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Reading, Writing And Roasting: Schools Bring Cooking Back Into The Classroom

Lots of kids have tried lentils. But what about Ethiopian-style lentils, accompanied by injera bread, couscous and cucumber salad?

Fourth graders in Santa Fe, N.M. prepared this lunch feast themselves as part of a nutrition education program called Cooking with Kids. And nutrition experts say programs like this one are not just about expanding timid kids' palates.

Even as home economics classes have been phased out in recent years, some schools are bringing cooking back. And a new study that evaluates cooking curriculum says these hands-on classes do more than just prepare students to cook a decent meal.

"Teachers and principals are seeing how the classroom cooking experience helps support critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving skills," says study author Leslie Cunningham-Sabo, a nutrition researcher at Colorado State University. The study appears this week in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Cooking With Kids teachers try to use the cooking class to do geography lessons, too — like asking kids to find Ethiopia on the map. They also could build in math: for example, graphing favorite foods based on classroom surveys or doubling recipes and converting grams to ounces.

Students in the cooking classes reported stronger social interactions with classmates. "The collective pride in working together to prepare a meal was really valuable," says Cunningham-Sabo.

One study is not enough to prove that in-school cooking helps support the learning of core academics. But proponents say more research is underway as administrators and policy-makers explore all kinds of options for reversing the obesity epidemic.

Slow Foods USA is also working with a variety of schools around the country that have on-site kitchens for food-related curriculum.

Another school cooking model is the Share Our Strength's after-school program Cooking Matters. The classes, which are taught by volunteer chefs, have sprung up in lots of cities around the country. I reported on one group's experience in Washington, D.C. in 2009.

The D.C. kids were not impressed to learn that a 7-11 Big Gulp has 91 grams of sugar. But the task of spooning 59 teaspoons of sugar into a cup certainly got their attention.

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