Food Education in the Cafeteria

GETTING STARTED: Food Education in the Cafeteria

Food service and child nutrition program staff play a vital role in helping students make healthy food choices, learn about the food they eat, and develop lifelong healthy eating habits.

Viewing the Cafeteria as an Interactive Classroom

The school cafeteria is more than a place where students eat; it serves as a classroom for food, nutrition and food preparation.  Children are constantly responding and adapting to the environment in which they experience day-to-day life.  Even prior to food education activities being actively implemented in the school, students are learning and developing habits based on their experiences in the school cafeteria, with the food and environment that is available to them.  Because not all students have access to healthy foods at home, the food served in the cafeteria and the educational opportunities that come along with the food can have an incredibly positive impact on students’ lives.

What can be taught?

There are so many ways for students to receive food education in the cafeteria! Below are a few opportunities for getting students involved with the food they eat:

  • Farmer visits – Connecting students with producers is an excellent way to help students understand where, how, and by whom their food is grown and raised. Having a taste-test booth set up in the school cafeteria where a farmer can offer samples of his or her product to students would allow students the opportunity to try something new, learn about their food, and engage with the farmer.
  • Taste testing new menu items – As schools work to integrate healthier foods into the school meal program, new recipes may be developed and added to the breakfast and lunch menus. Input from students will help food service and child nutrition program staff determine students’ likes and dislikes.  Taste tests are also a fun way for students to try new foods, and having students vote on their favorite recipes brings the voice of the student body into the decision-making process, which will ultimately lead to the development of a student-approved menu. See this how-to from Georgia.
  • Chef visits – A visiting chef can introduce students not only to new healthy dishes but to food safety and food prep skills as well. This is a unique opportunity for students, as students typically only ever see the final product of food in the cafeteria through the meal that is served.  Having a chef set up a booth in the school cafeteria to showcase the proper cleaning of fruits and vegetables, knife skills, and the creation of a healthy dish would provide students with valuable skills that they could practice at home and share with their families.  The chef might also have the finished dish available for students to sample and a recipe card for the students to take home.
  • Choosing wisely – Students love being able to make their own choices. One way to encourage making healthy choices is by offering a salad bar in the school cafeteria.  Through this, students are exposed to healthy, fresh food choices and have the opportunity to make their own salad creations.  Pair fresh fruits and vegetables with healthy protein and grain options on the salad bar to add variety and give students the ability to make a well-rounded meal.  Educate students with a “stoplight” (green, yellow, and red) or “Go, Slow, and Whoa!” approach to help students choose nutrient-dense items liberally and calorie-dense options sparingly. This education can be displayed through the use of different colored tongs and spoons on the salad bar or via a poster hanging nearby.  A salad bar is also an opportunity to teach students salad bar etiquette, with such lessons as the importance of hand-washing, use of utensils, trying new foods, taking only as much as you can eat, being considerate of others in line, etc.

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