What If Everything Our Kids Need to Know They Could Learn in the Kitchen?

I’ve got an idea for a book about cooking, life and success. I already have a title in mind. It’s a riff on the 1980’s best-seller, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

 My book will be titled, Everything You Need to Know You Can Learn in the Kitchen.

 Which is true.

In fact, the kitchen and the kindergarten classroom offer parallel life lessons, so it’s probably no coincidence that my subconscious conjured up this this long forgotten book as I recently reflected on my experience teaching teens about food and cooking.

I’ve been a visiting guest instructor at the Scarsdale Middle School for five years.  My lesson plan usually revolves around a recipe with an array of healthful ingredients but emphasizes topics like how to build flavor and texture for a great tasting dish. I encourage the kids to share their personal food stories and then I demo a few culinary skills and share tips for working efficiently in the kitchen. As always, students come into the classroom with a range of personal experiences. There are usually a few avid cooks and always a handful of bakers.  Every student claims to be a purported foodie.

The “home ec” classes of my youth have been rolled into an updated, 21st century curriculum now called Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS). Lucky for Scarsdale students, all 8th graders still get to participate in a 10-week FACS class that covers a broad array of topics geared toward getting our teens on the path to personal self-sufficiency. Topics beyond food science and cooking include financial literary, current events and entrepreneurship, and a new lesson plan on mindfulness. Elyse Tenzer, a dynamic instructor in her fourth year at SMS, teaches the class. Ms. Tenzer is thoughtful about developing acurriculum that dovetails nicely with some of the topics that are being taught in 8th grade math, science and health.

When I asked Ms. Tenzer about the value of the FACS curriculum, her observations resonated with me.  She explained, “This class is a gateway to self-discovery for many of our students. Some seize an opportunity to be a peer leader for the first time in their school surroundings. Others build confidence in skill sets that are brand new.”

Ms. Tenzer’s context for discussing healthy eating is grounded in choosing whole foods over processed foods. Her favorite cooking unit is salad dressings, she states, because, “the students are surprised that it only takes a few simple ingredients to make a great dressing from scratch.  We prepare a balsamic dijon vinaigrette, and they say that it tastes better than Giannoni’s.”

It’s a real pleasure to come to the middle school and observe the high level of communication and collaboration that transpires when the kids get to work. On the whole, we are raising a considerate, curious bunch of learners.

There's always a bit of excitement as the students scramble to get their cooking stations organized. There's also some commotion as they compete to get my attention and flag me down for reassurance. Are they measuring the flour right? Mixing the batter properly? Grating the apple correctly?  I ask myself if the fear of making a mistake is out of proportion to the task at hand.  

Then I start to wonder if our students are as comfortable cracking an egg as they are cracking a Regents Test.  These 8th graders are 13 and 14 years old.  Where is their kitchen confidence?  And I think, as our children's success becomes more narrowly measured by their academic transcripts, how can we stay equally focused on fostering the important life skills which can’t be as easily quantified with a test score?  

Recent data suggests that only 15% of American students still take a home economics related class. The recessionary squeeze on schools budgets combined with the strain of high stakes academic testing has left little room for educators to provide a more well-rounded preparatory experience that provides kids with basic life skills that are covered in the FACS curriculum, from how to feed themselves to managing their personal finances. Sure, these functions can be outsourced, but do we really want to be raising kids who lack such fundamental self-reliance ? Why don’t we value self-sufficiency as a competitive advantage in the 21st century?

As a parent and an educator, these are some of the questions that I contemplate. The Pythagorean Theorem and Newton’s Laws may come in handy for some of our kids as they mature into adulthood, but in the long run, I’d argue that learning how to make a salad dressing (from which one can also learn about ratios and the concept of emulsification) might have more lasting value.

Perhaps conquering a balsamic mustard vinaigrette doesn’t rank high on the “to-do-before-I-turn-18” list for some. But from where I sit, it’s worth re-thinking, especially if we re-imagine the kitchen as a space where the learning extends beyond culinary knowledge.  Our kitchens are  intimate settings to cultivate communication and collaboration, and the act of cooking is a multifaceted endeavor that stimulates intellectual, emotional and creative growth.  Cooking surely  fosters the development of critical and creative thinking skills as well as discovering the art of trouble shooting, improvisation and thinking on your feet while standing in front of the stove.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” goes the old proverb. At the Scarsdale Middle School, students are being taught to fish, how to feed themselves and perhaps others, and how to make a good salad dressing.

All that is something to savor.

A version of this article appeared in The Scarsdale Inquirer on March 24th, 2017.