Teaching Methods

Table of Contents

1. Guiding Principles
2. Learning Activities

This topic has two sections. To skip to the second section, simply click on the table of contents above.

Guiding Principles

  1. Inquiry-based
  2. Experiential
  3. Conceptually-based
  4. Cooperative


To be effective, we need to teach people in developmentally appropriate ways. Once the learning processes of your students are understood, curriculum materials can be tailored to the student’s developmental needs and abilities. Young children and people of all ages learn best by doing projects that engage the senses with materials that can be manipulated, and that are fun to do. Motivation and retention of information are increased if the association with the topic is pleasurable.



“What’s in a question, you ask? Everything. It is evoking stimulating response or stultifying inquiry. It is, in essence, the very core of teaching.” – John Dewey

One of the most important teaching methods in Food is Elementary© is the use of questions. Asking questions and listening to your students makes it possible for you to get to know them and to gauge their current level of understanding so you are able to meet them where they are intellectually. Questions generate curiosity and help students develop critical thinking skills. Questions invite students to wonder and become invested in the discussion rather than being a passive recipient of information. Ask questions, don’t just give answers. Each lesson includes several key questions that start simple and get more complex. Use these questions to generate discussion around key concepts.

Encouraging students to ask questions is equally important to asking questions. Cultivate an environment where all students feel safe asking questions and taking intellectual risks. Students need to know that there are no stupid questions, and that they will not be judged or singled out for not knowing, or wanting to learn more.

If a student asks a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t make it up. Show humility and tell students that you are a lifelong learner, and no one has all of the answers, even the experts. If you have time, research the answer with the students and model your thought process by “thinking out loud” to help them learn how to problem solve and find information from legitimate sources.


Experiential, hands-on, sensory-based

“The mind follows the hand.”
– Maria Montessori

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
– Xunzi ,Confucian Scholar (340 – 245 BC)

The premise of Food is Elementary is that students are more engaged and more likely to try new foods when they are actively involved in learning about and preparing those foods through hands-on experiences. When someone literally has a hand in making something, they are naturally more invested in the outcome and more likely to try it out of a sense of curiosity and pride.

When all five senses are engaged in an activity, when you think back to that experience, you have more information to help you remember and do not have to rely solely on cognition. Such as, what did it look, feel, smell, taste, and sound like?




“Anybody can make the simple complicated.
Creativity is making the complicated simple.”
– Charlie Mingus, Jazz Musician

“The purpose of this curriculum is to demystify nutrition by breaking it into accessible concepts. We want to turn children on to food rather than off of nutrition. This curriculum introduces nutritional concepts in a manner that children can understand.”
– Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

Food is Elementary is based on key concepts that can be taught to all ages from preschool to senior citizens. The lessons can be adapted to different age groups by varying the depth of information and learning activities according to the age and ability of the group.

Focus on the key concepts of each lesson. What’s the big idea? What are the parts that make up the whole? How are the parts related to each other? Repeat the concepts and ask questions throughout the lesson to gauge student understanding of the concepts.

Go slow in the beginning and make sure the students comprehend the concepts. People thrive in an environment where they feel smart, not dumb. Aim for mastery by moving through content with enough time for students to grapple and feel safe and supported taking academic risks and asking questions without feeling rushed, left behind, or confused, which can leave them feeling insecure or turned off to the material.

Start each lesson with a review of the previous lesson. Ask the students to tell you what they know about the previous topic. If they don’t show an understanding of the key concepts, review the material, discuss misunderstandings or misconceptions, and don’t move on until most of the students demonstrate understanding.



“The spirit of co-operation will be destroyed unless each child is given a part to perform.”
– Nellie Farnsworth, The Rural School Lunch, 1919

Cooperative projects can help students develop social-emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. Working together toward a common goal involves collaboration, dialogue, and negotiation and cultivates a sense of interdependence and teamwork.


Ground Rules for Group Work

Everyone has an equal responsibility to help the group.
Everyone’s ideas are valued.
Everyone gets a turn.



Core Learning Activities

    1. Vocabulary
    2. Discussions
    3. Journals
    4. Demonstrations
    5. Tastings
    6. Assessments
    7. Routines
    8. Maps & Visual Aids
    9. Stories
    10. Field Trips
    11. Special Guests
    12. Planting
    13. Cooking



Help your students build their vocabulary through multiple exposures to key words. Encourage your students to use vocabulary terms throughout class by saying the words out loud, discussing their meaning, and writing them in their journal. Teach your students specific vocabulary to describe the sensory aspects of the foods they taste in class. Sentence starters can be useful prompts, for example, today I learned… the food looks…. smells… tastes…



The key questions at the beginning of each lesson are used to pique student interest in the topic and assess their current understanding of the topic. Whole class discussions can be effective as long as they are not dominated by only a few students while the others tune out. Shy students may be more comfortable speaking in small groups or through brief “turn & talk” discussions with partners. It is important to set the expectations for discussions ahead of time: remind students to take turns talking, to listen actively to each other, and speak in a respectful manner. Keep the discussion focused. Ask for specific examples. Summarize key points periodically. Keep it simple. Do not use excessive language to try to explain something.

The use of “circles” is a democratic way for everyone to have a turn speaking while building community and trust. Ideally, everyone is seated in the shape of a circle so no one has their back to anyone else. The teacher introduces a “prompt” or question which the students take turns answering. For example, “my favorite fruit is…”. Circles are also a helpful way for teachers to learn the names of students if they don’t already know them, as each student says their name before answering the prompt. Decide ahead of time if students are allowed to pass or if they are required to speak when it is their turn. A helpful way to keep track of whose turn it is to speak is to have a “talking piece” that is passed from person to person; whoever has the talking piece has the opportunity to speak. The talking piece could be related to the prompt, for example a fruit, veggie, or cooking utensil.



The purpose of journals is for students to record what they are learning and to bring the journal home when the class is over to share with their family. Students can draw illustrations of the foods they are learning about in their journals. They can record their responses to the foods they taste and use vocabulary to describe those foods. They can record vocabulary words, health data, nutritional measurements, observations, geographic data, food history, artwork, recipes, and their thoughts about the recipes they prepare in their journal.

Depending on the abilities of your students, journals can be blank notebooks or pre-made packets. Journals can be made from three ring binders, manila folders, and other methods. The journals should be easy to store, distribute, collect, and easy for the students to use during class.



Food is Elementary provides educators with opportunities to teach skills that students can use for the rest of their life, such as food selection and food preparation. In order for students to master such skills, they need proper instruction and sufficient time to practice in a relaxed manner. When doing a demonstration, make sure everyone can see and hear. Go slow and narrate your actions. When teaching cooking skills, show the students what to do in addition to what NOT to do.  Ask them why they should not do it that way and discuss safety issues.

When you are teaching a skill…

  1. Clearly explain the skill by breaking it down into small steps.
  2. Model the skill in a demonstration, narrating each step.
  3. Provide time for students to practice the steps of the skill. Reinforce, remind, and redirect as needed. Students need a lot of time to practice for the skill to become automatic and effectively transfer to real life situations.



The main goal of tasting activities is to provide students with opportunities to taste a wide variety of health-promoting whole foods in a pressure-free environment. Remain mindful that trying new foods can be scary and never pressure students. Remove the natural fear of trying new foods by telling students that tasting is always their choice, they will never be forced to eat anything. If a student does not want to try a food, do not draw attention to it or engage in a power struggle.

The “no yuck rule” is essential in cultivating a respectful, judgement-free culture around food choices. When you introduce the no yuck rule, appeal to their emotions – ask the students how they would feel if someone said eww, yuck, disgusting about a food they liked, or insulted a dish that they had gone to great effort to create. Make sure the students understand that the no yuck rule does not mean that everyone has to like all of the food, it means that no one should say negative things about the food because food preferences are very personal. In other words, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Better yet, challenge the students to come up with one positive thing to say about a food even if they don’t care for it, for example, “it’s a beautiful shade of green”. This is simply the life skill of having good manners. Model this behavior consistently.

When preparing for tasting activities, get fresh, beautiful produce, wash it ahead of time, and arrange it so it looks attractive and appealing. When you introduce foods in class, put the food front and center and make sure everyone can see it. Teach the students the names of all of the foods used in class and get them to say the names of the foods out loud as many times as possible during each lesson. Provide opportunities for all students to handle the foods used in class whenever possible. The more hands-on experience they have with the food, the more likely they are to want to try it. With younger students, you can try passing foods around, chanting “please pass the ___”, which reinforces vocabulary, manners, and serves as a prompt to keep passing it. Keep food safety and sanitation in mind with the foods that are passed around and always wash them after they are handled, before they are eaten.

Always have water for students to drink to cleanse their palate and wash away any tastes or textures they do not care for. Remind students to take a tiny bite if they’re not sure they will like a new food. Do not allow students to spit out food or run to the trash can in a dramatic manner. If they really can’t stomach a food, they can use a napkin to discreetly remove it from their mouth. But a sip of water should suffice.

Model appropriate behavior about being open minded about trying new foods, even if you’re hesitant to eat something. Use strength-based responses and emphasize how brave a student is when they do try a food for the first time. Acknowledge that trying unfamiliar foods can be scary and they should feel proud for being brave enough to try it, whether or not they end up liking the food. Tell the students that it can take up to 10 times of trying a particular food to know if you really like it or not. Tell them that taste buds can change, and share a personal experience if possible. For example, when I was a kid I did not care for fresh tomatoes, but now I think they are delicious.

Tell the students that you are going to guide them in a mindful tasting, with the goal of slowing down and noticing more about the sensory aspects of the food. Eating slowly can actually make the food taste better as well as easier to digest. When facilitating a tasting, make sure that everyone is served a sample to try, and assure students that tasting is always optional. Introduce the foods for the tasting and remind the students to wait for the tasting to begin to start eating. Serve one food at a time so they don’t get distracted by other foods.

Guide students to use their senses to experience, describe, and evaluate the foods. Take your time, focusing on one sense at a time. Look at the food. What does it look like? Touch the food with your fingers. What does it feel like? Smell the food. What does it smell like? Eat the food. What does it taste like? What is the texture (mouthfeel)? Students can describe the food using specific vocabulary and they really enjoy rating each food. They can keep track of their ratings in their journal and you can record descriptive words and class ratings/votes on a whiteboard.



It’s important to check for understanding as you progress through each lesson. Several informal assessments are embedded in the lesson plans, such as starting each lesson with a review of previous learning, the use of questions, discussions, and a summary of learning at the end of each lesson. These, and other quick evaluation tools are described here.

Every lesson starts with a review of the previous lesson. Asking the students to remember what they did and learned is important because it enables you to assess their understanding of the key concepts and clear up any misconceptions. If a majority of students do not understand, you may need to repeat the lesson. It can be helpful to ask the students who do understand key concepts to teach the others, as students may be able to “hear” the message more clearly from their peers. Don’t worry about advancing through the lessons on a pre-set schedule, the most important thing is that your students understand what you are aiming to teach them.

A quick technique to check for understanding is to ask students to show thumbs up, in the middle, or down based on their current level of understanding. If there are many thumbs down, ask the students what they are confused by and address it before moving on. You can also have a question box in the classroom so students can ask questions anonymously. Distributing “exit tickets” at the end of class with 1-3 quick questions based on key concepts can provide a snapshot of student understanding. Older students can write in their journals one thing they learned in class today.

Every lesson ends with a “food is good to think” summary. Asking students to summarize key points from the day’s lesson will give you insight into what they have gained from the lesson. The summary also allows you to clear up misconceptions.

Pre- and post-tests are formal assessment tools that are used to measure learning growth. These are used at the beginning and end of a unit of study. Explain to students that they are not expected to know the answers on the pre-test, and their score will not be included in their class grade. Their score on the post-test will be compared to their score on the pre-test to demonstrate how much they have learned over the course of the unit.



To make the most of your time together (especially in the school setting), it is worthwhile to spend some time practicing routines for activities that are done regularly. Teaching basic procedures for activities such as arrival to class, hand washing, getting materials (journals, foods, cooking equipment), cleaning up, and dismissal from class will save time by avoiding confusion, chaos, excessive repetition of directions, and potential safety hazards. Anticipate safety issues (water on floor during hand washing, getting or cleaning up knives and other sharp tools, etc.) and teach the students the safest procedure. Think about how the students will move and speak in the classroom, when they should take turns talking, voice levels for different activities, and how you will get their attention if they are busy working. There are many attention-getting signals that range from call and response catchphrases to clapping, to bells, songs, or turning off the lights.


Maps & Visual Aids

Maps can be incorporated in many lessons – to discuss indigenous food crops, climate, trade routes, and the location of the countries or regions of origin for the recipes prepared in class. Visual aids such as pictures, videos, books, and tangible objects are helpful to visual learning styles.



Stories can be a compelling way to engage students with ideas and concepts. You can read picture books aloud to younger students or share personal stories to illustrate key points and generate curiosity.


Field Trips

Taking your student to farms, farmer’s markets, botanical gardens, grocery stores, food warehouses, food factories, and restaurants can be a great way to introduce them to the different parts of the food system.


Special Guests

Invite guests who have expertise in certain areas to teach a class and expand on the lessons you are teaching. Guests could be nutritionists, dietitians, scientists, professional chefs or home cooks with knowledge of a particular cuisine, artists, musicians, grandparents, or others who can teach your students about traditions from the cultures and other topics they are learning about. Farmers, Master Gardeners, professional or home gardeners, and beekeepers can add value to the students’ educational experience in the area of growing food.


Planting Seeds & Growing a Garden

Many lessons involve opportunities to plant seeds – whether saved from the fruits they taste in class or seeds that are purchased and started in the classroom or outdoors. Keep in mind, many seeds collected from fruits may not germinate because they have been genetically modified. Before planting, do your research and find out the growing zone, planting dates, sun, water, and soil requirements, and days to maturity for each plant. If you can’t meet these requirements, find something else to plant.

Seeds suited to start indoors include: broccoli, Brussels sprout, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, sweet potato slips, and tomatoes, eggplant, melons, celery, pepper, and onion.

It is possible to germinate seeds in many different growing mediums, from in-between moist paper towels in a plastic bag to potting soil, peat pellets or in a soilless or peat-lite mix. Garden soil is not advisable for starting seeds indoors because it can contain harmful organisms.

Peat pellets are small, compact, dried peat that expands when watered. Two or three seeds can be sown in each pellet. The roots grow right through the peat, so you can plant the whole thing directly in the ground. Peat is a sterile planting medium which prevents “damping off”, a mildew or fungus disease that kills the seedlings. Damping off is more common in soil from the ground. Peat pellets are the ideal method for young children, because they are self-contained (no loose soil) and easy to plant in a pot or garden plot.

Recycled food containers can be used to sprout seedlings and to make plant labels. Yogurt containers can be cut into strips to make plant labels, and seeds can be planted in milk cartons, egg crates, and other food packages (no metal cans). The containers don’t need to be large, in fact small and shallow is ideal. Be sure to poke several holes in the bottom of any recycled containers to allow extra water to drain and put the container on a tray or plate to collect the water that drains out of the containers.

Read the seed package to find out when and how to plant the seeds. Firm them into the soil and water them with gentle water from a shower head, not a single hard stream from a hose. Place the seeds in a sunny window, ideally southern exposure. Alternatively, use a grow light, or a basic fluorescent shop light with one warm white bulb and one cool white bulb. Seeds that don’t get enough sunlight become leggy and weak.

Cover the seed containers with plastic wrap until they germinate, to trap moisture and heat which will accelerate germination. Keep the soil damp, don’t let it dry out or get soggy or waterlogged. Too much water can cause the seeds to rot or mold, and not enough water can cause them to dry out and die. Feel the soil and gently add water when the soil is starting to get a bit dry. You can water from the top or pour water on the under-liner tray and it will wick up to the soil in the container. You can also mist seedlings, ideally with distilled water.

When the second pair of leaves appear (the “true” leaves), you can carefully transplant the seedlings to larger individual containers and keep them on a sunny windowsill (transplanting is optional). Keep the soil moist but not saturated. Transplant the seedlings to the garden when they’re big enough and strong enough to handle outdoor weather conditions. Seedlings are very fragile, so be gentle when transplanting and try to provide optimal conditions for growth. The transition from indoors to the climate outdoors can shock seedlings if the change is too sudden. It is important to gradually introduce seedlings grown indoors to the harsher climate outdoors; this is called “hardening off” or to “harden off”. Seedlings are fragile and need time to acclimate to outdoor weather. Ideally, transplanting should be done in the afternoon or evening, the cooler part of the day. If it’s too hot, the transplants will wilt and can become stressed. Give them a lot of water once they’re in the ground and keep them watered regularly.

Dig a hole big enough to hold the roots. Pour water into the hole, set the plant in the hole carefully, and fill in the hole with soil. Pat the soil flat and water the small plant very well. Don’t let it dry out. If you have not hardened off the seedlings before transplanting, then protect them in the garden for a few days from the full intensity of the sun by creating some type of shade over them.

Many greenhouses and nurseries start seeds indoors and sell seedlings that can be transplanted in your garden. In some areas, transplants extend the growing season and make it possible for gardeners and farmers to grow crops in areas that have short growing seasons. Buying transplants is a good backup plan if you don’t have time or space to start seeds indoors, or if you are not successful at starting seeds indoors. Select transplants that look healthy, sturdy, disease-free, and have good roots.

Alternatively, seeds can be sown directly in the garden soil when it’s warm enough, and do not do well as transplants. Seeds suited to direct sowing in garden soil include beans, beets, carrots, corn, cucumber, okra, peas, radish, spinach, squash, and turnips. These plants do not do well as transplants.

Read the seed packet to find out how deep to plant the seeds, and how much space between them. The general rule of thumb is that larger seeds are planted deeper than tiny seeds which need only a light covering of soil. Use row markers to label the types of plants.



Cooking is one of the most fun activities and can have a huge impact on your students, but it requires careful planning on the part of the teacher. Students love cooking, and once they start that’s all they will want to do. Cooking is a very dynamic activity, particularly when orchestrated with a group of energetic students who likely do not have the background experience to know what to do. As the teacher, it’s your job to think through the different components of a recipe, how to divide the work so everyone takes part, all while maintaining safety and ensuring there’s enough time to introduce the recipe, cook, eat, and clean up in a relaxed manner, in a given amount of time. It is of utmost importance that the students do the work, not the teacher. The teacher’s job is to set the students up for success, assist as needed, and supervise closely. Since each classroom or setting and group of students is unique, it’s up to the teacher to get to know the students, their abilities, strengths, and social dynamics and design a lesson that honors their capabilities and enables them to succeed. Don’t be overly ambitious with cooking activities at first, start slow so you can develop confidence in facilitating cooking activities. Start off strict and more controlled, ask the students to review safety rules at the start of every class. As you and your students get more experience cooking together, you will be able to loosen up a bit. It is important to trust your students and to maintain a calm demeanor. If you are nervous, they will pick up on it and things could get out of control. If a cooking lesson does begin to feel chaotic or unsafe, stop the lesson. The students need to know that cooking is a privilege and a potentially dangerous activity and they must follow directions or they will lose that privilege. This scenario is unlikely, most students absolutely love cooking and respect the rules and the process, but it’s the teacher’s responsibility to be prepared for anything.