A nutritious diet is essential to health. Food contains nutrients (such as vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fats), which are necessary for the growth and maintenance of the cells that make up the body. Eating provides the body with the nutrients it needs to survive.
Different foods provide different kinds of nutrients, and some foods are more nutritious than others. It is important to eat a varied and healthful diet to supply one's body with all the nutrients it needs. Proper nutrition is especially critical during childhood—a period of rapid growth and development. Furthermore, children’s attitudes toward food and exercise can be strongly influenced by their environment, and it is prudent to establish healthy habits at a young age. Obesity, diabetes, and other health problems can be prevented with healthy eating and exercise practices.
This lesson begins with an activity in which students consider two plates of food: one composed of healthy choices and one composed of less healthy choices. Students then learn about the importance of nutrition, watch a video about healthy eating habits, and discuss the role of fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet. Next, students investigate snacks and learn about the difference between "everyday" and "sometimes" foods. They watch a video about how to choose healthy snacks, and then participate in an activity that challenges them to make healthy choices while preparing a plate of food for a friend. Finally, students learn about where to find both "everyday" and "sometimes" foods.
- Understand that nutrition is an important part of keeping one’s body healthy
- Describe healthy food choices as those that contain nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, and not too much sugar or fat
- Explain that good nutrition requires eating a variety of foods
- Identify where to shop for, or possibly grow and harvest, healthy foods
- Understand that although less healthy foods are easily available, it is better to seek out healthier options
Grade Level: K–4
- Paper plates (enough for all students)
- Two large sheets of poster board
- Real food, toy food, or illustrations of food. Grocery store newspaper advertisements are a good source of pictures. You should have a selection of:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Healthy dinner components (such as rice, pasta, grilled chicken, and fish)
- Less healthy dinner components (such as fried chicken, french fries, and onion rings)
- Healthy snacks (such as yogurt, fruit and vegetable slices, raisins, and water)
- Less healthy snacks (such as ice cream, cookies, candies, chips, and soda pop)
Before the Lesson
- Gather all materials.
- Prepare two plates of food to illustrate a healthy and a less healthy dinner.
- Arrange buffet stations with real food, toy food, or illustrations of food. You may want to divide the class into small groups and have several stations.
Part I: The Importance of Fruits and Vegetables
1. Introduce the lesson by showing students two plates of food: one plate composed of a balanced dinner (including, for example, different-colored vegetables, rice, and grilled chicken), and the other composed of less healthy and less varied foods (such as fried chicken, french fries, and onion rings). Discuss the foods on the plates.
- What foods do they see?
- What colors are the foods?
- Which plate would they rather have for dinner?
- Which plate do they think would make a healthier dinner?
- How could they change the less healthy meal to make it healthier?
2. Ask students to discuss which foods they think are most nutritious. Explain that different foods supply different types of nutrients and some foods provide more nourishment than other foods. Fruits and vegetables contain lots of nutrients, such vitamins and minerals, which are important for good health. Meat and fish also contain good sources of vitamins and minerals and other essential nutrients, such as protein. However, some of the nutrients that we need are only found in plants. Eating a balanced and healthy diet provides the body with the nutrition it needs to grow and to protect it against diseases.
3. Watch the Healthy Eating Habits video. Remind students that fruits and vegetables are grown and come from plants.
4. Ask students to identify examples of fruits and vegetables. For younger students, it may be easier to show them examples (using either real fruits and vegetables or illustrations) than to have them brainstorm a list. For each example, discuss the color of the fruit or vegetable, what it tastes like, and/or ideas for how to eat it. For example, a peach is orange colored, sweet, and juicy; celery is light green, crunchy, and tastes good with peanut butter.
5. (Optional) Because of their family's ethnicity or culture, some students may eat foods at home that are different from those just discussed. Have students discuss some of the other types of foods they eat. For example, what would a plate of healthy Indian food look like? What about a plate of healthy Mexican food or Korean food? What about a plate of healthy vegetarian food? Discuss the cultures or practices represented by the students in the class.
Part II: Everyday and Sometimes Foods
6. Discuss the differences between snacks and meals. Remind students that snacks are also an important part of a healthy diet.
7. Explain that some foods do not have many nutrients. Ask students how they think their bodies would be affected if they only ate foods that are low in nutrients. Explain that eating foods that contain a lot of sugar and fat does not provide the body with the nutrients it needs to stay healthy; too much sugar and fat can make a person sick. Show students examples of not-so-healthy snacks, such as ice cream, soda pop, and potato chips.
8. Watch the Healthy Snacks video. Explain the difference between "everyday" and "sometimes" foods. Ask students what someone should do if they really like "sometimes" foods. When could they eat those foods? How much should they eat?
9. Have students put together a balanced snack or meal at the buffet station that you prepared. Tell students to imagine that they are preparing the plate for a friend. They should choose foods that they think their friend will enjoy but that will also keep their friend healthy. They can use both "everyday" and "sometimes" foods, but should remember to use only small amounts of the less healthy foods.
10. Ask students to describe what they put on their plates. Why did they choose each food? Which foods are "sometimes" foods and which can be eaten every day?
(Optional) Older students can research the nutritional content of various foods and report what their plate provides. For example, which vitamins and minerals are provided by their selections? Which foods contain protein? Which foods have high amounts of fat, sugar, or sodium?
11. Ask students to discuss where they could buy the foods that they chose. Can they be found at a fast food restaurant? a farmer's market? the corner store? the supermarket? Does their family have a garden or farm, or are there community gardens nearby? Be prepared to discuss the options that are available in the local area and the types of foods that can be found at each location. Explain that "sometimes" foods can be easy to find, but that does not mean they should be eaten every day.
(Optional) Older students can discuss the pricing of foods in addition to accessibility. Explain that, in addition to being easier to find, "sometimes" foods are often less expensive than more nutritious options. Ask students to consider whether it is a good idea to spend money on foods that are low in nutrients.
Check for Understanding
Work together as a class to create two posters: one for "everyday" foods and one for "sometimes" foods. Ask students to list examples for each category. As they brainstorm, write down each example on the appropriate poster and illustrate it with a drawing or photo, if possible.
Have students follow along and make their own miniposters to take home. Encourage them to hang up their posters in the kitchen to remind everyone in their family about the difference between "everyday" and "sometimes" foods.
The stereotype of tweens and teens today is that they’ve got their heads down looking at a smart phone and an arm reaching for the nearest processed convenience food. But as middle and high school teachers, we see these emerging young leaders as so much more. We see their interest in eating local foods and in growing school gardens, and we see their passion in finding physical activities that make their bodies and minds happy. Read on for 10 ways we can stoke that fire in our students for healthy living.
1. Stress that breakfast is an important way to start the day.
Whether your school provides breakfast for students or they are eating at home, use your role as a consistent voice in their weekday mornings to emphasize that breakfast should not be skipped. Survey your students to see if they are too rushed to eat in the mornings, or if they are skipping the meal for other reasons. If you find a pattern of breakfast-skipping, work on incorporating breakfast programs such as Breakfast in the Classroom, Breakfast after First Period and Grab and Go Breakfast. An increase in breakfasting by students may very well result in improved academic performance, according to research.
2. Include offline assignments.
Web-based research and digital work are homework hallmarks for modern middle and high school students. But when we assign work that takes students away from a screen, we benefit both their bodies and minds. Explore outdoor learning activities, lessons that incorporate physical activity, and other offline assignments.
3. Share your own fitness passion.
When taking on extracurricular advisor jobs, choose roles that get students moving. From serving as a Marathon Kids or Girls on the Run leader, to coaching a sport you love or simply starting an outdoor club, your volunteerism will have a big impact in teaching your students the importance of physical activity. And if you get a bit of a workout during your after-school hours, all the better!
4. Get teens excited about fresh, local foods.
We teachers know that the days we bring in treats for our students are always huge hits. So next time, instead of hitting your grocery store for snacks, stop by a local farm or farmers’ market. Share with students information about the farm, explore the products grown locally, and use delicious farm-to-school foods as a launch pad for nutrition and community learning, and don’t forget to highlight that dairy is local, fresh and always in season!
5. Remind students that physical exercise doesn’t end with school athletics.
Sometimes it’s easy for middle and high school students to think of organized sports as the only avenue for fitness. Help your students see the multitude of fitness options that exist for their own happiness and physical health. Talk about resources such as hiking trails, community yoga or dance classes, newbie running apps and more ways that students can get moving, even if they are not on a formal team.
6. Highlight the healthiest snack options.
Tweens and teens need fuel throughout the day to support growth and activity, so snacks play a big role in their days. Help them find the healthiest options for mid-day fueling at school (beyond the chocolate-bar fundraisers!). Discuss the most nutrient-packed options in the cafeteria and vending machines and highlight the healthiest snack options on campus.
7. Incorporate nutrition into science lessons.
Whether your subject matter is biology, physics or chemistry, there is always a place within the curriculum to draw in some nutrition science. Nutrition lessons draw on tasks students do every day—choosing meals and snacks—and should pique their interest. Educating students on the science of nutrition is also a powerful way to combat the confusing food information they may be hearing from diet-obsessed peers and the media.
8. Encourage longer lunchtimes.
We know that the school day and individual classroom periods seem limited, but research shows that extra minutes at lunchtime equal more time for students to make healthy meal choices and consume healthier foods. Plenty of time to eat also provides more mental health breaks for students, allowing them to socialize and relax. Can you help your school administration find ways to lengthen lunch periods or adjust the schedule in any way?
9. Provide a healthy dose of extra credit.
If you are feeling fired up about the need for health education, spread that enthusiasm to your students through exercise and nutrition extra-credit opportunities. Can students design healthier school menus? Research the process and create a home garden? Lead their class in creative physical activity breaks? Options abound for students to become impassioned about their personal and school-wide health.
10. Encourage students to serve as Fuel Up to Play 60 Student Ambassadors.
Fuel Up to Play 60 is an in-school wellness program from the National Dairy Council and the National Football League, in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture. The Fuel Up to Play 60 Student Ambassadors Program is an effective blueprint for student-led healthy changes in your school. Students earn points by tracking healthy leadership activities on their Fuel Up to Play 60 Dashboard, and after reaching 45,000 points they can apply to become a Fuel Up to Play 60 State Student Ambassador and participate in events like the annual Student Ambassador Summit, meet NFL players, attract media coverage and win sweet prizes. Most of all, they will be empowered as leaders to improve healthy choices in their school communities and in their own lives.