Nutrition education should mainly focus on food labels, calories, and portion sizes. Or at least that’s what I thought.
When I landed in the nutrition education program in college, it felt like the perfect fit. I got to study something I love: food.
For my thesis project, I created a “nutrition education intervention” for 5th grade students. It was a six-session survey course on the MyPlate guidelines, salt and sugar levels in processed foods, how to read a nutrition label, and more. At the end of each session, my students sampled a “healthy” snack like hummus, trail mix, and yogurt parfaits.
But I made a huge mistake by excluding the most basic education—how to actually incorporate nutritional knowledge in day-to-day cooking. Yes, the students learned about nutrition. But who knows how much they actually retained about grams of sugar in a soda or which vegetables contain vitamin C?
After college, I sought out other opportunities to bring nutrition education to students. Instead of building my lessons around nutritional science, cooking is now at the forefront.
Preventing Childhood Obesity
Nutrition education was having a moment in the early 2010s, when I was studying for my nutrition degree. Then-First Lady Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move! campaign in 2010 with the goal of solving “the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.” This initiative helped bring more opportunities for physical activity and healthy food choices to schools.
Let’s Move! came at a time when the prevalence of childhood obesity was on the rise. Almost 17% of U.S. youth were affected by obesity in 2009-2010, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That percentage has increased to 19.3% in recent years, affecting about 14.4 million children and adolescents.
Studies have linked childhood obesity to many adverse health outcomes, including higher rates of fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Public health authorities have suggested that childhood obesity is preventable with dietary and physical activity modifications.
But the idea that obesity is preventable can lead to feelings of shame for individuals who are unable to lose weight. It’s important to acknowledge that there are many factors out of an individual’s control that may also contribute to body weight. Children especially don’t have much control over their environment and meals.
So I decided to focus on prevention by way of teaching them how to cook.
Hands-On Nutrition Education: Cooking Classes
When I moved to New York in 2018, I started teaching cooking classes with a local program called Allergic to Salad. This program uses healthy, nut-free vegetarian recipes to give school-age students hands-on experience on cooking with whole foods.
As I teach these classes, I’ve seen how excited the students are to cook. And the messier the recipe, the better. Anytime we get to mash ingredients, like chickpeas for hummus, or whip cream for a berry mousse treat, they’re very engaged.
While nutritional science isn’t the focus of these classes, I talk about ingredients along the way. Students also build confidence in the kitchen as they learn how to chop vegetables (using the “bear claw” grip) and measure ingredients.
One of my favorite moments in these classes is when the students taste the food they’ve made. We all eat together and I give them some time to take their first few bites. Then I ask if they like or dislike the food. Usually, there will be a student or two who nervously says they don’t like it.
“That’s OK! What don’t you like about it?” I always ask.
They always seem caught off guard by the question, as if they were expecting that I’d be disappointed or that I’d tell them to keep eating it. Instead, I want to have a conversation about the different flavors, textures, and ingredients they found off-putting and what they could adjust to make it yummier.
A 2019 study published in Appetite suggested that when children prepare foods themselves, they’re likely to eat more. Cooking is a “compelling activity” that could affect children’s food preferences over time, according to the researchers.
Since the first nutrition classes I led in college, I’ve become more aware of how complex the issue of childhood obesity is. There are more factors at play than I imagined as a 20-year-old. Genetics, socioeconomic status, and environmental factors all play key roles in the health outcomes of children. And at the end of the day, children don’t have a lot of control over what they’re fed.
As the study suggested, cooking classes alone likely won’t reverse childhood obesity rates. But as students are exposed to different whole food ingredients and have fun in the kitchen, they might be curious and more open to trying other nutritious recipes as they get older.
Recipe: Fig & Oats Energy Bites
My students often love recipes that allow them to touch and mold the food with their bare hands. This recipe for chewy fig and oat energy balls was adapted from a recipe in my classes. It’s great to make with a group because there’s something for everyone to do. Let some kids start chopping the figs while others measure out the ingredients.
Once the prep is done, everyone can get to roll their own energy ball.
This recipe also works with a smaller group. If you want to spend some fun time in the kitchen with your family, this easy and kid-approved recipe is a great place to start.
These can last about one week in the fridge and are great to whip up on the weekend to have on hand for an easy after-school snack.
I used peanut butter, but if you’re allergic to nuts, you can opt for sunflower seed butter. Dried figs are available at many grocery stores and online. (I get mine from Trader Joe’s.)
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 10 energy bites
2 tbsp rolled oats
2 tbsp fresh cranberries
1/2 cup dried figs (stems removed)
3 tbsp peanut butter
4 tbsp coconut flakes divided
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp lemon juice
pinch of salt
- Start by removing the stems from the dried figs. Cut each fig in half.
- Add figs, rolled oats, cranberries, peanut butter, 2 tbsp of coconut flakes, cinnamon, coconut oil, honey, lemon, and salt into a food processor.
- Blend or pulse until everything is combined for about 10–15 seconds. Stop the food processor and check the consistency. You’re looking for everything to come together in a sticky dough. Keep blending for another 10–15 seconds at a time to make sure all the ingredients are fully combined. (Depending on your blender or food processor, this step may take more time.)
- Scoop out about 1 tbsp of the mixture at a time and roll it into a ball.
- Place the energy bites about 1/2 inch apart in a container and store them in the fridge for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, remove the energy bites from the fridge. Then spread the remaining coconut flakes on a plate, and roll the bites around in the coconut flakes.