Why Food Enhances Learning in School

We all learn new skills differently. Some of us learn by listening, while others learn by doing. Most of us learn best with a combination of learning methods. Food, with its numerous multi-sensory properties, is a fantastic tool to enhance learning about anything.

Since we began to pioneer hands-on nutrition education 20 years ago, we became curious about why food could effectively convey complex ideas. For example, third graders grasped very abstract concepts about Japanese culture after performing the Japanese tea ceremony. We asked ourselves, what exactly is going on that makes learning ‘stick’ so well when food is involved? We began researching what the brain needs to learn. What we found is five ways that food can enhance the brain’s natural learning mechanisms. Not just by eating it, but by looking at it, thinking about it and preparing it through cooking.

1. Food Engages the Brain 

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It’s been long established that multisensory learning is an effective technique to help students retain new information. We use cooking as a means to teach nutrition because it engages all of the human senses, and is an ideal activity to support multisensory learning of new information. But what we’ve found is that learning through cooking goes beyond seeing, smelling, touching, hearing and tasting the food. Where the senses originate in the brain also have an impact on our ability to absorb new information. The part of the brain that processes our sense of smell is directly connected to the part responsible for memory and emotion. This is why a familiar smell can trigger a past memory or strong feeling. The same can be said for taste, which is largely dependent on our sense of smell. What’s interesting is that auditory and visual information don’t pass through these same areas. When applied to pedagogy, this suggests that engaging smell and taste can better support learning than the traditional ways of teaching auditory and visual information. 

2. Food Sharpens the Mind

As it turns out, peeling a pound of carrots may stimulate the brain’s natural learning processes. The human brain learns best with repetition, especially when an activity is repeated with the right frequency, intensity and duration. Cooking has its own set of methodologies, like preparing a mise en place of ingredients before sauteing them. In nour programs, we’ve found that repetition encourages students to think logically and independently about the next steps in the process. “I’ve observed many young children memorize how to cook a recipe from start to finish, and be able to repeat it at home from memory.” says Lynn Fredericks, FamilyCook Productions’ founder, “Many tasks in cooking are repetitive, and repetition is so integral in how children learn.”

3. Food Makes Learning Fun

We’d all learn new things more easily if we were in a fun, relaxing environment. Neuroscience research shows that students achieve higher levels of cognition when they’re more engaged, motivated and feel minimal stress. This doesn’t always apply to traditional school settings and directed lectures. Bringing food into the classroom is a unique way to engage students and break up the monotony of sitting and listening.

4. Food Supports Collaborative Learning

If cooking is done collaboratively in a group setting, it provides another dimension for learning. Collaborate cooking applies the principles of cooperative learning, where students work as a group to help each other accomplish a task. Cooperative learning is effective because students can observe their peers and correct themselves if they’re completing a task ineffectively. In fact, we’ve found that cooking classes taught in group settings require less didactic instruction from the teacher. This translates to less required time and resources, because the brain’s natural learning mechanisms are more efficiently utilized.

5. Food Is Relevant

One reason that students lose focus in the classroom is that they don’t feel like the concepts are relevant to their lives. Food can help abstract concepts come to life. At Manhattan International High School, we’ve partnered with their 9th grade math teachers to teach statistics within the context of food. In one assignment, students take on the role of a food critic by rating their recipes for taste, and then charting the statistical average of these ratings over time. Food engages the students and utilizes all of their senses, while cooking supports collaborative learning and repetition. This provides new dimensions to teach math concepts, both in and out of the seat.

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Written by Bobby Maknoon, dietetic intern at City University of New York.

 

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Teen Battle Chefs take on Thai recipe concepts

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Every summer, FamilyCook offers an opportunity for a couple dozen inner city teenagers to have a part-time paid job teaching others to cook healthy meals.  Through Teen Battle Chef, these students learned to cook in their high schools and were nominated for our Summer Leadership Brigade by their TBC instructors from our partner organizations such as HealthCorps

 

I developed Teen Battle Chef 10 years ago to inspire teenagers to find their path to a healthier lifestyle. Through our innovative formula employing time limits and weekly competitions, teens develop a preference to prepare their own snacks and meals using fresh ingredients. Seeing this transformation, we then took the program to the next level by exploring the teens’ capacity to influence their families and friends. With that success, the program’s scope now includes internships and job opportunities for these youths to teach others in their community.

 

We match them to such jobs as teaching younger children to cook and conducting cooking demos in farmers markets, among other roles. Each Tuesday, the whole group meets at a central location for a mentoring session or field trip. This week, we took them into new territory with Thai cuisine!  One of our new dietetic interns (Pamela Wachrathit) is Thai and was excited to participate to be our authenticity guide for our cooking session.  The TBC Alumni Mentors, who organized and co-facilitated the three- hour session, were thrilled at the results!

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Surprising

On the menu were three delicious Thai recipes:  Green Papaya Salad; Lettuce Leaf Wrap Appetizers, and Sticky Rice with Coconut and Mango.  According to our Teen Battle Chef Alumni Mentors (who just a few months back were learning to be TBCs in their own high schools), they were most surprised by the TBC students’ willingness to try all the unusual ingredients, such as dried shrimp which were, according to Mentor Liz Cordero, ‘pretty shrimpy and salty’ tasting.  TBC Mentor Joel Allette was surprised that tutoring the kids on deveining shrimp moved along so speedily and successfully.

 

Hilarious

Apparently some of the ‘newness’ for the teens resulted at times in downright hilarity.  When pressed to give examples, they unanimously agreed upon the moment when TBC Cheyanne reacted to the lettuce leaf wraps, which had chili rounds, pickled garlic, ginger, herbs, coconut, peanuts etc. inside.  They laughed uncontrollably as they described how she was so shocked by the chili spice that hit her palate first, she ‘tried to suck in all the air in the room’ to compensate for the spices. Equally funny, they shared, was the reaction to the opening of the jar of shrimp paste which, Joel assured me, made the entire room smell like Flatbush, Brooklyn on a 100 degree day.  

 

Gratifying

Of course the entire experience of working with youth (even if you’re one of our Mentors, one of which is still a high school student, albeit a very accomplished one) is chock full of proud and satisfying moments.  Dante Mena our amazing musician chef, shared with me that his most gratifying moment was when the students tasted their Thai creations and ‘begged for 2nds, 3rds, and even 4ths!”  For Liz, she most appreciated seeing them ‘eat something totally foreign’ and expect to like it!

 

Teaching Moments:

Beyond the introduction of new recipes teaming with fresh ingredients, the other purpose of the day was to demonstrate how most culture’s recipes are concepts. Once mastered, they can be altered with new seasonal ingredients. This is a very important part of how we teach cooking in FamilyCook programs and it is also described step by step in our book.  According to the TBC mentors, adding some blueberries to the traditional sticky rice and mango was a big hit, as were adding zucchini and radishes to the Thai papaya salad!  Our Thai intern underscored this lesson as she ndescribed how her grandmother made these same dishes with her signature touch.

 

Photos:  Courtesy David Bartolomi

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