The cafeteria presents many opportunities for nutrition education and promotion. Regardless of space or size, the cafeteria is a hub for school meals, socialization, and education!
How can the cafeteria be used as a learning space?
Children learn to try new foods through exposure. Taste tests, Harvest of the Month and highlighting new menu options are all great ways to introduce new foods to students.
When thinking about how to use your cafeteria as a space for introducing new foods and implementing nutrition education and promotion, consider the following:
While students might be the most obvious target audience for creating a learning space in the cafeteria, don’t forget about teachers, administrators and parents. Students are more likely to try new foods if they are encouraged by parents and/or school staff. Consider working with a parent-teacher organization to help spread the word about a new taste test, or Harvest of the Month. Highlight new foods on the school lunch menu and utilize social media platforms to showcase the new foods being featured that month!
What challenges arise when thinking about utilizing the cafeteria as a learning space? Serving meals that meet the USDA School Nutrition Standards in a timely, orderly manner is a top priority, and perhaps there isn’t much time or space for nutrition education or promotion. Here are a few ways to overcome these challenges:
- The cafeteria is often seen as a socialization period for students. Try incorporating nutrition education/promotion in a way that allows students to have fun. Only have five minutes? Try using these Fruit and Vegetable Flash Cards from the USDA as a way to share quick nutrition education tips while students are in line waiting for meals or heading to recess.
- Try to stay away from Good Foods vs. Bad Foods, and instead, highlight what makes a healthy food choice. For example, does the yogurt come from a local dairy farm? Does the fish come from a local fishery? Allowing students to see where their food comes from increases their likeliness to try it!
If cafeteria space is limited, think about wall space. Visual learning tools such as posters and signs are great ways to share nutrition education and promote healthy choices. Thinking about costs of visuals? The USDA offers free posters and signage.
Here are some other fun ways to promote nutrition in a limited space:
- Involve students! Speak with the art department and discuss incorporating a Nutrition Education Art Project. Students can color the MyPlate, paint school gardens, or create their own ideas. This artwork can be showcased in the cafeteria!
- Digital signage such as TV’s and projectors are also ways to display nutrition education information around the school.
- Does your school conduct morning announcements? Work with the morning announcements students/staff to do “Nutrition Fun Fact Fridays” as part of the announcements.
Harvest of the Month is a great and easy way to promote and educate students on different foods. Consider what foods are in season, and how they can be procured. Check out the Massachusetts-Grown Produce Availability Calendar for an extensive list of seasonal foods.
Food and nutrition can often mean different things to different people. It is important to understand that food relates to culture, celebration and bringing people together. The cafeteria is a space for everyone, and allows students to sit back, socialize and enjoy a meal with friends. Remember that the cafeteria brings joy to students, and mealtimes allow for some much-deserved down time.
If utilizing the cafeteria as a learning space feels overwhelming, start small. Prompt students to use their five sense while in the serving line. Ask students what they see, smell, and hear. When students are lining up to transition, ask students what they tasted and touched during mealtime.
See examples below:
- See: Did they see pictures of Massachusetts Farms where food is grown and harvested on the walls?
- Smell: What ingredients can they smell coming from the kitchen?
- Taste: Was the food salty, sweet or savory?
- Touch: Was the food hot? Was it cold?
- Hear: Did they hear any nutrition education messages?
Middle and High School students have mastered their five senses, so try having students use a variety of adjectives to describe their experience with new foods:
- See: What colors did they see on their plates? How can they diversify the colors they eat?
- Smell (Aroma): Could they smell any of the following in their meal?
- Baked Goods: yeast, cinnamon, nutmeg, cookies
- Seasonings: garlic, ginger, shallots, onion, chive, herbs & spices
- Smoke: grilling meats, campfire, hot dogs & hamburgers, bacon & sausage
- Taste (Flavors): What flavors did they experience today?
- Was it salty? Did it make them thirsty?
- Was it sweet, fruity or sour?
- Was it spicy? Fire-hot?
- Was it bitter?
- Touch (Consistency of food): How did the foods feel in their mouth and/or hand?
- Were they smooth, soothing, creamy, thin, thick, gritty, grainy, or chunky?
- Were they hot, warm, cool, cold, freezing? Did they give you a “brain freeze?”
Great flavor exercises that can be done easily. Here are some examples:
- Citrus Tasting: When in season check with a produce vendor and provide different varieties of “oranges” for students to have as part of their meal. This demonstrates the visual difference in shape, size and color, the difference in aroma and texture as well as the varieties of flavors. It also encourages students to ask “where did these oranges come from” and “how does that impact the look, feel and flavor of the fruit?”
- Apple Tasting: Did you know there are more than 7,500 different varieties/cultivars of apples? Bring in a variety of different apples and have students reflect on the different colors, textures, flavors and uses of these apples.
When thinking about why you should utilize the cafeteria as a learning space, don’t forget about all of the work you are already doing. Providing students with nutrient-dense meals, meeting meal components and utilizing fresh and local ingredients is top chef work! Show off this hard work and let your students, administration and parents know why school meals are fresh and delicious!