When I was in junior high school, all girls were required to take a class called Home Economics and all boys were required to take Wood Shop. Well, to be truthful, I never took Home Ec because I opted to take an extra science course instead.
What did I need Home Ec for? I was told that what they did in that class was learn to cook and sew. I already knew how to do those things. My grandmother taught me to sew when I was 9. My mother was delegating her baking to me even before that. I was ready to learn something new. I was off to take a new science class in which I excelled. Why? I was well prepared. All those lessons I learned in the kitchen had prepared me for science, math, and process thinking.
As we watch our kids become less and less skilled in these three areas, I often wonder how closely related it is to the fact that many of us no longer cook. Perhaps we should consider getting the kids back in the kitchen so they’ll be better prepared for school.
Double a recipe and your daughter will quickly come to understand why adding and multiplying fractions are critical skills. Without understanding common denominators, how can she know that 1 1/4 cups plus 1 1/4 cups equals 2 1/2 cups? But once she has learned these conversions while cooking, there will be no need to resist expanding on that knowledge in math class. Certainly the familiar – “Why do I need to learn this, I’ll never use it in real life?” – argument will be nullified. Want to help her even more, have her make one and a half recipes of cookies. The division required provides an opportunity to use even more advanced math skills.
Throw some salt in a pot of water that you need to hurry up and boil. Your son just learned that you can lower the boiling point of water by adding salt. Put some baking soda in lemon juice and let him watch a frothing chemical reaction that doesn’t threaten to destroy your house or poison its occupants.
There are endless chemistry and physics lessons inherent in cooking. You can point them out, or just let your children learn without knowing they’re learning as they watch solid fats melt into liquids, lemon juice curdle cream, or heat cause baking soda to release carbon dioxide and make a cupcake rise. Even if you don’t specifically discuss the science behind these reactions while you’re cooking, you are creating a repository of knowledge that will make these concepts seem familiar when it’s time to take a chemistry class. This knowledge will help remove the fear of being in the lab and lay the foundation of curiosity for a formula that explains how the acids in baking powder react to create carbon dioxide.
If you have a child who wants all the food to look pretty, you can focus on the art and design lessons in cooking. Mix red and yellow food coloring and the kids can immediately see the resulting orange color. Explore scale and proportion by layering cakes. Experiment with different piping tips, brushes, or “found” tools to create texture in frosting, cookies, or crackers. Build houses, make dough people, or create an entire edible village. For this lesson, innovation and creativity are your guides. Let the ideas flow freely. Feel the excitement that collaboration brings when one idea sparks another.
No matter what lesson you’re attempting to learn in the kitchen, you will learn about process, procedure, and order of operations. If you begin without any plan and ignore a certain order of operations, you will not get the results you expect or want. That doesn’t mean you have to follow every recipe to the letter, or that you must know exactly what you’re going to cook for dinner before you walk into the kitchen. It means you must think through and understand the process. Process thinking helps you to recognize that what you do now should be determined by what you want to happen next, and next, and next…until the end of the process – a finished dish or a coordinated meal. Of course this type of thinking is beneficial in all areas of life. We reach a specified goal with much greater ease when we understand that today’s decision can be determined by our priorities for what will happen next, and next, and next, then allow the process to support us.
My grandmother didn’t talk about process, she just instructed me to always read through an entire recipe before I ever started to get out ingredients, pans, or bowls. There were several reasons for this. One was to make sure that all the ingredients were available in the kitchen. One was so I would only get out what I needed and make less of a mess in her kitchen. One was so that I wouldn’t dump dry ingredients and liquids together until it was time to do so and create a batter that had to be thrown away. She couldn’t stand to waste food. She also wanted to make sure I would properly preheat the oven and prepare the proper baking dish in advance. She didn’t like to waste time either. Once I was competent to prepare individual dishes, I carried this same process thinking into creating a timeline that allowed me to create a coordinated meal in which my all dishes were ready for the dining table at the same time and piping hot.
As a project manager, I have used the reverse timeline to great success when handling complex, detailed, and deadline driven assignments. Communicating instructions based on what must happen one or two steps past that specific instruction streamlines the process and narrows the margin for error. Understanding the process also allows me to be more swift and flexible in finding solutions to problems because I have a clear understanding of what is critical and what is not in achieving a desired result. These are skills I desire in all employees. These are skills I developed in the kitchen before I reached junior high. I simply built on them in secondary school, college, and at work.
I suspect the boys in my junior high were learning a great deal about process thinking in Wood Shop too. If they failed to allow for the thickness of a piece of wood in their overall measurements, they would not cut boards to the proper length when building a cabinet. If they didn’t understand how the equipment worked, they could lose an appendage. I’m certain that these skills serve them well whether they became bankers, writers, carpenters, or electricians.
We worry so much about declining standardized test scores and how to fix the schools. In spite of much discussion, we have made little headway. Perhaps the solution to improvement is quite simple, and possibly delicious. Get the kids in the kitchen and get things cooking!