Skip to Content

Works4Me--Food for Thought



Teaching Students to Think about Food Choices and Eat Healthier

It can be difficult to teach students about health and wellness concepts when slick advertisements for sugar-sweetened drinks, cheap processed foods, and fast food restaurants are everywhere. And with kids and their parents busier than ever, cooking family meals has fallen by the wayside.

Enter Food Day. This national campaign, which takes place on October 24, promotes healthy, affordable, and sustainable foods and seeks to address nutrition and other food-related issues. Now you can bring that campaign into your classroom with interactive lesson plans.

Food Day staff worked with the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City to develop a five-day interactive and adaptive nutrition education curriculum, which teaches students how to make healthy eating choices in an unhealthy world.

The ultimate goal of the curriculum, says Food Day campaign manager Lilia Smelkova, is “to teach students how to navigate through the food system to find real food. Our food system can be extremely confusing for adults, let alone kids. The curriculum helps break down some tricky concepts and get students thinking about how to make healthy food choices.”

The Food Day curriculum is composed of five lessons. The first three lessons—“Eat Real,” “Mostly Plants,” and “Not Too Much”—teach students about whole versus processed foods, fats and sugars, and why plant-based foods are healthier options. The final two lessons teach kids how to navigate different food environments to make healthy choices, and to be health advocates in their own communities.

These lessons are more important than ever—students today are the first generation likely to have a shorter lifespan than their parents because of diet-related diseases. One in three children in America is obese or overweight, and those children have an increased risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and other diet-related illnesses—all of which have a direct impact on their ability to learn.

How does the curriculum fare in classrooms? Extremely well, says educator Jessica Zirn, who taught the curriculum to her K–8 students in Madison, Wisconsin.

“I cannot say enough about this amazing series!” says Zirn. “The Food Day curriculum really sparked engagement in my students. It’s so visual and user-friendly. My students observe, analyze, and share their opinions about how food is grown and transported to our plate, where and how food grows, what whole foods are, and questions of food marketing and media.

“Teaching students about processed foods had an especially big impact,” says Zirn.

“We talked about why we enjoy foods that have lots of additives that make our brains happy, like sugar, MSG, and sodium. Students recognized that these foods are essentially imposters or ‘fakes,’ tricking us because the foods’ contents manipulate our bodies into thinking we want more,” she says.

Zirn and her students then talked about how processed foods are marketed, and she was stunned by the impact of the lessons, with some students becoming outraged at what they saw as lying by food companies.

In 2006 alone, the food industry spent around 1.6 billion dollars to market foods to children that are, for the most part, over-processed, high in calories, and lacking essential nutrients.

“Fourth and fifth grade seems a perfect time to introduce this topic because they are at a crucial stage of constant questioning. Some students demonstrated shock and betrayal when they found out they are in the crosshairs of the food marketing industry. They ask themselves why fresh fruits and vegetables don’t get ad time between their favorite TV shows, if those make us healthy.”

Zirn loved the effects of the adaptable and visual curriculum. “I let the students lead the way. They come up with their own insights. The curriculum’s flexibility allows the students to connect the dots themselves. I sometimes grin because I’m not really teaching at all—they are!”

The Food Day curriculum is available for free download.

You can also contact the Food Day team, and reach out to the curriculum’s creators, at the Teachers College at Columbia University at