dairy farmer.  Money was tight and so was time.  My grandmother planned the menu for the week every week. That meant she only bought what she needed at the store and she didn’t have to figure out what to make when she got home.  I remember the menu (& running grocery list of items she’d run out of) being posted on her fridge long after she’d retired and my grandfather sold his cows.  When my mom and her sister got old enough (and at an age far younger than we seem to put them to the task these days), dinner preparation fell to them.  They knew exactly what they needed to do, because it was all laid out for them.  They’d also both grown up in the kitchen, watching and learning.  I have no doubt this is why both are such great cooks now.  I dare anyone to roast a more perfect turkey than my mom or make a better pecan pie than my aunt. This approach wasn’t highly unusual for my grandmother’s generation.  My Dad’s mom knew what she was cooking for the week too!

Growing up, my mom did the same thing as my grandmother.  That meant as a kid I remember, she too came home from a long day of work, got our whole family fed a nutritious tasty meal and then went off to graduate school classes (yes, she WAS super mom!).  My mom took me grocery shopping with her.  I learned how to read nutrition labels to figure our how many grams of sugar were in each and I could pick any cereal with 6 grams or less.  I learned how to balance a checkbook from her after watching her write the check each week.

When I got to junior high, I took home economics and shop (though we called it something funny, like technology, though the most technologically advanced thing in the room was the VCR brought in on days when we had a substitute).  We learned to read a recipe, cook and sew in home economics (things I already knew but many of my classmates did not).  But menu planning wasn’t part of home ec, nor was budgeting.  Nutrition was, sort-of, part of health and banking was, sort-of, part of social studies.  I guess because we were all expected to go to college, we somehow didn’t need to know how to manage a household?  My husband grew up halfway across the country.  He had a class called “Foods” where he learned to cook, but as with me, little else of what my grandmother’s home ec taught.

Many schools have long lost home ec – it was an early victim of budget cuts (though some have retained it and modified it to meet the times in just the ways I suggest). With obesity rates among kids sky rocketing, we need to think about the critical life skills kids need to learn.  Historically, home economics was exactly the transdisclipinary integrated applied course we talk about being novel in education: nutrition, economics, math, chemistry (what do you think baking is?), medicine.  And if you’re lucky, you end up with apple pie. What could sound better (or more American) than that? Just don’t cut PE to pay for it.

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