An inviting aroma wafted through Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., as I walked down the hall from the principal's office. Once inside Rosemary Molle's classroom, I discovered the source: paella, the Spanish dish with rice, chicken, shrimp, sausage and plenty of vegetables. Even more remarkable to me was seeing 18 students -- mostly boys -- happily cleaning up after cooking and eating their mouthwatering creation.
"If my mom had made paella, I don't know if I would have eaten it," said student Greg Croswell. "But since I actually made it, I wanted to try it -- and I liked it."
That's the point of family and consumer science, once known simply as home economics. It's time for it to make a comeback in the face of the obesity epidemic and the need for greater nutritional knowledge and cooking skills. People who cook can control the ingredients in their food. And by making food from scratch, they can often eat more economically, too.
I first learned those lessons as a seventh-grader in Jackson, Mich., where all girls were required to learn how to cook and sew. All the boys attended "shop" class to learn how to wield hammers and do woodworking.
Today, the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences says that 5.5 million middle school and high school students take these life-skills courses, learning everything from how to balance a checkbook to nutrition, culinary arts and food preparation.
In middle schools, family and consumer science classes are evenly divided between boys and girls. But in high school, the ratio switches to 60 percent boys, 40 percent girls. At Yorktown High School, the odds are even higher: Boys outnumber girls by about two-to-one.
What motivates teenage boys to enroll in cooking classes?
"I took the class because I thought it would be fun," said Simon Kilday, 17, who also quickly adds that he has no desire to become a professional chef. "I get really hungry during the day. So I've learned a lot about food. Before this, all I could make was cold cereal."
Now, he can whip up Greek cuisine, funnel cake and tiramisu. Those culinary skills have expanded the food repertoire of this tall, lanky teen -- a change that his mother, Lynn, has also noticed. "He's really enjoyed the class and made some great strides in eating," she said.
'Guys should know how to cook'
Nebeu Teffera, 18, likes cooking because it puts him in control of his food. He makes cookies and macaroni and cheese. "I cooked before, easy stuff like eggs," says Teffera, "but I wanted to learn how to cook if I'm going to live by myself one day. ... Guys should know how to cook."
Snagging a spot in one of the five classes taught by Molle is viewed as a privilege. "My friends said, 'Oh, man, you are so lucky!'" said Henri Collaku, 17.
Parents like it, too. "It's perfectly fine for him to learn to cook on his own and not make his mom cook all night every night," said Sukhbaatar Sanjdorj, whose son, Turmunkh, 17, is in one of Molle's classes. On Mother's Day, Turmunkh prepared chicken fajitas for his mother. He also regularly makes Greek spinach pie. "He never ate spinach before," said his father. "Now he even goes out and buys all the different ingredients."
Making that kind of shift toward healthier eating habits is a goal of family and consumer science classes. That approach also worked for Andy Laso, 17. Before taking the class, he often skipped eating peppers, onions and other vegetables. "Now," says Laso, "I eat them regularly at home."
That doesn't surprise Carolyn Jackson, executive director of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. "When you cook it," said Jackson, "you know what's in it and what you like to eat."
And you become more aware of the nutritional value of food. "Just about everything we cook in here is healthy," said Ann Joyce, 17. "I've learned how to cook a lot of different foods that I didn't feel proficient in cooking before."
And as her classmate Kilday noted, "When you spend all that energy cooking it, it would be a waste of time not to eat it."
Exactly! By learning how to cook healthfully, these kids are developing practical skills to help fight the battle of the bulge. And maybe they will continue to put great-tasting, healthful food on the table for the rest of their lives.
You can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter at www.leanplateclub.com. Sally Squires is a writer for the Washington Post.