Get Out of the Drive-Thru Lane. Learn to Cook!

Nov 22, 2013, 1:32 PM, Posted by

A woman and her teenage daughter prepare vegetables in a kitchen.

Some statistics worth pondering: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends only 33 minutes a day on food preparation. Just over half of Americans bother to cook every day. On the other hand, 33 percent of children and 41 percent of teenagers eat fast food, every single day.

These fast food children are consuming 126 additional calories, and the teens 310 extra calories, than if they had avoided the chains, says Fast Food Facts 2013, a new report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and funded by RWJF. Most of these children are eating adult meals, too, not the smaller-portioned children’s meals on offer. Not that it would matter, since less than one percent of all kids’ meal served at fast food chains meet recommended nutrition standards.

It’s not much of a stretch to link the lack of home cooking, a diet of fast food, and the fact that a third of U.S. children and adolescents are obese. So, what’s a parent to do? Well for one thing, we could learn to cook.

I know very well that when both parents work it can seem daunting to carve out the time to shop for, plan and prepare a meal. But I think a lot of people simply don’t know how to cook, or don’t do it enough to feel comfortable in the kitchen.

That’s not surprising, given that a culinary education has fallen out of favor everywhere except on the Food Network. Up until the 1970s most high schools and many colleges offered home economics classes where the rudiments of cooking were taught. Those classed are now called Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) and today only three states require FCS in middle or high school. A recent Boston Globe article reported that the number of U.S. secondary students taking FCS dropped by 45 percent in the last decade, to about 3 million students.

I say it’s time to Bring Back Home EC!, as Boston Globe writer Ruth Graham declared recently. Mother Jones food writer Tom Philpott joined in the call with Why Home Economics Should Be Mandatory. “I have witnessed firsthand the vexed state of basic cooking skills among the young,” Philpott wrote. “When I helped run the kitchen at Maverick Farms for seven years, I noticed that most of our interns couldn't chop an onion or turn even just-picked produce into a reasonably good dish in a reasonable amount of time. And these were people motivated enough about food to intern at a small farm in rural North Carolina. If I had their cooking skills, I'd be tempted to resort to takeout often, just to save time.”

Many programs designed to combat childhood obesity recognize that cooking skills can translate into healthy eating, and they aren’t waiting for parents or schools to teach those skills. Cooking With Kids, based in New Mexico, defines its mission as “motivate children and youth to make healthy food choices through hands-on cooking lessons with fresh, affordable foods from diverse cultures.” An elementary school in North Philadelphia reports that its students reluctantly learned to make fish tacos, and much to their surprise, liked them!

At the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in north-central Montana, home to approximately 3,500 members of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, the RWJF-funded AH-WAH-SI-SAHK-O-CHI project runs a weekend day camp that teaches parents and children how to prepare traditional foods using healthy ingredients. Students learn to use whole wheat instead of white flour to make Indian frybread, and fresh berries instead of butter and jam. The program tries to get kids away from the microwave, and a reliance of processed foods. After taking some of those classes, 14-year-old Slayte enthused that “I like to cook for my family.” 

That’s encouraging on many levels. Not only is home cooking usually healthier than fast food, research has found that children who eat meals with their families have a lower risk of obesity. Cooking such a meal doesn’t have to be hard. Grilling a piece of chicken and microwaving some fresh vegetables can be as fast, or faster, than stopping at a fast-food outlet.

It can also be tastier. Here’s an easy recipe for a Filipino dish called Chicken Adobo that I have never known a child not to like. It tastes a lot better than chicken nuggets, it’s certainly healthier, and you can make a big batch and freeze the extra so it can be just as fast.  If anyone else has some easy home recipes, please share in the comments. 

Chicken Adobo 

Serves 6-8

  • 4-5 lbs. chicken pieces, (can be skinless)
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 3 bay leaves

Brown chicken in oil in a large pot. Drain the fat. Add rest of ingredients. Bring to boil, then lower heat. Cover and let simmer for 30 until chicken is cooked through, stirring occasionally. Uncover and simmer until sauce is reduced and thickened, and chicken is tender, about 20 more minutes. Serve with steamed rice if desired.