As a former professor of Food Science who is now a FoodCorps AmeriCorps Service Member with New Haven Public Schools Food & Nutrition Services, I have been trying to use lessons I learned from teaching undergraduates- adapting them so they work for younger students. This can be a challenge, as children can sometimes be the toughest audience, but, I’ve found some strategies that have been very successful!
One of the challenges I faced with encouraging children to eat more fruits and vegetables was their instinctive fear of the unknown. The teachers and I were constantly amused and shocked by their assumption that new food items are both unpleasant and scary. I was encouraged when I read First Bite by Bee Wilson, a book that discusses how we learn eating habits. The book included a couple of approaches used to convince children to try new foods, such as training students to be food explorers. This sparked my interest so I decided to create a lesson that required students to use the five senses to study food.
I like lesson preparation. If I am being honest, it is sometimes my favorite part of education. Part of curriculum development is fitting a lesson together that keeps everyone engaged for the whole time. Even undergraduates like hands-on learning, and there is little better than eating food during a lecture. Working with second through fourth graders was a new experience for me, as their attention span is even shorter than that of undergraduates. Therefore, my usual techniques don’t necessarily help with setting up classes for elementary school students. Additionally, lesson preparation is an iterative process. I put together a plan, and try it out. Once I find out what does and does not work and how long different activities take, I can adjust and try again.
Taking all of these thoughts into consideration, for the first food exploration lesson, I wanted something neutral for students; not a food the children ate everyday, and not a food that they would be turned off by immediately. While whole wheat crackers are an easy food for children to try, the same techniques, once established can then be used to encourage them to try something more challenging- such as broccoli, or spinach!
The food explorer lesson was quite simple to execute. I asked the students what their five senses were and then I asked them for words to describe how the food looked, felt, smelled, tasted, and sounded. We then tried our snack, and I was surprised that many of my kids had never eaten whole wheat crackers before. They enjoyed exploring their food and have done so with other new food items ever since. We have become more adventurous since that first lesson and have tried: cauliflower, cucumber, strawberries, hummus, tomatoes, celery, and jicama. Being able to refer back to the sensory lesson and remind the students to explore their foods, is very helpful. They now have tools to use to overcome their fear of unfamiliar foods.