Food and Nutrition, Mental Health & Well-being

Power Recipes: How to Incorporate Cooking in the Classroom

Power Recipes: How to Incorporate Cooking in the Classroom

By Meagan Gillmore

Royce Li knows of students who hadn’t cracked an egg before entering his Grade 11 class. “It’s shocking,” he says from Rick Hansen Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario where he teaches in the hospitality department.

Students are used to meals from fast-food restaurants where products are often filled with unnecessary fats, sugars, and salt.

“I think we always want to push healthy eating,” Li says. Low student passion is his biggest challenge, he says; plus shrinking budgets, lack of space, or limited teaching time. “It’s hard trying to change the whole cycle.” Hard, but necessary. According to Statistics Canada, more than 465,000 Canadian youth were identified as overweight or obese in 2012. The Canadian Diabetes Association estimates more than nine million Canadians live with diabetes or pre-diabetes.

The nutrition crisis poses a unique challenge for teachers because poorly-nourished children may spend more time at school than at home. A 2009-2010 report from the World Health Organization found less than half of 15-year-old girls and only 59 per cent of 15-year-old boys eat breakfast each school day. Educators see the impact on students’ academic performance, but may not know how, or if, they can use their classes to improve the situation. Traditional home economics courses have been rebranded as family studies in high schools in many jurisdictions, with different courses focusing on food and nutrition, textiles and design, or family relationships. But these classes aren’t mandatory. While students may learn about food and nutrition in elementary school, they’re not necessarily learning how to cook for themselves.

“The most powerful way we can change what children eat is by engaging them with the food,” explains Barb Finley, a former elementary school teacher in British Columbia and instructor in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education. She left teaching to attend culinary school, partly to develop ways to expose children to healthy food and not the Styrofoam-packaged, pre-cut “food-like substances” she saw many students eat.

“They don’t see (food) as part of a growing, living cycle,” Finley says. “We’re just so far removed from it given our busy lives.”

There’s no guarantee that children learn to cook at home. Canadian parents cite busyness, their work schedules, and their children’s after-school activities as main reasons for why they struggle to make healthy meals. In 2009, more than half of dinners eaten at home took less than 15 minutes to prepare. In 2010, children in Grades 6 through 10 reported eating only 4.7 family meals per week.

Extracurricular cooking classes or summer camps aren’t enough, says Finley. Most students enrolled in these classes already want to cook. The school setting ensures every child has a chance to learn, she says.

That’s why she developed Project CHEF: Cook Healthy Edible Food, a not-for-profit organization that teaches elementary school children about healthy eating and the food cycle through cooking. Each week, Finley and her staff visit a Vancouver elementary school and turn classrooms into kitchens. They bring electric stovetops and kitchen supplies; all the schools need is access to a refrigerator and running water. Each day focuses on a specific recipe: dessert, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. The chef-teacher gives a demonstration and then students, supervised by volunteers, cook the dish in small groups. They learn about the full cycle of food and the social aspects of sharing a meal. If schools have a community garden, they often use its produce, says Finley. She teaches two classes in each school a week. All lessons are connected to provincial curriculum.

Since beginning in 2008, nearly 8,200 children in 92 Vancouver elementary schools have participated in Project CHEF. Finley receives requests from across Canada, but with limited staff and resources, she can’t meet the demand. The program only operates in Vancouver and has a three-year waiting list.

Students know home-cooked, nutritious meals taste better than packaged foods, says Finley. She recalls teaching students to prepare minestrone soup that included 14 different vegetables. After spending 45 minutes preparing the meal, Finley and her staff showed the children an instant soup package. It would let them make similar soup in 10 minutes. They asked students why they’d bother spending nearly an hour cooking soup when they could have it so much faster. They answered without hesitation that the soup just prepared tasted better, looked better, smelled better—and was more fun to make. “They understand all the assets of things about food,” says Finley.

Not all those assets are tangible, however. Teaching cooking helps schools address larger social problems, says Diane O’Shea, a professional home economist and department head in family studies, social sciences and humanities for the Thames Valley District School Board in London, Ontario. She has taught family studies classes in high school for almost 20 years. Food and Nutrition are pretty popular courses, she said, but they’re not required and she thinks they should be.

O’Shea is a member of the Ontario Home Economics Association, an organization lobbying for family studies classes to be mandatory in the province’s high schools. “We have some pretty serious issues in our society. Obesity being one, mental health issues being another,” she says. “Those are the kinds of problems that are addressed in our courses.”

Recently, she and her Grade 12 Food and Nutrition students discussed statistics detailing when and where Canadians eat meals. The article they read mentioned that eating with their family increases a child’s literacy rate and decreases their chances of developing mental health or substance abuse problems. Teaching family studies, cooking included, is a “proactive” approach for increasing social well-being, she says.

Mandatory classes may not always be the best solution, says Alison Delf-Timmerman, a professional home economist and teacher in Manitoba. Teachers need the proper qualifications to teach cooking, and not many universities offer degrees in human ecology or home economics. Older schools may not have the necessary equipment, she says, and it can be hard for teachers to find time to effectively teach students to cook.

Cooking doesn’t have to be limited to food studies courses.


“I really believe that we can teach just about anything in the kitchen,” says Finley. Project CHEF also runs an in-residence program. This lasts for several weeks; every class in a school participates and material about food is incorporated into all subjects. Finley uses a recent ratatouille and whole-grain couscous recipe as an example. Following a recipe sharpened students’ reading and comprehension skills. They used math to double ingredients and calculate estimates. Because they were cooking a French meal, they also learned about another culture’s dining habits.

Many teachers find incorporating cooking into their lesson plans daunting, says Finley. A few summers ago, she held a workshop at the University of British Columbia to help teachers become comfortable with introducing cooking in their classrooms. They knew it was important, recalls Finley. They just weren’t sure how to do it. There were obvious concerns about food and equipment safety. They also doubted their own abilities to cook or properly manage students while they were cooking, says Finley.

It’s understandable.

“As teachers we have so much to do. There’s so much to cover with curriculum and everything that goes on in a school day,” Finley explains. Teachers need to make cooking manageable for their classes and students, she said. She suggests starting small, perhaps having a cooking station students can rotate through during a week, or incorporating food tastings into their lessons.

It can be simple, agrees O’Shea. She takes the Earth Day lesson “The Earth as an Apple” as an example. Teachers slice an apple to show what parts of the earth are covered by water and land, and then what fraction of the land is suitable for growing food. It works well in science or geography classes, but cooking could easily be incorporated, she says. Students could make applesauce in a microwave. They could compare how different apples taste. This could lead to discussing the varieties of apples grown in Ontario, and why it’s important to support local farmers, says O’Shea.

Exposing students to global cuisine doesn’t have to be difficult. Recently, O’Shea taught students the ways in which different cultures, as a result of immigration, influences eating habits. For example, she prepared tea to demonstrate the British influence on Canadian diet. Her class will be learning about different herbs and spices by making mashed potatoes, dividing the potatoes into dishes, and then adding different herbs and spices to them. None of this is too complicated or expensive, she says.

Safety always needs to be considered when teaching cooking. Teachers should consider getting a Food Safety certification and make sure they understand how to use equipment properly, says O’Shea.

Volunteers help, says Finley. Project CHEF relies heavily on parent and community volunteers. (The program has used more than 3,700 volunteers, which is almost half the number of student participants.) At first, volunteers were required to supervise and keep children safe, but Finley observed that adults learn as much as the children. Parent involvement grows each week, she says. This increases the likelihood that children will continue to eat—and prepare—healthy foods at home.

“That is the way we can make a change,” Finley says, “by reaching everybody, not a select population.”

Cooking can foster other abilities. “Food is power,” says Finley. “You have the power to feed yourself good food.”

She recalls a Grade 3 student who showed little interest in reading and wasn’t socially engaged. It wasn’t until she learned to cook with Project CHEF that she started borrowing cookbooks from the school library and her reading interest dramatically increased. Now in Grade Seven, she wants to be a chef when she’s older.

Even slow change is worth the wait, says Li. His school has recently started a morning juice program. Students come to school early and make a muffin and juice together, using fresh fruits and vegetables the school buys with funds from Breakfast for Kids, a program run by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Peel Region. Eventually, Li would like to see students make juices they can sell in the cafeteria.

For now, however, he takes it, “one day at a time.”

Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto and recent graduate of the Publishing: Book, Magazine and Electronic Program at Centennial College.

1 comment on "Power Recipes: How to Incorporate Cooking in the Classroom"

  1. Mary Carver

    Terrific article! Bravo TEACH

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