02/23/2012 05:02 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2012

Teaching Our Kids About Food

In the movie, To Sir with Love, Sidney Poitier comes to the conclusion that education, as it was being applied in his situation... just wasn't working.

He took matters into his own hands and decided to teach his students the basic facts of life, with lessons they would need to survive in the harsh reality of their lives. One of the first things he taught them was how to use fresh vegetables (many of which they could not identify) to create a dish they had never experienced... a salad.

That was 1967 but this kind of scene is sadly common today and not in the movies, in real life... at least when it comes to food and what (and how) we teach our kids about it.

We often think of under-served schools as the kinds of institutions that need the most help when it comes to food and health. And while that's true, it's not the whole story (in my experience).

I recently taught a cooking class at a prestigious school of some note. My group of lovely young women had all the advantages life could offer. They have the power and influence behind them to become leaders. When I arrived at class, the students were watching the eye-opening documentary, Forks Over Knives, which clearly draws the conclusion that our modern diet of convenience and processed foods is stealing our health.

The kids came to me in the kitchen to prepare a plant-based lunch. They were clearly troubled by the documentary they had just seen, so before we broke out the recipes, we talked about it.

After comments about how much they really loved processed foods (accompanied by nervous giggles), they began to ask very telling questions about why these foods are allowed to be sold to us 'if they are that bad for our health.' Without being cynical, I explained the process of lobbying along with the fact that processed foods make a higher profit for those companies that make them... and so a high value is placed on keeping them on the market.

As we talked and cooked, the girls became completely involved in the process of creating the meal we would enjoy. They tasted, sniffed, touched, chopped, sliced and diced ingredients. They cooked whole grains, whisked salad dressings and baked cookies... all from scratch. They tasted new and different ingredients. They compared views. They were amazed at the joy of the experience. They were amazed at how much they enjoyed the food. They wondered whether they enjoyed it more because they had cooked it.

As I worked with them and listened to them talk, it hit me. If we hope to create better health and better quality foods for generations to come, we have to educate our young people differently than we do now when it comes to food. This group of students had been to lectures about organics, making a lighter footprint and sustainability, but it was not until they got engaged in the creation of a meal -- until they had gotten their hands dirty, so to speak -- that it began to make sense to them.

They each had parents who shopped at places like Whole Foods Market, but it was brought home for them in the kitchen; they realized why it was important to care about the quality of our food supply... and to make healthier choices.

If we are to live healthy lives for generations to come, we must examine how we educate our kids about food. We owe them the truth about what's in the food they eat so they can make an educated choice about how to feed themselves and -- in the future --their families. More than that, we owe them the experience of food and its preparation. We owe them the 'magic' of food.

We live in a time when convenience is the 'gold standard.' We want food fast, cheap and easy. We want to grab and go. We are losing touch with the art of meal preparation and the joy of gathering around a table together.

Preparing our kids for the future must entail more than lectures on nutrition; we have to teach them more than the theory of food -- more than fat, protein and carbohydrates. These are valid facts, but have little to do with the experience of food. Dinner doesn't naturally come in a bucket.

Place kids within close proximity to real, whole, natural food; engage them in the process of meal preparation and we can change their futures. Cooking real food is the key to understanding life. With a simple knife and cutting board, access to some fresh food, we can change the world -- our very future -- one dinner at a time.