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Back to the kitchen

BY SHAY O'REILLY | FEBRUARY 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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Despite the catchy name of the blog on which they appear, deep-fried Reese’s Peanut-Butter Cups wrapped in bacon are not why you’re fat.

The answer, for most Americans, lies closer to home: vastly inflated caloric consumption, facilitated by the proliferation of nutritionally barren packaged foods and absurd restaurant portion sizes.

As nutritionists learn more about what has trapped America in this terrible cycle of weight gain and misery-inducing crash diets, it’s clear that the only way out of this mess is a return to simple, healthy, and whole foods. Our educational system must integrate nutritional and cooking lessons into its health and home economics curricula to teach kids the basic skill set necessary to feed themselves and feed themselves well.

This is even more important than increased physical education.

Despite mountains of evidence that exercise cannot induce serious weight loss (although it is unmistakably beneficial to health), our conversation still focuses on moving more: Michelle Obama’s program to reduce childhood obesity is called “Let’s Move,” not “Let’s Eat Less.”

Why? Perhaps because exercise provides more of a venue for profit. Moving more means buying exercise equipment, workout gear, pedometers, and water bottles. Eating less, and eating healthier, lacks the capacity to generate profit — you will not see bell peppers, spinach, and kale advertised on television by wacky cartoon characters or blazoned on the side of price-inflating plastic packaging.

But it is more and more apparent that eating less and eating healthier is the only way to counteract our mushrooming body weight. And a cornerstone to eating healthier is the ability to make your own meals from whole ingredients, instead of relying on nutrition facts and outside portioning from an industry that exists to, yes, sell you more food.

Unfortunately, many Americans lack this basic skill. It’s not their fault; long working hours and limited income make it difficult to invest the amount of time and money into culinary experimentation. But kids who grow up without exposure to vegetables and mincing techniques shouldn’t lose out.

Your family shouldn’t have to be a cooking family for you to know how to cook. Being from a cooking family means that your family has time, ability, and money to spend on transforming raw ingredients into something tasty. That’s too much to ask, given the economy, given the large number of people barely scraping by on subliving wages.

And the sheer public-health impacts of a fat population (and the difficulty of profiting from healthy habits) give the public sector a reason to intercede. It makes sense to teach kids food and cooking just as we teach them math, sports, reading, and history.

What would a cooking curriculum for, say, all middle-schoolers look like? It would involve basic skills, like chopping, mincing, and julienning. It would involve taste tests of fresh vegetables and fruit, and whole grains. It would involve basic lessons on how to make sauces, on baking bread, on seasoning soup, on good spice blends, on the ratios in cooking and baking that make recipes infinitely malleable. It would involve an education in nutrition and why breakfast is important and protein should be a part of every meal.

It would not involve forcing children to conform to one cooking culture, or browbeating overweight kids, or shaming food choices. Instead, it would focus on what slow-food advocates have always known: Healthy food is often good food. The right curriculum would teach enjoyment of food and how Domino’s pizza sauce just can’t compare with a slice of fresh, ripe, summer tomato.

Cooking classes in school would not “solve” the obesity epidemic. They would not rectify poverty. They would not eliminate unfair subsidies of big agribusiness. They would not suddenly give people the time and energy to cook for themselves. They would not cut back on advertising to children, or alleviate the stranglehold the food industry has on government nutritional guidelines.

But they would provide the seed of an alternative to our culture’s caloric saturation.


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