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Cultivate Cooks, Not Just Gardens

Diane Van Buren

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day,” go the words of wisdom from Chinese philsopher Lao Tzu. “Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But what about teaching him how to cook the fish?

From a gardening perspective, it appears that we have a food revolution happening in this country. Michelle Obama has placed herself at the forefront of the “healthy, local food” movement by planting an organic kitchen garden at the White House. Elementary schools are using gardens to teach students how plants grow and incorporating gardening into their math, science, art and even language programs. There even are funding opportunities for students to do “research and demonstration projects for hands-on efforts to explore sustainable agriculture issues and practices.”

But it seems to me that America’s most influential “healthy food” leaders have failed to close the gap between the garden and the plate. I’m talking about taking on the challenge and responsibility of teaching kids — particularly teens — “from scratch” cooking.

Last week, in Newsweek magazine, the first lady wrote about her just-launched program called “Let’s Move.” There’s a lot of information and suggestions for wellness-promoting lifestyle changes on the website, but I couldn’t find anything on it about learning how to cook for oneself, or programs that will teach cooking.

Also, on March 19, Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced that grants of hundreds of millions of dollars are being awarded to communities throughout the United States for the purpose of obesity prevention. (You can watch the announcement here.) The emphasis, again, was on educating people about “healthy food choices” and the benefits of physical activity but little about teaching the cooking skills essential to healthful eating.

I am confident that there are many good intentions behind farm-to-school connections and school garden programs — and including more vegetables on cafeteria lunch menus is a good step on the road to healthful eating. A farm-to-school connection benefits both farmers and young eaters.

But what about the kid-to-kitchen connection? Where is that? “Exposing” young people to “fresh, seasonal and local” food is not the same thing as teaching them how to cook with it. We can promote school gardens and seasonal produce until we’re green in the face, but if we don’t teach kids how to cook, we’ll continue to lose the battle for their healthy little hearts.

Teaching teens to cook

Teens need cooking inspiration somewhere. The popularity and abundance of television cooking shows does not appear to have encouraged the many Americans who watch them to return to the kitchen to cook a family meal. (Unless, that is, you consider “cooking” to be using a countertop appliance that has a fool-proof “chicken nugget” button.) Indeed, according to a story in New York Times last week, sales of “small kitchen electrics were up almost 9 percent from 2008-2009. . . . Meanwhile, sales of housewares — that includes knives, pots and pans — were down 11.5 percent.” The title of the story? Kitchen Gadgets Take the Fast-Food Mentality Into the Home.

This next generation must learn how to cook for themselves, using whole foods — not just boxes and jars from Trader Joe’s. Home cooking, starting with real whole foods, is empowering. And it is our only hope for reversing our national weight-gain and its rampant side effects, which show up in the form of mostly preventable, but ultimately debilitating, diseases.

Where are the home economics classes of yore, where some of you may remember learning how to make an omelet? Not where we need them most, that’s for sure.

From my limited research, home ec classes appear to exist in rural areas, where fast food is less ubiquitous — and hence, less damaging — than it is in urban and suburban parts of the country. Cooking classes in high schools now appear to fall primarily within the realm of “Culinary Arts” programs for students who are considering entering the hospitality industry, sending the message, once again, that raw ingredients are to be transformed into meals only by professionals, not by families at home, in their own kitchens.

Leading by cooking

If teens aren’t learning to cook at home, and they’re not teaching it at school, then, where? I’ll tell you where they could be learning.

Anyplace you can find a stove and a kitchen big enough to accommodate a bunch of people with knives, that’s where. Churches are a good place to start. A restaurant that is closed one day a week, where the chef or owner is sympathetic to the cause. In the cafeteria kitchen, perhaps, at the end of the school day?

For two years, I taught cooking to teenagers at program sponsored by the Brooklyn College Community Partnership in Flatbush, Brooklyn. We used a 1950s-era home ec classroom for our after-school, drop-in program. Sure, we had numerous challenges, the hardest being that we never knew how many students were going to show up for this optional program. They came if they wanted to, and, in the beginning, at whatever time they wanted to. Planning and purchasing was difficult, but, with time and experience, we figured it out.

Cooking is a critical life skill, and it is the responsibility of those of us who know how to cook to share. And more than the skills and recipes. Irma Rombauer knew what she was talking about: We need to share the joy of cooking.


Making the kid-to-kitchen connection


  • Find sponsors. Get your local supermarket, a church, school, cooking supply store, library, a restaurant where you are a regular customer to sign on.

  • Recruit. Get those who like to cook (and who do it regularly) to teach a class or two. Others might be willing to help clean up, shop or donate equipment or ingredients.

  • Target teens. They need cooking skills the most. Reach out to them via peers, teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, after-school programs, Twitter and Facebook. Find a space that is easy for teenagers to get to after school or on weekends.

  • Set the bait. Near a basketball court or baseball field, set out a variety of locally grown apples or tomatoes, citrus or melons, some cut up, some whole. Let the kids come to you. In exchange for an apple or a slice of melon, ask them to write down their opinions and ratings, along with an email address.

  • Use real kitchen tools. Yes, including chef’s knives. Have plenty of adults around to teach teens how to use these tools properly.

  • Bake something first. Coconut macaroons are easy, and inexpensive. Make a fruit and oats-based bar cookie, or apple crisp. Hand out copies of the recipes at the end of the class.

  • Try soup. Vegetable-based. No meat necessary. Butternut squash with apples is a crowd-pleaser. Tomato. Carrot-ginger.
  • Work magic. Transform simple ingredients into something special. Steamed asparagus is one thing. Buckwheat crepes wrapped around roasted asparagus spears is something else entirely. Chickpeas tossed with salad greens is a healthy lunch, but making hummus in a food processor is a lot more exciting. Fresh pineapple is delicious; broiled pineapple is even better.
  • Ignore food fears. Some kids will tell you, “I’m allergic to vegetables.” Don’t listen to them. They’ll eat practically anything if they’re ravenous, and that’s what usually happens around 4:30 every afternoon.
  • Conquer whole meals. As your classes grow, delegate more complicated recipes to regular students and let them teach others.
  • Don’t say “vegetarian.” But cook primarily vegetable dishes.
  • Drink up. Make your own beverages.
  • Set the table. Use real plates, utensils and napkins. Everyone should sit down to eat together, at the same time.
  • Share K.P. Everyone helps clean up.

— Diana Van Buren


Diana Van Buren began her culinary training at Patisserie Lanciani in New York City, and became the pastry chef and wine buyer at Cafe Luxembourg. She’s also worked at Keens Chophouse, Ten Twenty Two and Bar Six, where she was the managing partner. She edited Christopher Idone’s “The New Glorious American Food” and “The Little Big Book of Comfort Food.” Most recently, she taught cooking to teenagers in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn College Art Lab.

Photo: Diana Van Buren picking gooseberries in her kitchen garden in Greenport, N.Y.

  • Jana Kelly 8·15·12

    I was so thrilled to read this article. I love to cook and have taught my children and their friends how to cook and to cook healthy foods. My last child went to college last year and had done well with his food budget and meals. His freshmen room mates asked how he learned so much and if he could teach them. I am trying to get a program going here for juniors and seniors in high school to get them ready to cook healthy, fun food while staying on a budget for college. It’s so tough to get parents and the community to get involved. I was encouraged by your article and appreciate it very much. Thank you. Jana Kelly from Waco, Tx.

  • Anne Howard 9·19·12

    You ask: “Where are the home economics classes of yore, where some of you may remember learning how to make an omelet? Not where we need them most, that’s for sure.”

    I majored in home economics (or “human ecology” or “family and consumer science”) and taught home economics my first year out of college. I went on to work in the food appliance industry, but my background in food and nutrition helped me immensely in my business career. I think you are absolutely correct – the demise of teaching home economics (or nutrition and basic food preparation) is one of the factors that has led to the obesity problem we now have in this country. Thank goodness that Michelle Obama and others are calling attention to this major healthcare problem. Organizations like Slow Food are helping establish school gardens and promoting good, clean, fair food. More needs to be done to educate both children and adults, not less.