Culinary cognition and the incorporation of STEM can increase the effectiveness of nutrition education and prepare students for success.
This school year, as part of a G/T Independent Research class, I’ve had the opportunity to do extensive research and work with a topic truly important to me.
I love nutrition. I’m so fascinated by the processes that go on in our bodies and empowered by the fact that I can directly influence how my body feels and performs. But, just looking at the startling obesity rates in the U.S. and across the world, I realize that not everyone shares my interest, is educated about nutrition, or has the means to buy quality foods.
I definitely didn’t always squeal about finding purple cauliflower at Whole Foods or swoon over almond butter, but when I was in elementary school, I participated in a three-day activity that, for whatever reason, truly struck me. Days of Taste is a program created by The American Institute of Food and Wine that bring chefs into schools to teach students about farm-to-table food.
At the beginning of the school year, as I was considering what topic I should choose for my project, I recalled my experience with Day of Taste. I still remembered coming home to my mom gushing about how we actually made salad dressing (2nd grade Meah was under the impression that salad dressing was something you only found pretty and packaged in a plastic bottle).
I figured that if one special three-day program had such a lasting impact on me, a more consistent integration of culinary aspects into typical nutrition education could increase its effectiveness tremendously. You can tell anyone what’s “healthy” and what they “should” eat, but if you haven’t given them the skills needed to be self-sufficient or gotten them excited to eat nourishing foods, you’re not going to see any changes.
From personal experience and early primary research, I found that home economics classes across the country are disappearing. This declining trend is in large part due to increased testing and a shift in priorities of curriculum developers and educators. As the world is changing, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills are becoming more and more critical attributes thus, these subjects are expanding.
Realizing this, I concluded that incorporating STEM skills and thinking would be an awesome way to keep culinary nutrition programs relevant while enhancing students’ learning.
The truth is, cooking and nutrition are so naturally linked to STEM. Think about yeast fermentation in bread, scaling the ratio of ingredients in a recipe, recipe testing (trust me this involves SERIOUS experimentation!), observing the plethora of chemical and physical changes that occur during food preparation, or the physiological process in which the body breaks down food.
I hypothesized that, as the number of diet-related health issues in the U.S. continues to rise, elementary students must be engaged and empowered to pursue healthy lifestyles through in-school lessons using culinary cognition to teach nutrition and incorporating STEM to meet the demands of parents and educators.
For my secondary research project, I read dozens of articles, studies, and books to gather information on early STEM education, culinary-nutrition, child development, and more.
I also conducted primary research through interviews with Dr. Alyse Hachey, of the Human Development Department at Teachers College Columbia University, Dr. Elenor Mackey, a general child psychologist with Children’s National Health System, and a member of Children’s Obesity Institute, and Wendy Jefferies, Executive Director of Days of Taste.
As amazing as it would have been to actually create and implement a culinary-nutrition program that incorporates STEM into real elementary schools for my data collection, I simply didn’t have the authority, means, or time to do this. Instead, I conducted a meta-analysis of five studies of existing nutrition education programs. I compared them mostly based on information gathered directly from the studies, adding two categories populated with information I came up with: Possible STEM Connections and Possible Measurements of STEM Connection.
The studies I included in my meta-analysis were:
1.“An Experimental Cooking and Nutrition Education Program Increases Cooking Self-Efficacy and Vegetable Consumption in Children Grades 3-8,” 2. “Adapting and Implementing a Long-Term Nutrition and Physical Activity Curriculum to a Rural, Low-Income, Biethnic Community,” 3. “Evaluation of a Computer-Based Nutrition Tool,” 4. “Assessing the Impact of the Primary School-Based Nutrition Intervention ‘Petits Cuistots – Parents en Reseaux’,” 5. “LA Sprouts Randomized Controlled Nutrition, Cooking, and Gardening Programme Reduces Obesity and Metabolic Risk in Hispanic/Latino Youth.”
The following is a condensed and combined list of information from the two previously mentioned categories of my meta-analysis:
Possible STEM Connections:
- Learn the science behind cooking processes used (ie. yeast fermentation, chemical vs. physical changes, etc.)
- Discussion of STEM principles
- Make calculations and manipulate the ratios of ingredients
- Conduct experiments making predictions about what will occur when certain ingredients or their amount are changed (ie. cookies with oil vs. butter, baking soda vs. baking powder, etc.)
- Explain the biological process of digestion
- Programs that include gardening lessons (LA Sprouts-study 5) could discuss earth science and the biology (photosynthesis, etc.)
Possible Measurements of STEM Connections’ Effectiveness:
- Pre-post quizzes could include questions on STEM skills learned/used
- Teachers could be consulted on students’ academic performance
- Parent assessment of students’ academic performance
- Students’ grades
I made this blog post as part of my final research product to share information about my project and findings. Additionally, I created a sample activity which you can do at home with your kids or even use as a base for a lesson plan. A component of my final product is getting feedback from a real, relevant audience, so I would greatly appreciate if you took the time to fill out a brief survey evaluating this post and the sample activity I created.
Below is the sample activity I created.
From Foam to Fluff: Let’s Learn About Meringue
I’ve provided this background information for parents, educators, and anyone else doing this activity with children. Feel free to modify the information or share it in a way that is appropriate for the specific age/grade level with which you are working.
What is Meringue?
Meringue is a fluffy, sweet mix usually made with just whipped egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar. It’s commonly served baked into little cookie-like puffs or on top of pies. There are three main types of meringue: French, Italian, and Swiss. In this activity, you’ll be making French meringue.
“The invention of meringue in 1720 is attributed to a Swiss pastry cook named Gasparini” (Britannica).
This information is background knowledge provided for educators, instructors, parents, or higher level students. Please use this information as a basis for adaptation to a suitable level for children with whom you are doing the activity. For your reference, I’ve included examples of ways you could “Break It Down” after each section.
Egg whites are composed of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and, primarily, water. Proteins are made up of things called amino acids. Some amino acids don’t like water (hydrophobic), but some amino acids do (hydrophilic). Since egg whites contain water, the proteins in egg whites “fold up so that most of the hydrophilic amino acids are on the outside…[and] the hydrophobic amino acids are hidden away inside” (Wong). Whisking the egg whites unravels some of the protein and the air bubbles created make foam. The now exposed hydrophobic amino acids “move to the air bubbles to get away from the water in the egg white” (Wong). Essentially, the proteins form a shield around the bubbles, preventing them from popping and allowing egg whites to fluff up.
- Break It Down: For younger children, you could explain that whisking the egg whites makes the air bubbles in them get bigger, kind of like when you blow bubbles. Since the air bubbles are bigger, the egg whites get fluffy.
Sugar helps the meringues be extra fluffy and hold their shape. As you whip them, sugar takes water from the egg whites, which helps them to stabilize. During baking, the water heats and the steam created makes the air bubbles expand thus making the meringues expand.
- Break It Down: For younger children, you can leave it at the fact that sugar helps the meringues be fluffier and more stable, kind of like how tall skyscrapers need to be built with extra support.
Cream of tartar:.
Like sugar, adding an acid like cream of tartar will help the proteins in the egg white bond, making the meringue more stable. The acid will also allow for more air to be added so the meringues can be fluffier.
- Break It Down: Again, younger children may only be able to understand that cream of tartar helps the meringues be fluffier. If you want to explain acids a bit, ask them if they’ve ever taste lemon juice and explain that sour things like lemon juice are acidic.
Why just the white?
Egg yolks contain fat molecules which prevent air bubbles from stabilizing, so your meringue won’t fluff up.
- Break It Down: Explain that egg whites are light and egg yolks are heavy, so only the egg whites can get fluffy. You can make the comparison of a balloon floating up into the air because it’s light, but an elephant not being able to float because it’s too heavy.
Why a metal bowl?
It’s recommended that you use metal bowls when you make meringue because plastic bowls “have a tendency to retain oils” (Rhodes). Like the fat molecules in egg yolks, the fat molecules in oil will prevent the meringue from properly fluffing up. If you have access to one, specifically using a copper bowl is best due to the chemical reaction that occurs between the copper and the egg whites, but adding cream of tartar to the egg white mimics this effect.
- Break It Down: Explain that metal bowls are easier to clean so you can be sure there’s nothing on the bowl.
Meringues are a light, airy dessert perfect for a little something sweet. Most meringue recipes use refined sugar, but this one swaps that out for honey. Honey has many health benefits such as antibacterial and antifungal properties, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. However, try to make sure you’re using good quality honey because, often, the honey on store shelves has been highly processed causing it to lose many of its beneficial properties. Try stopping by your local farmer’s market for fresh, unfiltered honey. Not only will it be higher quality, but consuming specifically local honey has been show to help with allergies.
Let’s Get Started-
Throughout recipe preparation, “Stop and STEM” with kids. I’ve provided some possible questions and ideas you can discuss during the preparation as well as specific things you may want to point out. This is a time to bring in and apply STEM concepts and skills. Adjust the suggestions accordingly based on the age and grade level you’re working with and feel free to add in more.
Throughout recipe preparation, take “Now Let’s Nutrition” pauses with kids. I’ve provided some possible questions and ideas you can discuss during the preparation as well as specific things you may want to point out. This is a time to teach and show students about nutrition and health. Adjust the suggestions accordingly based on the age and grade level you’re working with and feel free to add in more.
Honey French Meringues
- A small bowl
- A large metal bowl
- An electric mixer
- A baking sheet
- Parchment paper
- An oven
- 2 large eggs, whites only
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 1/4 tsp cream of tartar*
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- (optional) natural colorer such as beet root powder, spirulina, or acai berry powder
- (optional) toppings such as crushed nuts, dried fruit, melted dark chocolate, jam, etc.
Begin by preheating an oven to 215 degrees Fahrenheit and lining a large baking pan with parchment paper, set this aside. Next, carefully separate the egg whites from the yolks over a small bowl (Discard the yolks, or set them aside for another use). Combine the egg whites, honey, vanilla, salt, and cream of tartar in the large metal bowl. Whip the ingredients together on high speed with an electric mixer for about 7 minutes until stiff, fluffy peaks form.
*If your meringue needs more stability after 7 minutes of whipping, add in another 1/4 tsp cream of tartar and whip another minute.
Stop and STEM: Why are the meringues whipped on high speed rather than low? What would happen if they’re mixed on low speed instead of high (less air being whipped in)? What would the meringue look like?
Stop and STEM: Let students make observations about and describe the changes they see occurring in the mixture as it goes from liquid to foam to fluff.
Once the meringue is otherwise ready, you then may whip in any optional coloring. Next, either pipe the meringue onto the lined baking pan, spoon it into dollops, or place it in any other desired shape. Leave about an inch of space between each.
Stop and STEM: Let students practice their visual estimation and approximate how many meringues will be made based on the total amount of meringue in the bowl and the size of each meringue.
If desired, sprinkle the meringues with finely crushed nuts (I would recommend saving any other toppings, like dried fruit of chocolate, for after the baking process is complete). Bake for 2-2 1/2 hours.
Now Let’s Nutrition: Talk to students about why you couldn’t just eat the meringue before cooking it. What’s the potential health risk of consuming raw egg? How could you solve this issue so you could consume the meringue when fluffy (Swiss and Italian meringue is whipped on the stove over low heat).
Once baked, crack the oven door and allow the meringues to cool completely while in the oven. When they’re done, they should be dry on the outside and sound hollow when tapped. Now you may drizzle or dip the meringues in dark chocolate and/or add crushed nuts, dried fruit, and any other desired toppings.
An essential part of this activity is talking to children and students about what went on and allowing them to ask questions, state their observations, and make connections. This is where the awesome deeper thinking comes into play! I’ve come up with some possible questions, but feel free to add more and adjust them based on the age/grade level of the child(ren) with whom you’re working. Additionally, depending on the age/grade level and/or number of children, discussions can take place in small groups or in a larger group activity facilitated by an adult/teacher.
- Describe a meringue’s taste and texture. How does it compare to other cookies you’ve had in the past (lighter, crunchier, airier)? Why might the meringue have this texture (egg whites, air whipped into it)? How do the ingredients compare to other cookies (less ingredients, no fat, no flour)?
- How could you scale the recipe if you needed to make it for more people? Less people?
- What kinds of things do proteins (like the ones found in the egg whites) do for the body? Why do we eat them? What are the benefits?
I would greatly appreciate if you took the time to fill out a brief survey evaluating this post and the sample activity I created. Thanks!
Enjoy the moment,
xoxo Meah <3
- Belansky, Elaine S., et al. “Adapting and Implementing a Long-Term Nutrition and Physical Activity Curriculum to a Rural, Low-Income, Biethnic Community.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, vol. 38, no. 2, Mar. 2006,106-13.
- Bisset, Sherri L., et al. “Assessing the Impact of the Primary School-Based Nutrition Intervention Petits Cuistots- Parents en Reseaux.” Canadian Journal of Public Health, Mar.-Apr. 2008, pp. 107-13.
- Gatto, Nicole M., et al. “LA Sprouts Randomized Controlled Nutrition and Gardening Program Reduces Obesity and Metabolic Risk in Latino Youth.”Obesity, May 2015.
- Helmenstine, Anne Marie. “Are Copper Bowls Really Better for Whipping Egg Whites?” ThoughtCo., 16 Mar. 2017, www.thoughtco.com/copper-bowls-better-whipping-egg-whites-607890.
- Huff, Tessa. “Baking School Day 4: Meringue.” Kitchn, Apartment Therapy, 8 Oct. 2015, www.thekitchn.com/baking-school-day-4-meringue-222482.
- Jarpe-Ratner, Elizabeth, et al. “An Experiential Cooking and Nutrition Education Program Increases Cooking Self-Efficacy and Vegetable Consumption in Children in Grades 3–8.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Journal of Nutritional Education and Behavior, DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2016.07.021.
- Kreisel, Katrin. “Evaluation of a Computer-Based Nutrition Education Tool.” Public Health Nutrition, vol. 7, no. 2, 31 July 2003, pp. 271-77.
- Masibay, Kimberly Y. “What Every Baker Needs to Know about Sugar.” Fine Cooking, Taunton Press, 2017, www.finecooking.com/article/what-every-baker-needs-to-know-about-sugar.
- Nichols, Helen. “21 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Honey.” Well-Being Secrets, 2017, www.well-beingsecrets.com/health-benefits-of-honey-ultimate-guide/#Why_Honey.
- Rhodes, Jesse. “Meringue Chemistry: The Secrets of Fluff.” Smithsonian, 20 Jan. 2012, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/meringue-chemistry-the-secrets-of-fluff-23039746/.
- The Editors of Encycloaedia Britannica. “Meringue.” Encycloaedia Britannica, Encycloedia Britannica, 21 Apr. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/meringue.
- Wong, Edwin W. Y. “Meringue: The Science behind a Wonderfully Fluffy Dessert.” Curiocity, 13 Aug. 2015, explorecuriocity.org/Explore/ArticleId/3748/meringue-the-science-behind-a-wonderfully-fluffy-dessert-3748.aspx.