Cooking and nutrition in primary schools

Primary-school cooking curriculum
For the first time ever, practical cookery lessons are compulsory in primary schools. We explain what your budding MasterChef might learn.

From September 2014, primary school children will have to learn about food, cooking and nutrition under the national curriculum. It’s the first time that the subject has ever been compulsory in UK schools, and is a response to the School Food Plan (SFP): a 2013 document put together by a panel of experts, including restaurateurs, nutrition specialists, teachers and school cooks, aimed at improving the quality of both food education and the food served in schools. The SFP recommended that food education should be mandatory for all children in Key Stages 1, 2 and 3, a proposal that the Government adopted in its new curriculum.

Why food education matters

Learning about food, how to prepare it and the principles of a healthy diet is important for every child. Every year, the NHS spends £10billion treating people with diet-related illnesses, from obesity to diabetes to heart disease. Almost 20 per cent of children are obese by the time they leave primary school, and families on lower incomes tend to be the most disadvantaged in terms of their culinary knowledge and skills.

Cooking and nutrition falls within the design and technology curriculum. The new curriculum aims to teach children how to cook, with an emphasis on savoury dishes, and how to apply the principles of healthy eating and good nutrition. It recognises that cooking is an important life skill that will help children to feed themselves and others healthy and affordable food, now and in the future, potentially halting – and even reversing – the growth of diet-related illnesses.

Cooking and nutrition in Key Stage 1

In Key Stage 1 (Years 1 and 2), children will be taught:

  • To use the basic principles of a healthy and varied diet to prepare dishes
  • To understand where food comes from

Cooking and nutrition in Key Stage 2

Key Stage 2 children (Years 3, 4, 5 and 6) will learn:

  • To understand and apply the principles of a healthy and varied diet
  • To prepare and cook a variety of predominantly savoury dishes using a range of cooking techniques
  • To understand seasonality and know where and how a variety of ingredients are grown, reared, caught and processed

Cooking and nutrition in practice

The national curriculum doesn’t give specific guidance about how it should teach cooking and nutrition, so it’s up to individual schools to decide how to deliver their lessons. A number of organisations, including the Children’s Food Trust, Chefs Adopt a School and the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, are helping by putting together programmes of study that schools may choose to follow.

Primary school children may learn about cooking and nutrition through activities such as:

  • Preparing and cooking a variety of dishes, including hot and cold meals, desserts, packed lunches, salads, etc.
  • Using a variety of cooking equipment: scales, knives, utensils, etc.
  • Growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables
  • Writing meal plans and shopping lists
  • Taste-testing different foods
  • Learning about food hygiene and safety, including getting their food preparation area ready, and clearing up afterwards
  • Learning to read and understand food labels
  • Learning about farming and agriculture
  • Learning about nutritional principles such as a balanced diet, five-a-day etc

The Children’s Food Trust recommends that children spend at least 24 hours in each Key Stage studying cooking and nutrition, with most of that time focused on practical cookery. It’s also recommended that practical lessons are delivered in groups of no more than 18 children.

What’s not so good?

Currently, only 25 per cent of primary schools have teaching kitchens, which may mean that your child’s cooking and nutrition lessons could be limited by the facilities available. However, there are plenty of ways for children to learn about food, even without extensive facilities. For example, they can practise techniques like peeling, chopping and mashing; use portable facilities like electric hotplates; or prepare food in the classroom that can then be cooked at home, such as bread dough.

The SFP expert panel also points out that the curriculum is lacking in detail about what schools should be teaching, and doesn’t specify how much time should be spent on cooking and nutrition lessons, meaning that the subject may be squeezed out in favour of more academic subjects.

Teachers have also raised concerns about health and safety, especially in Key Stage 2, where it’s less likely that classes will have a teaching assistant as well as a teacher. It’s thought that schools will rely heavily on parent volunteers to help with practical sessions.

7 ways to help your child at home

The SFP recognises that learning about food and nutrition should be a partnership between home and school. So how can you help your child to build their practical cookery skills and knowledge at home?

  1. Let them help with family meals. Cooking doesn’t need to be a special rainy-day activity; instead, get your child involved with everyday food preparation, from pouring their own breakfast cereal to helping to peel the potatoes for dinner.
  2. Involve them in meal planning. Sit down with your child to come up with a list of meals for the week, and take the opportunity to talk about a balanced diet.
  3. Tailor kitchen skills to their age. For example, you could pre-cook vegetables so they’re easier for your five-year-old to chop, while your 10-year-old might be able to use a sharp knife to chop raw veg under supervision.
  4. Buy a kids’ cookbook full of appealing, easy to cook recipes. We love Good Food: 101 recipes for kids (£4.99, BBC). 
  5. Take a visit to a working farm or pick-your-own plantation to give your child a behind-the-scenes view of the food production process.
  6. Grow some fruit or vegetables at home. Don’t worry if you don’t have garden space: growing herbs in pots or salad in a window box will still help your child understand where their food comes from.
  7. Let your Key Stage 2 child invite a few friends round for a dinner party. Encourage them to plan the menu, prepare and serve the food (and clear up afterwards!).