Guiding Principles for Educators: Teaching About Food and Nutrition

This toolkit encourages educators to “teach food first” and use food exploration as a teaching tool. Children are concrete thinkers, and it is not until age 12 that they start to understand abstract concepts such as nutrition.

Children are also more likely to eat foods they like, and that are familiar to them and their families. Building food skills and familiarity with a variety of foods is one of the best ways that nutrition education can support students to feel positive about eating and learn to enjoy nutritious foods, over time and at their own pace.

These guiding principles follow best practices for food and nutrition education for students by:

  • meeting them where they’re at
  • encouraging food exploration
  • cultivating positive relationships with food and eating.

Like reading, learning to eat a variety of foods is a process and each child learns at their own pace. Eating competence is a skill built over time and takes many exposures to foods and positive food experiences. Telling a child that certain foods are “healthy” or “unhealthy” or that they must eat a certain way to “be healthy” can lead to stress and anxiety, particularly if they have not yet learned to accept those foods.

Use these guiding principles for all your food and nutrition-related activities with students to support the development of eating competencies and positive food and eating attitudes, skills and behaviour for life.

To learn more about the guiding principles and the new PHE elaborations, watch this webinar

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Take a positive and inclusive approach to food and eating

A positive and inclusive approach to teaching about food and nutrition means:

  • Focusing on exploring food with neutral exposures and promoting curiosity.
  • Avoiding activities that sort foods into “healthy” or “unhealthy” categories. Research shows that children are less likely to try foods that are labeled as “healthy” and will often assume these foods are less tasty.
  • Embracing that eating looks different to everyone and will depend on many factors including family context and traditions, access, availability, personal taste and texture preferences, allergies, culture, and personal life experiences.
  • Celebrating all the ways that food supports not only our physical health, but also our social, mental, and spiritual well being. For example, exploring with students how food can be an important and enjoyable part of social, family, traditional, and cultural gatherings and celebrations.

To learn more: See the following resources

Consider the roles adults and children have in feeding and eating

Adults and children have different roles in feeding and eating. The division of responsibility, a tool developed by Ellyn Satter, a dietitian, family therapist, and internationally recognized expert on feeding and eating (see chart below), clearly defines these roles.


Adults Decide

  • When to eat (e.g., lunch time)
  • Where to eat (e.g., at desks or tables)
  • What to offer to eat (e.g., food provided)

Children/Students Decide

  • Whether to eat
  • How much to eat

Applying the division of responsibility during eating occasions at school respects a student’s autonomy and role in that process. It helps them to listen to and trust their body and feelings regarding whether and how much to eat. It also supports their developing and changing palate for different flavours.

The overall goal is to support children with developing a lifelong healthy relationship with food, not to get them to eat their peas for supper!

– Ellyn Satter

At school, adults/educators are typically responsible for the “the when” and “the where” of eating, as caregivers/parents typically provide “the what”. At school, students are still responsible for whether and how much to eat. What does this mean for your teaching?

  • Offering repeated exposures and opportunities to learn about food in a pressure-free manner. This can be exploring where food comes from, how it’s grown and prepared, or the importance of food in celebrations and culture. Telling kids what to eat usually backfires and will not help students learn to like new foods in the long term.
  • Not teaching students to be responsible for the adult roles in feeding, as this can be confusing and lead to anxiety about food. Grocery shopping, food selection and meal planning are typically adult roles, and the extent to which families involve children in this role varies.
  • Supporting older students to build age-appropriate skills in meal planning while also being sensitive to the fact that students will have different home contexts related to food availability, supports, and culture.
  • Being neutral and not commenting on the foods that parents or caregivers pack for students’ lunches and snacks, or about how much they eat of their food (or the order in which they eat it). If there are concerns with students not having enough food, consider connecting to a school counselor and/or directly to parents or caregivers to explore possible supports.
  • Advocating for sufficient time and a positive eating environment for students to sit down (the when and where of eating) and enjoy their lunch or snacks with their friends. As an educator, eating with students, if and when possible, is a great opportunity to connect and role-model enjoyment of eating, and social norms such as table manners.

To learn more: See the following resources

Connect to students’ lived experiences

Connecting food and nutrition education activities to students’ lived experiences helps create learning opportunities that are more meaningful and engaging. What does this mean for your teaching?

  • Using activities that engage students with food in tangible ways, rather than talking about “healthy habits.” For example, helping students build experiences and skills related to identifying, growing, harvesting, preparing, and cooking foods.
  • Including activities that relate to families and communities, local food growers, harvesters and producers. For example, students can learn about local, seasonal or cultural food, food traditions and celebrations, and local food systems. If possible, consider visiting a local forest, shore, farmers market or farm (virtual/in person tour) or connecting with Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers.
  • Adapt the information provided in this toolkit for your student population; it is not meant to take the place of religious and cultural beliefs and practices around food and eating.

To learn more: See the following resources