By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
School children are more likely to learn how to design food packaging than how to cook a meal, says a new report. So where have half-baked cookery lessons left the nation?
It's an old cliché that many men leave home not even knowing how to boil an egg, but now it seems a whole generation of people lack the most basic cooking skills.
Cookery has virtually disappeared from timetables and the result is a generation of young adults who have passed through the school system without learning how to cook and look after themselves nutritionally, say campaigners.
A new Ofsted report backs them. It says even when cooking - or food technology as it is now known - is taught pupils are more likely to be using computers to produce drawings of icing on cakes than learning how to cook nutritious meals. Efforts to get children eating more healthily are being hampered as a result, it adds.
Many young adults don't know how to chop vegetables, grill meat or even make a salad, leaving them with little option but ready meals and fast food when it comes to feeding themselves and their family, says Anita Cormac, director of the Focus on Food campaign.
"What has happened in schools is disgraceful, there's been a whole erosion of food culture," she says. "Every child should have a right to learn about food because it's only if you can cook that you have a choice in what you eat.
Cookery buses teach 12,000 kids
"We've taught students who seriously think a bowl of tinned tuna is donkey meat, can't recognise an onion and don't know chips come from potatoes. Some adults aren't much better."
Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says the lack of food education in schools is a massive problem and young adults are leaving education not even knowing the basics, like where food comes from.
"Historically I think teaching cookery has been viewed as an insurance for the less ambitious student," he says. "It has not been connected with ambition and career success, but it is fundamentally more important than a lot of subjects because it is about our everyday lives and health."
So what happened? The erosion of cooking in schools started years ago and it has been viewed as a "low level" subject for a long while. It was in danger of being written out of the national curriculum entirely but instead was brought under design and technology and was made compulsory only for primary schools.
The technology side of things dominated and most lessons ended up being based around work concerning design and manufacture, rather than actual cooking. It's only in recent years that "cookery" has become an acceptable word again, but that's too late for a generation of young adults who know more about packaging than pastry.
"We have the greatest selection of ingredients available to us than ever before yet a substantial amount of the nation don't know how to use even the basics," says Ms Cormac.
Focus on Food operates two cooking buses which tour schools giving pupils and teachers cooking lessons. Ms Cormac came up with the idea after a career as a food technology teacher. The buses teach 12,000 pupils and 3,000 teachers a year.
WHAT ADULTS SHOULD KNOW
Knife skills for chopping
How to grill food
How to make a salad
How to cook veg
How to use fruit
How to make a smoothie
Food safety and hygiene
Anita Cormac - Focus on Food
"The children absolutely love the lessons," she says. "We don't do any 'funny-face cooking', what we do is real food. A whole new world is opened up to them and they really like getting stuck in. They can't wait to show their parents what they have cooked."
Ofsted's report also calls for parents to take responsibility for making sure their children eat healthy food, saying they have the "foremost responsibility to... influence their eating habits". But if parents have never been taught about food how can they?
"Some parents don't have the basic skills to cook their child even the simplest fresh meal but dish up a diet of fast food," says Richard Watts, of health and consumer group Sustain.
"Is it any wonder that childhood obesity is rising very fast. If parents can't teach their children how to cook and schools don't, the problem is passed on through the generations."
The government has acknowledged more needs to be done to ensure children learn about diet, nutrition and practical cooking skills and there are moves to reintroduce cookery lessons in secondary schools.
But teaching unions have defended schools, saying if cooking has been knocked off timetables it is probably because the government has told them something else is more important instead.
The government has been criticised
"If the government pushes one thing on the National Curriculum it is often at the expense of something else," says the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Mick Brookes.
"Schools are always being chased to conform to the latest wheeze. Many schools don't have the facilities to teach cooking. If the government wants it back on the agenda it needs to provide money for safe, modern kitchens, not criticise."
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