NEW JERSEY - Emily, a junior at Middlesex High School, was making spaghetti from scratch for the first time.
“I always made boxed pasta, so this is new for me and exciting,” she said as she stood by the stove. In a small pot, the tomato sauce she helped make was steaming.
“Make sure you stir your sauce so it doesn't burn,” called out her instructor, Gemma Cuffari, as she surveyed the room filled with teenagers scrambling to turn the dough they made the day before into spaghetti and linguine.
Cuffari has been teaching Family and Consumer Sciences for six years.
“I wish that every student had access to take a cooking class,” she said. “That it would be a requirement for graduation across the country. FCS classes are vital life skills.”
FCS teachers said that their students in cooking classes learn culinary skills like how to prepare a meal, food and kitchen safety, knife skills, measuring skills, how to use different kinds of equipment and healthy eating. But other skills they take home serve them even outside the kitchen, such as communication, time management and budgeting. For some, it’s a door to a career in the culinary field.
“Many students simply stated that their parents do not have the time, patience or knowledge to teach their kids how to cook,” said Robyn Hart, FCS teacher at Wayne Hills High School in Wayne, NJ.
“Some of them don’t know how to turn on a stove,” Cuffari said. “They do know how to use the microwave.”
Homemade food can be healthier and less expensive than prepared food or takeout.
“Kids need healthier choices than to be eating out all the time,” said Beth Judge, an FCS teacher at Timberlane Middle School in Pennington, NJ. “Also the cost factor is big. There are so many illnesses that are avoided with proper nutrition. Besides the health factors, the pride these kids will feel when they prepare meals, the social piece of cooking and eating at a family table is priceless. The mental health factors come into play with cooking skills.”
Exactly what they learn how to cook in public schools can vary. Cuffari said often takes her cues from the students, who are more excited to cook foods that interest them.
“I also want to stay up to date with food trends and cooking technology,” she said, “so I find new resources from chef blogs, food documentaries or my favorite, food podcasts like Bon Appetit Foodcast and The Sporkful.”
Cuffari is also inspired by traveling she has done around the world, and she hopes an upcoming school trip to Japan in 2020 will do the same for her students.
Her student Abe, a sophomore, said he’s gone home and made recipes he learned in class including brownies, cookies and pasta.
“I like food in general, so I like making everything,” he said.
For classmate Christina, also a 10th grader, her favorite part of learning to cook at school is “Being able to cook it at home for my family and stuff, show them what I’ve learned.”
“There is such positive energy when students learn a new skill and have a successful outcome that they can eat in class and try to replicate at home,” said Hart.
“So many of my students come back to class and tell me the things that they made over the weekend,” Judge said. “From surprising their parents with breakfast, making healthy smoothies and making hummus to bring to sleepovers. It really has been amazing.”
Cuffari hopes that the students will use what they learn from her throughout their lives.
“My hope is that my students will begin to cook at home and eventually teach their families and their future children to cook healthier, as well,” Cuffari said.
The teachers hope to see more students learn to cook at school, but often the classes are unavailable.
“It is so very sad to see FCS programs and classes being cut from curriculum,” said Judge. “This is a life skill that all students should learn while in school. Home schedules have become so overwhelming that parents don't have the time to teach their children all of the life skills they need.”
Family and consumer sciences teachers are highly in demand, Cuffari noted. She encouraged anyone interested in the career to contact her through Instagram: @bluejayfoods or @traveling_gem.
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