I’m often contacted to speak to organizations about how to teach nutrition to kids in and out of the classroom and make healthy eating fun and realistic for parents and families! Here are the questions I’m typically asked and my responses regarding nutrition education in schools. My hope is after reading it, you’ll see the importance of nutrition education in our kids’ health and for the future health of our nation!
Why should schools educate children on nutrition and healthy lifestyle behaviors?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the School Nutrition Association, and the Society for Nutrition Education & Behavior all agree that schools play an integral role in promoting healthy behaviors. Less than 1% of teenage boys meet USDA daily fruit and vegetable intake recommendations, and half of the children between the ages of 2 and 18 are consuming less than one serving of fruit per day. Education is one way to improve kids’ diet, help them maintain a healthy weight, and prevent chronic diseases.
Early intervention is the best way to create healthy behavior change. Eating behaviors that begin in childhood are more likely to carry into adulthood and influence health and weight. For example, science shows that eating regular family meals in middle school is associated with better nutrition in high school. Children need to learn about healthy eating habits and behaviors both while at home and at school. Influences from both the home and school are more likely to lead to a more positive behavior change that will stick. Check out these 7 Food Rules for a healthy family.
How can school nutrition education programs be designed to be most effective?
Studies suggest that students need at least 50 hours of nutrition education per year in order to change behavior. Unfortunately, the average student only receives about 13 hours per year. To reach the 50-hour goal, teachers should aim for about an hour and a half per week of nutrition education.
Not only is the amount of education important, but the right type of education is important as well. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, School Nutrition Association, and Society for Nutrition Education & Behavior, the ideal nutrition education program is one that is integrated into the required curriculum along with a farm-to-school program, connecting student’s families, and providing information about community health resources. The most effective nutrition education programs are holistic and involve the whole family to carry the nutrition messages beyond the school and into the home.
In addition to parents, teachers want to spend more time teaching nutrition to their students, however, lack the support and sufficient class materials. Several programs, such as the School Nutrition Association, California Department of Education, and the UC Davis Center for Nutrition in Schools provide free online lesson plans for teachers looking to integrate nutrition into the common core standards. I also love the LiFE curriculum series.
SuperKids Nutrition also hosts reviews of nutrition programs/curriculum, children’s books with garden and health themes, free printable garden-themed activities, coloring pages featuring farmer’s markets and cooking curriculum, recipes and behavioral trackers in the Healthy Kids Today, Prevent Cancer Tomorrow Campaign.
What are some notable examples of nutrition education programs being run at schools right now?
There are a number of different nutrition education programs available. The Farm-to-school program is the most popular. Farm-to-school programs assist schools in purchasing as much produce as possible from local farms. Grants are available from the government to establish the programs. Adopting a farm-to-school program can help schools reduce food costs by purchasing locally available seasonal produce and provide valuable educational opportunities for children about farming, nutrition, the local economy, and the environment. Read our Parents Guide to Farm to School Programs to see how to get one started in your community.
School garden programs are also appearing in schools across the country. School gardens provide kids with a hands-on opportunity to learn about food through gardening and cooking, which children are more likely to enjoy and remember as opposed to lecturing. School gardens can help improve student’s grades, increase their knowledge and consumption of vegetables, and can even improve social skills and self-esteem. Dr. Sheri Zidenberg at UC Davis is a big proponent of school gardening programs with much of her research revolving around the impacts of different methods of nutritional education such as the school garden programs on children’s dietary and lifestyle choices. Tap into her resources and insights on school gardens for your children’s school.