American Schools Need to Bring Back Home Ec

The start of my culinary career was not an auspicious one. In 1992, when I was in seventh grade and tasked with making breakfast in my Home Economics class, I started a smallish grease fire while frying up some bulk Jimmy Dean pork breakfast sausage. My unflappable teacher taught me (quickly, by example) how to extinguish it, and I resumed my cooking duties, scrambling eggs and making toast.

On the face of it, this is an unremarkable story—a funny anecdote, given that I went on to become a food writer, eventually authoring my own cookbook and becoming the lunch cook at my kids’ school. But these days, that tale of sausage and fire stands out for a simple, sad reason: I had Home Ec, and most kids today don’t.

In the rural Vermont town where I grew up in the ‘80s, every seventh grader, boys and girls alike, took a couple semesters of Home Ec. We learned to sew on a button, fill out a blank check, create a food budget, to choose and prepare nutritious food, to properly wash dishes, and, yes, how to extinguish a grease fire. We learned life skills, something too many kids are a bit short on these days.

The number of Home Ec teachers has dropped 26 percent in a decade, and the number of students has dropped by 38 percent in the same period.

Can kids today program a STEM-inspired robot? Very probably. Can they do Common Core math? Sure. But ask them to make you a scrambled egg, or do a load of laundry, and you’ll see what I mean. For a variety of reasons, including slashed school budgets and a lack of qualified teachers, Home Economics—which got a ‘90s rebrand as “family and consumer sciences”—is now taught to fewer kids, often in a more truncated fashion than the robust version I and many of my generation experienced. (And there are studies to prove it: The number of FCS teachers has dropped 26 percent in a decade, and the number of students has dropped by 38 percent in the same period).

I cook at—and my kids attend—a private school in San Francisco. Most families at the school have two parents working full-time; the cost of living in the city (not to mention the cost of tuition) make it a necessity. This often translates to less time at home together, less time devoted to preparing and eating food. My own mom was a stay-at-home parent who loved to cook, so my Home Ec education was supplemented by lessons from her. But that’s not happening in a lot of households today. The result is a glaring gap in kids’ knowledge of how to feed themselves.

In an era when nearly everything can be ordered via an app or a drive-thru window, and when people now eat more prepared food than homemade, the case could be made that Home Economics is irrelevant. (Especially in districts where the budget forces a choice between Home Ec and, say, history.)

But I’d argue the decline of cooking makes Home Ec even more vital: By neglecting to teach young people basic life skills, we’re perpetuating a problem with enduring consequences for the health and well-being of our children. Ironically, many parents meanwhile load kids’ schedules with gymnastics, swimming, violin practice—all arguably laudable skills that impart life lessons, but nothing you need to know to live.

If kids aren’t learning to cook at home, and not learning it anywhere else, the tacit message is that cooking is not important. But it is—vitally so, for economic, health, social, and cultural reasons. A number of countries known for progressive education policies—notably Finland—recognize that a modern take on Home Ec is vital to a fully rounded school curriculum. In the United States, parents, guardians, and educators need to advocate for Home Ec, just as we fight for art, music, and language studies.

Learning to cook (and clean and mend) matters, and our kids will be better for it. After all, when else are they going to learn what to do when the sausage catches fire?

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