High School Food and Nutrition Classes Serve Up Skills for Life

At a time when concern over poor adolescent health and wellness is high, high school food and nutrition classes are getting redesigned to help to change the status quo.

Food and nutrition classes teach the basics of cooking and nutrition, and are usually taught within the family and consumer sciences department -- what parents may remember as home economics.

It's a topic that is especially relevant to students today, says Julie Olsen-Smith, family and consumer sciences teacher at Monarch High School in Louisville, Colorado. She created a nutrition and wellness class at the school this year as a way to help students learn about nutrition and cooking, two topics that are intrinsically linked, she says.

"Instead of a traditional cooking class where you'd say, 'Hey, here's your unit on bread-baking, now we're going to go bake bread or bake banana bread,' or what have you, instead we talk about the macronutrients," says Olsen-Smith, who also has a background in dietetics.

During the first part of the week, students in her class study the basics of nutrition and related topics, such as the farm-to-table movement, in the classroom. The latter half of the week is spent in the kitchen preparing healthy dishes like fish tacos or salads with quinoa.

"It used to be just, you know, 'Suzy Homemaker, let's go make cookies.' And that's fine and great, but what is that really teaching our students as a life skill?" she says, of home economics classes of yesteryear. The hands-on aspect of those classes is still a large part of the current course, which helps students stay motivated and understand concepts better, she says.

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Food and nutrition classes offered at Howard County high schools in Maryland are taught in a similar format to Olsen-Smith's class: Part of the course is spent covering nutrition and the other part cooking.

A considerable portion however, is devoted to teaching students about the food system, using a free curriculum developed by the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, says Laurie Collins, the district instructional facilitator for the program.

"The curriculum is designed to help students understand the food system, basically from farm to fork, but on a global perspective with the idea that you teach students about how food systems work and let them make their own decisions," she says.

Helping students learn how to make healthy choices is a concept that is prominent in these programs throughout the country.

At Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park, Illinois, students can take a fitness and nutrition course that was designed to teach students how nutrition is related to physical activity, says Natacia Campbell, division chairwoman of science, applied technology and family and consumer sciences at the school.

Part of the elective class is spent on strength training and conditioning in the gym, while the rest is spent in the classroom learning about nutrition. Students are also usually required to bring a healthy lunch to class that they have prepared at home, which is a part of their grade. On lab days, students learn how to prepare healthy meals that are related to what they have learned in class, such as creating an egg dish during the protein unit.

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And it's not just females taking these classes either.

"The old stereotypes of mostly females taking these food-type classes is definitely old news. Most of my classes are 50-50, and sometimes I'll even get more males than females," Olsen-Smith says.

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Alexandra Pannoni is an education staff writer at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at apannoni@usnews.com.