Katherine Rich: Home cooking to fight obesity

I was sorting through some old boxes of books recently when I came across my Home Economics book from school, or as it used to be called “Manual Training”. I think it was about Form 1 (today’s Year 7 equivalent). And the cover page? ‘Cooking Is Fun!’

Inside were many recipes and cooking tips we had been taught by our Home Economics teacher Miss Flower, with one page even bearing the burn marks from where a hot pan or pot had been placed on it. I’m not sure if that was by design or accident, but what I am sure of is how much I enjoyed those classes and learning the basics of cooking – key skills for life.

My carefully crafted notes, supplemented by drawings and pictures cut from magazines, covered everything from how to make no-yeast hot cross buns, soups, toad-in-the-hole, and how to cook all variety of eggs, to how to best store and prepare and cook meat, options for cooking for invalids, food safety, cutting and preparing veges, and even an explanation of digestion and the type of foods that help this the best.

It brought back some great memories of exploring the wonderful world of food, how to experiment with ingredients, and more importantly the basics of healthy food provision.

It was certainly a fun and useful part of my intermediate years. I know that cooking is still taught, but it’s not to the same degree, and I began to wonder if, somewhere along the line, whether this demise has some part of play in the rise in recent years in our rates of obesity.

Prominent nutritionist Claire Turnbull, speaking recently on health and wellness, summed it up best when she said, “The biggest problem in New Zealand is people can’t cook”. What she meant was that if you are cooking a meal at home, and then sitting down and eating it as a family, it will more likely than not be a much healthier meal than just going into the fast-food drive-in down the road.

I believe she’s right. If everyone shopped at the supermarket, knew the basics about cooking and prepared their meals at home, and ate them with the family then we’d be much further ahead in the fight against obesity. 

Schools are in the perfect position to impart these skills and push the important messages, and the industry is doing its bit, with several supporting classes on how to make healthy food choices and how to prepare simple meals.

The industry as a whole is keen to promote knowledge around healthier choices, which is why the Food and Grocery Council supports a move by Vegetables.co.nz (a collaboration of national vegetable industry groups promoting consumption of New Zealand fresh-grown vegetables), in conjunction with the Heart Foundation, to have basic food skills reincorporated back into the school curriculum.

Sadly, their research showed that only 13 per cent of teachers identified students were able to plan and prepare a complete meal as a key learning objective.

As a result of this, they’re advocating that all students (boys as well as girls) be able to cook a healthy meal following the completion of 16 one-and-a-half-hour sessions focused on that. They’re lobbying for government/education authorities to support and encourage schools to ensure that is adopted and that kids can cook, and in so doing make a positive contribution to long-term obesity.

They want this to happen by teaching skills such as knife handling; all methods of cookery; food safety, hygiene, washing dishes, cross-contamination; temperature control and kitchen safety; food presentation; economical and realistic recipes; planning and time management; food waste management.

Now that sounds a lot closer to how I remember Home Economics at Mosgiel Intermediate – perhaps even better – and I believe it’s sorely needed if we are to have an impact on obesity rates.

(As published in FMCG Business Magazine, July 2017)