Most of us over the age of 35 can remember learning to cook at school.

Under the guidance of a home economics teacher we chopped and stirred and kneaded and iced; we made scones and roast dinners and stir-fries. By the 1980s most students - whether boys or girls - did this, at least at intermediate level.

Earlier home economics had been considered necessary for girls only. I have a home economics textbook from 1969 called Towards Tomorrow: a Guide for the New Zealand Homemaker. It's essentially a guide to how to be a good wife.

There's a section on 'Responsible Relationships' including the 'Essentials of Courtship and Happy Marriage'. There's advice on 'Mothercraft' and a Home Time Plan. There's how to do laundry and treat minor injuries.


There is a brief mention of options beyond wifehood. A list of 'careers open to girls in New Zealand' includes air hostess, dental assistant, accounting clerk and nurse. There's no mention of pilot, dentist, accountant or doctor.

We can be thankful that times have changed. But despite its quaintness, Towards Tomorrow is full of genuinely useful advice. It covers meal planning, budgeting, leftovers and school lunches.

Alongside the advice on table setting and flower arranging there's a good collection of basic recipes; things that are useful to know today. If you'd been through the lessons outlined in this book, you'd know how to plan, shop for and cook a week's worth of good wholesome meals without stressing out or blowing the budget.

It could be argued that some of these skills have been lost to today's children. Home economics has lost favour as a subject, with schools now more likely to offer what's known as food technology. This can include cooking, but doesn't always include what we might consider to be basic meal preparation.

The current curriculum states: "It is expected all children will have had the opportunity to learn practical cooking skills by the end of year 8." But what's happening in practice seems to vary widely.

Recent research by Massey University dietetic students surveyed teachers of food programmes to Year 7 and 8 students in New Zealand schools. It found that only 13 per cent of teachers identified students being able to plan and prepare a complete meal as a key learning objective.

Part of the reason for this may be the way the curriculum is organised. Cooking falls under two subjects: Health and physical education and food technology.

The researchers say both of these curriculums "included a requirement for practical cooking skills to be taught, however there was no clear literature defining what practical cooking skills were".


That leaves teachers having to interpret the curriculum for themselves, which has clearly led to the wide range of content being taught. Most of the teachers in the survey were in "technology" roles, and most of the focus was on the food technology curriculum. This centres on a process described as "brief, design, produce and evaluate".

How the cooking of meals fits into this model is unclear. An example given of what's happening at school level was of students cooking chocolate brownies every week for 10 weeks, with different ingredients being used each week to see how they affect taste, texture and colour.

A friend told me of her son, excited to learn cooking, but bored after 12 weeks of bread theory and baking. These classes fit the food technology brief, but they're not imparting basic cooking skills.

This is not to criticise teachers. There is some great cooking teaching going on in individual schools.

In the research teachers expressed frustration at not having more clearly defined goals or quality resources and lesson plans. Some said they were not sure whether the resources they were using were up to date. (In fact some aren't, with some schools still teaching the long-retired food pyramid.)

The quality of the nutrition messages being taught is a concern. Most food items being prepared in food classes were not main meals. While teachers reported using some credible nutrition resources, they were also searching the internet for content.

School is, as the researchers identify, an important place to learn basic life skills, of which cooking is one. We can't assume this is happening at home any more. If a child grows up not knowing how to cook, as an adult they are going to have to entrust their own health to other people, only some of whom care about their health.

Of course schools have to juggle many priorities within their curriculums. But looking at it broadly, cooking can encompass several learning areas such as maths, science and social studies. It's good to see the sponsors of the Massey research, and the Heart Foundation, working on co-ordinated lesson plans to help teach the essential skill of food literacy. They can't come soon enough.

• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large of Healthy Food Guide