Viewpoints

Too many of us can’t cook. That’s bad for our health and finances

A Blue Apron meal-kit package.
A Blue Apron meal-kit package. Bloomberg

A year ago, I was invited to watch a cooking class for UC Irvine medical students. It was one of the smartest – and in ways, funniest – classes I’d ever seen.

Smart because the doctors of tomorrow were learning about nutrition and how to create quick, healthy, inexpensive meals, mainly from scratch. That plus exercise could well be the prescriptions of the future, doing more to prevent Type 2 diabetes and other diseases than any pills. Doctors might tell people to eat less processed food, but if they don’t know how to cook nutritious meals with their own cramped schedules, how can they expect their patients to do so?

 
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Funny because most of these bright and enthusiastic future doctors had clearly spent a lot more time in a laboratory than a kitchen, more familiar with flasks than with frying pans. I could only hope that one student in particular – whose slow, wobbly motions with a chopping knife seemed destined to land her in the ER – will be much more adept with the scalpel.

I was reminded of that class when a Blue Apron box was dropped off on my front porch. A couple of friends are such big customers of the meal-kit company that they get coupons allowing their buddies to try meals at no cost. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but free dinners appear to be another thing altogether.

The concept behind Blue Apron always escaped me, but now that I’ve tried it for two meals – well, I still don’t get it. The kits cost considerably more than buying food at the store. They don’t save time, unless you’re really slow at measuring. The scallions still have to be chopped, the spinach washed. The only difference is that now there are precisely the two scallions you need, in a plastic bag all their own. And the couscous in its own bag. The premeasured spices in a bag. The two dollops of mayonnaise in their own plastic container. And so on down the line, plus a card full of fairly complicated directions. Cooking these meals was about as fun and creative as painting by numbers.

For certain people, expanded work hours mean limited time for grocery shopping. They’re trying to cook at home instead of going out all the time. Good for them! And maybe they do pick up a few tips, like an introduction to some unfamiliar spices.

But what they really need is a grounding in simple, quick, low-cost cooking that serves as a foundation for learning what the French used to be famous for – making a tasty feast out of whatever happened to be around the house.

This also is a reflection on our own failure to teach young people how to handle simple yet satisfying tasks in their lives. How to manage money, make simple repairs around the home and fix a hem or sew a button – and that most basic and potentially fun task of all, cooking for themselves.

Yes, yes, parents should teach their kids these sorts of things. But they don’t, any more than they teach their kids advanced calculus.

In moving toward a more college-directed curriculum, we’ve forgotten that students also need to be able to live independently. It’s the business of making or fixing something for and by ourselves, and there’s little in life that’s more necessary or fulfilling.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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