Teaching kids healthy eating habits doesn’t begin in school cafeterias, as the United Kingdom has discovered. It starts in classroom kitchens.
The U.K.’s Department for Education announced on Sunday that all students will be required to learn the principles of good nutrition and basic cooking techniques until the age of 14 as part of its Design and Technology curriculum. The unprecedented decision comes by recommendation of two restaurateurs, who spearheaded the School Food Plan to improve the diets of U.K. children.
According to the Department for Education, the curriculum’s goal is “to ensure that, instead of baking out cup cakes and designing pizza boxes, cookery lessons will include a wide, imaginative range of savoury, healthy foods.”
Their efforts are right on track, says Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RD, CDE, and founder of SuperKids Nutrition, Inc., which is based in California.
“Kids’ eating habits are pretty much established by the age of six,” she says. “Getting kids in the kitchen and teaching them how to cook is the first step toward healthy eating, which leads to chronic disease prevention.”
British chef and TV personality Jamie Oliver was among those applauding the decision on Twitter. Since 2010, his movement, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, has encouraged cooking and getting processed foods out of schools in both the U.K. and the U.S.
In the U.K., about 30 percent of children between the ages of two and 15 were obese in 2010, the year the Department of Health conducted its latest study. That same year, 17 percent of American children between the ages of two and 19 were obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2010 research.
But there’s more at stake than just weight, says Halas-Liang, since 60 percent of overweight five to 10 year olds already have one to two precursors to heart disease. Furthermore, she adds, one in three cancers could be preventable through diet and lifestyle.
While the U.S. has yet to broadly follow the U.K.’s culinary lead in the classroom, it’s not impossible, she says. In fact, it’s already being done with the “Healthy Kids Today, Prevent Cancer Tomorrow” campaign, which helps teach children the power of cancer-fighting foods. And there’s also California’s “Harvest of the Month” program, where nutrition educators demonstrate new recipes in classrooms, proving to kids that vegetables can be delicious if given a chance.
“Kids in my neighborhood will try smoothies that have cooked asparagus, and like it,” says Halas-Liang of the program.
Besides establishing healthy eating habits, she points out other ways cooking skills support kids’ development. Some examples include teaching them basic organizational habits via assembling ingredients, the mathematic skills needed to understand fractions for measuring, or teamwork, as experienced in the kitchen.
So what’s the key ingredient for getting a public culinary education program started in U.S. schools?
Contrary to the U.K.’s successful approach, Halas-Liang says it’s not the government—at least not yet.
“It could happen, but we’ve got to have the parents buy in first,” she said. “Once you get the parents interested, they’re the ones who will start demanding something like this.”