• Food knowledge is basic education

Food knowledge is basic education

Food knowledge is basic education

20 Feb 2021

Today, with your permission, I would like to talk about an essential subject which I think we have been neglecting as we prepare young people to adulthood: Food knowledge, food preparation and proper nutrition information.

Since this subject is neither deemed important for children at home nor considered anything more than a sub-heading in the school curriculum, you suddenly find yourself as an 18-year-old adult rather ignorant about food… Good luck.

Perhaps because eating is part of our daily life or because the assumption is that it is a subject that is very easy to learn at any moment in life, food knowledge is either ignored or postponed, especially during the first years we begin to grasp how to live life.

For me, the penny dropped when many of my friends left home for university either living in dormitories or student apartments, and I realized that they were all officially ‘incapable’ of cooking their own food, which resulted in all of us being subjected to horrible eating habits for years.

I don’t even want to recall nor remind you of the junk we purchased as children, the crap we ate, the tube chocolates we squeezed into our mouths, the unhealthy drinks we drank because of the surprises hidden under their lids, that was a whole other travesty.

Nowadays, the situation is even worse.

Many children are currently malnourished due to the ignorance and indifference of their parents, and as they get older, their poor diets can become even more dangerous due to the skewed beauty standards of social media, their peers and society.

There are families struggling with anorexia. 10-year-old children claiming that they are ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ without even knowing what these words mean, are unaware of the wonderful design of their bodies, and the fact that this design cannot work properly without the right nutrition. In fact, many families don’t even realize this, and that’s the worst. And only when a problem arises, do these families start looking for answers, and even that is a maybe…

Are families dealing with obesity any different? And that’s the opposite end of the spectrum. The consumption of processed, unhealthy foods and beverages is very common. For teenagers, for children and even for babies.

The catchphrase

Shall I tell you the catchphrase?

Preparing children for life.

Ideally, the family should have awareness of proper nutrition, and the desire to demonstrate and therefore bestow this consciousness upon children from a very young age, by making sure that proper nutrition is an integral component of the functioning of the household.

The bad thing is that there are serious deficiencies in terms of early years development when the children’s role models are his/her parents. I’ve seen parents who grimace and say, “Even I don’t eat that” when the pediatrician starts talking about vegetables; how on earth could you instill a love of vegetables in that poor child? In short, building awareness and educating parents about proper nutrition is equally important.

On the other hand, involving children in the kitchen, including them in the preparation of meals in a manner that is appropriate for their age, and bringing children along for food shopping as ‘a conscious family’ are all very instructive and necessary, not to mention fun activities.

But the issue that I actually want to touch upon is schools, and how schools prepare children for life in terms of food knowledge.

Raising awareness in order to prepare the child for a healthy life.

Unfortunately, the current education system prepares children for ‘exams’ rather than ‘life’. And that’s a fact.

Yes, in public primary and secondary schools, some topics related to food and nutrition does get covered within the social studies lessons. These include the definition of main food groups such as carbohydrates and proteins as well as a discussion of healthy and unhealthy food choices. However, I find these both extremely superficial and sadly limited to the particular teacher’s depth and scope of knowledge on the subject rather than the curriculum itself.

During a chat I had with my daughter, she was right in suggesting that, “Just as self-care is not a topic where students are assessed, nutrition should not be a topic that is examined either and instead, children should willingly attend these classes with excitement and joy.” It is worth discussing.

At private schools, the issue is even more odd.

There is indeed a cooking class offered among the electives; it even exists in pre-school, but sadly it doesn’t go beyond the happy-go-lucky let’s make a fruit salad or let’s bake a cookie or a muffin approach.

I hear that at some private schools, children are even prevented from bringing their lunch from home due to food purchase agreements.

I’m told about conscious parents, who take part in the parent-teacher associations, and who stress the importance of many issues regarding diet such as organic nutrition, and while this makes me happy, these always remain as individual efforts.

What can be done?

I’ve criticized a lot; now let’s see what can be done, and what my initial thoughts are…

– First of all, I would like to state that the solutions that I am suggesting should be put forward to the Ministry of Education as a long-term strategy (at least 10 years). It’s not enough to merely define a general subject and incorporate that into the curriculum. Issues such as what type of a curriculum is suitable for which type of school, how can the theoretical and/or practical components be transferred to children’s daily life, and which elements of the work should be done at home, should be considered during the planning process and followed up with an feedback loop system.

– Food knowledge and cooking skills for children and adolescents should be incorporated into the foundational education curriculum, and as courses progress, their scope should be expanded (basic life skills).

– Training for recognition of kitchen materials and variety of foods, choosing the right materials, preparing and cooking foods while preserving their nutritional value should be provided.

–  Students should be informed about the long-term health risks of ignoring these essential nutritional issues.

–  The direct impact of nutrition on one’s body and mind at all ages should be explained.

–  For this group, functional nutrition training would be perfect (I’m also new in this).

– A university student does his/her shopping, and chooses well too, but how will he/she preserve these, what order will he/she cook these, how will he/she master the weekly menu/shopping organization? The answers to these questions should be taught.

– All schools whether they are private or not should participate in this program (this is as important as physical education, if not more).

Moving on to kitchens:

– The Ministry of Education should receive consultancy and prepare a curriculum. Different schools, be it public, private, village, technical or not could offer a different format and content depending on the particular needs and level of ability of their students.

– Dining halls could be utilized; it would be fun for the children and also be an extra reason for the management to keep the space clean and orderly…

– The children could work at the dining hall on a rota system, and learn about the essentials of cooking and nutrition. This can easily be done with a solid curriculum and qualified teachers. Believe me, if only one school starts doing this, other schools will follow their example.

– In this regard, educational programs and workshops can be developed in order to raise children’s awareness of nutrition and culinary knowledge from a very early age.

– Bearing in mind the poor dietary habits and the quality of food consumed in dormitory rooms and student apartments, short programs on practical culinary skills can be designed to teach young people how to prepare quick meals, easily and using basic materials, and the quality of kitchens in dormitories could be improved.

I feel like I can hear your reservations, and you are right; not all schools have a kitchen, and many might not have the necessary resources to do this. But believe me, it is not at all difficult to create a kitchen where students work on a rota system. I am sure that there are brands like Arçelik and Vestel in our country, who would be interested in assuming this responsibility.

But strategy is very important. More often than not similar projects in our country are short-lived after the initial year. This project should be a collaborative one where both the private sector and the state are held accountable. The Ministry of Education should be supported with the right team, and similarly the Ministry should be supportive of the project, paving the way for brand sponsorships, for the right content and its development…

A matter of self-confidence

I remember when we were growing up; some private schools and colleges had ‘home economics’ lessons as part of their curriculum. From cooking to basic personal care and hygiene, from simple sewing practices to the study of aesthetics, home economics was a course that taught key skills and instilled self-confidence in children because everyone actually produced concrete work. It was a compulsory module in the curriculum, and with each new grade, the skills and knowledge imparted on the students were expanded with more detail. The children who grow up with this knowledge will surely become examples for their peers and to their own children later in life. And as this information is transferred to new generations, it becomes the ‘basic life skills’ that I keep emphasizing, and thus indispensable. This can also be referred to as ‘survival’ skills.

Today, schools do not offer lessons covering these skills; when education transformed into a system of ‘exam preparation’, priority was of course given to a curriculum geared towards preparation for exams. And the topic of basic life skills became an onus of parenting, and rested on the level of awareness and conscious guidance of parents.

I’m not saying that children growing up with such training will be great cooks or anything. What I am suggesting is that when push comes to shove, they will have self-confidence in the kitchen, know what’s healthy and what’s not, and upgrade their skills with ease, as they get older.

Identifying the opportunity Recently, something even stranger emerged. Children started engaging with food (and cooking) not because it was considered a ‘basic need’, but because cooking became fashionable.

As topics regarding kitchens, cooking, becoming chefs occupy an increasingly larger share of the current agenda with no small thanks to the power and reach of social media and the digital world, cooking has become an activity that children find ‘cool’.

Perhaps, there is an excellent opportunity right here, let’s see: since food and cooking are such hot topics, we should show children and young people that while being able to make ‘sushi’ is cool, so is being a ‘person who is well-equipped in terms of food’. Both at home, and in school.

Now that there are ‘master chef junior’ competitions even for children, and cooking well has become so important, let’s turn this into an opportunity that is sustainable rather than a one-time ‘test’ or a ‘competition.’

Of course, there is also the ‘career promotion’ aspect. Being a ‘chef’ is so cool. Once a profession that was deemed ‘unfit for marriage’, nowadays many children say, “I will become a chef”. This is great, excellent indeed, but unless there are chefs in their families or around them; these children only know one side of the story, the side portrayed on social media or on television. They don’t know that this is an actual profession, and a hard one; what the kitchen atmosphere is like; the profession’s good as well as the difficult aspects, its physicality or the discipline it entails, in short, the requirements of being a chef. Neither can they comprehend the difference between casual cooking and cooking as a career.

In conclusion …

Schools can and should be an important place for providing food knowledge and cooking skills to children throughout the 12-year compulsory education process.

Young people can decide for themselves whether they will use this know-how for their own well-being or as a career path.

Author’s note:

Design Skills Workshops (Tasarım Beceri Atölyeleri, TBA) is a recent project of the Ministry of Education. However, among the five basic workshops offered, I found the Life Skills Workshop insufficient and superficial as it only included ‘Culture of Food’ as one of the 16 subtitles covering essential information for children at home and in the garden. Readers who would like more information on these workshops can click here. I wish they had received consulting from the right people and institutions in the process of developing these workshops.