Real Food in the Classroom

Use a class garden as a springboard to teach learners about nutritional information including food choices, ingredient lists, and more.

By Cathy Neushul

Young girl in the garden holding carrots

Nutrition is a hot topic in classrooms all over the country. More and more, schools are stepping in to educate children about good nutrition and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Teachers might show presentations about nutritional topics or discuss the hazards of a junk-food diet as part of their normal curriculum. While talking about the benefits of healthy eating may be a great idea, having learners experience vegetables and fruits up-close and personal is even better.

Plant a Garden

Many schools have carved out space on their playground, or in another open area, to set up gardens. Children get hands-on experience and see where real food comes from. They can measure out rows to plant carrot and lettuce seeds, watch as plants grow day by day, and taste the bounty from their gardens. As an added benefit, they can practice math skills, learn about scientific concepts, and explore nutritional topics.

This experience naturally lends itself to a variety of explorations. One option is to have learners bring in processed foods and compare the number of ingredients in those items to the ones found in their garden. This leads to a class discussion in which they share their results with the class. As an extension, they can list and identify each of these ingredients. This activity might generate a few surprises–one popular drink even uses a wood product.

This is also a good time for discussing packaging and marketing techniques. Each item, such as an Oreo cookie, goes through extensive testing before it is introduced to the public. The company makes choices about every aspect of the product, including smell, texture, and flavor. By the end of the discussion, the class should understand it’s no accident that people start to crave cheesy puffs when they see a bag of Cheetos.

Good Nutrition Shouldn’t Be a Chore

The best way to encourage learners to follow healthy habits is to make nutritional precepts easy to follow. A nutritionist once came to my school to talk about the road to a healthy diet. Instead of demonizing foods such as cookies, potato chips, and cakes, she advocated moderation. When children come home from school, she said they should have a variety of snack choices, such as cheese, fruit, and yes, even cookies. The nutritionist stated that the best way to be healthy wasn’t to obsess over the back of food boxes, or worry about every bite eaten, but to embrace a variety of foods. This attitude can help children take a balanced view of eating.

Another way to make healthy eating popular is by making it fun. After planting a garden and watching it grow, throw a party to celebrate the fruits of the your labor. My class had lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and more. It was a wonderful feast. Even the parents came to join our celebration! 

Healthy Eating Experiment

Many adults have had an experience in which they were forced to eat healthier for a length of time. Usually, they feel better and no longer crave junk food or desserts. However, fast food can sometimes make them feel ill after prolonged abstinence.

A class can engage in the same type of experiment (with parent permission). Start by having the kids take notes on how they feel during a normal week of eating. They should list:

  • What they ate, how much, and when
  • How they felt emotionally
  • How much energy they had
  • Whether they could wake up for school easily, stay focused in class, finish homework, etc.

Then, have them try to eat as healthy as they can for the same period of time. They should record the same information found above. Afterwards, they can share and discuss their findings.

With these types of activities and a garden in your midst, nutrition can be an engaging and motivating topic.


Growing in the Garden

Focusing on a class garden, learners discuss nutrition, the foods grown in their area, and plant anatomy. While discussion centers on foods found in Hawaii, it could be adapted for use in any community. It’s important for learners to know what does, and does not, grow nearby.

Garden Metrics

Connect math skills to gardening by measuring vegetables and fruits found in a school garden using the metric system. Tip: Make graphs using this information, conduct surveys, or convert measurements from centimeters to inches.

Garden Imagery

What a great way to use a garden to develop writing skills! Use the items found in a garden to practice descriptive imagery in writing. The best way to practice important skills is to make the experience motivating. Using this topic as the focus, does just that.

Make Your Garden Grow

Learners become horticulturalists. They conduct research to learn about plant development and plan their own garden. Here is a wonderful way to explore plants.