Being the newest member of a family means listening more than you speak. Over Christmas in Winnipeg, this principle was tested when my brother-in-law told me that it costs more to cook than order in.
Having just married into this family, it was not my time to launch into a rant. But as a food columnist, that is literally my job.
The real problem is, my brother-in-law is right. Because the way he cooks — the way that most people cook — costs more time and money than it should. Certainly more than ordering a pizza.
For the average Canadian, a soup recipe that calls for half a butternut squash means buying a butternut squash and allowing the remaining half to shrivel and rot in the fridge before eventually throwing it out. The same goes for the three-quarters of a bundle of cilantro that will be left over, or the jars of spices we leave to go stale at the back of our cupboards after buying them to use a quarter-teaspoon. Globally, a third of the food we produce goes to waste. In Canada, we waste $31 billion of food a year, 47 per cent of it in the home.
If home cooking means purchasing ingredients in quantities that will ultimately go to waste, then yes, it’s costly — just as it would be cheaper to take cabs if we had to pour a gallon of gas down the drain every time we drove to work.
However, when you know how to cook, it's not just healthier but cheaper to prepare your own meals. The not-so-hidden clause in that statement: “When you know how to cook.”
Knowing how to cook isn’t just understanding the difference between the different types of kale, or being a master at de-veining shrimp. It’s meal-planning and budgeting. It’s figuring out what you’re going to cook for a week’s worth of dinners and lunches before going grocery shopping. It’s knowing what to do with the other half of that butternut squash.
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Ontario students learn about food as it relates to healthy eating as part of their mandatory health and physical education curriculum, from grades 1 to 8. And that’s a great start. But it does not involve actual cooking. Students also have the option, in some but not all of our 5,000 public schools, to take courses in food processing, tourism, and hospitality. That, also, is not cooking.
According to data provided by the Ministry of Education, in the 2014-15 school year, of the 2 million students in Ontario only about 57,000 did any form of cooking as part of their formal education. That’s less than 3 per cent.
Given our growing rates of cardiovascular illnesses and childhood diabetes, health is reason enough to teach kids about food — not just in the abstract, but also in terms of practical skills. Another is financial management: paying people to prepare your food is expensive.
In Britain, in an effort to combat childhood obesity, food education has been compulsory since September 2013. Students (about six to 14 years of age) aren’t just taught about food — they get their hands dirty. In addition to chemistry and nutrition, and actual cooking, the U.K. curriculum incorporates cooking time management and recipe costing.
Cooking isn’t just a nice-to-have activity, distracting students from the fundamentals. The kitchen, used properly, can be a great classroom for teaching math, language, and science skills, in a concrete setting where those lessons will stick. But it’s also a starting place for young people to weave together the realities of their hunger, their nutritional needs, and their budgets. It’s knowing how to prepare that soup, and also why you should — for your health and for your pocketbook.
The Ontario School Food and Beverage Policy, implemented in 2011, effectively banned junk food from school. But without teaching kids what to do with real food, and starting them young, that well-intentioned measure is only a partial solution. The money-saving options presented by the food industry don’t do much good, either: they are just a way of buying a heart attack on an instalment plan.
Ask any 18- to 25-year-old how to eat cheaply, and they’ll say ramen. I love ramen, whether it’s the $16 bowl at Momofuku or a 50-cent dried-noodle package. But the staple of student diets, instant ramen, is just carbohydrates and salt, with little nutritional value.
The other night I made pappa al pomodoro, fingers crossed that my wife would like it. Because if I could add the Italian dish — basically a quick tomato sauce thickened with some day-old bread — to my rotating menu, it would be a money saver. Maybe even enough to justify eating beef once a week.
After sautéing a clove of garlic and half an onion ($0.50), I dumped in a can of tomatoes ($1.50), then tore up a few slices of bread from the freezer ($1). For protein, I soaked a cup of dried navy beans ($1.25) before boiling them. But tomatoes aren’t packed with vitamins like green vegetables are. So we had a salad, too: half a head of red leaf lettuce ($1) with shaved fennel ($1). The most expensive ingredient was the fresh Parmesan ($1.25) I grated over top. But even with that luxury, the total cost of the meal for two was $7.50. With enough left for my wife’s lunch the next day (phew, she loved it), that’s $2.50 a portion.
But how does anyone know how to do these things if no one teaches us?
Cookbooks and YouTube are great for recipes. But they don’t help a kid, or a college student who is maybe getting sick of that ramen, learn to plan meals, the easy value of dried beans over canned ones, or how to turn random stuff from the freezer into dinner.
Cooking will never be one simple trick, any more than driving or literacy can be gleaned from a 30-second life-hack video. These are skills that have to be taught. And teaching happens in school.
Photo courtesy of Collin Parker and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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