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Cereal Offenders – Analysing Nutrition

Cereal Offenders – Analysing Nutrition

Main Subject: Lesson Plans

Subject: Science

Author: James Clements

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Not every breakfast bowl is as healthy as it seems and learning to analyse the nutritional value of different foods can help children to become more savvy consumers, says James Clements...

Ah, breakfast: the most important meal of the day. On weekdays, for teachers across the country, this means standing in the queue for the photocopier inhaling a piece of toast. Likewise, for many children, breakfast will consist of a hastily-gobbled bowl of cereal while they simultaneously try to watch a cartoon, find their missing PE shorts and memorise the week’s spellings. Still, at least they’re having some breakfast. And anyway, breakfast cereals are a national institution – the same varieties are enjoyed every day by children all over the country.

It’s because they’re such a shared experience that breakfast cereals are the perfect vehicle for teaching children about dietary requirements. They can work together as detectives to find out just what goes into some of their favourite cereals – analysing their make up and learning to decipher the nutritional information on the packet.

This focus on working together, taking part in discussion and justifying their opinions makes this lesson a perfect match for the new National Curriculum. Being able to understand food labels also raises children’s awareness as consumers, thinking about the food they eat, how it is made and how it is marketed.

Today you will ...

* learn that humans need the right types and amounts of nutrients (science)

* ask relevant questions and use different types of scientific enquiries to answer them (science)

* learn to make decisions about healthy eating (PHSE)

Starter activity

Show children a range of different cereal boxes and ask them which ones they recognise, which they’ve eaten before, and which ones they have at home. Divide the class into small groups and give each group five or six different cereal boxes. Set the children a challenge: they must work together to put the cereals in order of:

* how tasty the are

* how attractive the packaging is

* how healthy they are

Ask the children to record the order they’ve chosen for each category. This activity gets children handling the packets and talking about the cereals. Challenge the children to justify their opinions and explain why they think the boxes should be arranged in the order that they’ve selected.

It’s important that they finish with a line of cereal boxes in order of how healthy they are, ready for the later activities. At this point, it’s not necessary for there to be any discussion about what we mean by ‘healthy’. It’s the children’s perceptions of how healthy each cereal is (and how they’ve arrived at that opinion) that’s important.

Main activities

* Explain the science

As a whole class, revisit the names and characteristics of different food groups. Discussing and labelling pictures of different meals from magazines and newspapers can work well, as does using an online resource (BBC Bitesize has a handy section on food groups with an interactive game). Better still, share out some real food and discuss it as you all tuck in!

During this activity, the children consider some key questions:

* What role do proteins, fats, carbohydrates (sugars and starches), fibre, and vitamins and minerals play in our diet?

* Why do we need each one?

* Can the children suggest foods that are good sources of each category?

* Which food groups are particularly important to eat at breakfast? Why?

* Which of these groups should people eat in moderation? Why?

If children can’t answer all of these questions yet, this isn’t a problem; they’ll have the chance to return to all of this over the course of the lesson.

* Find nutritional information

Talk to the children about the different nutritional information on the boxes, encouraging them to refer to the boxes in front of them as they talk.

Draw the class’s attention to the ‘traffic light’ information on the front of the box, the more-comprehensive nutritional information on the back and any the information the maker promotes - ‘a good source of niacin and riboflavin!’

Set the children a series of challenges (Which one is the highest in salt? How much calcium is there per 100g?), until they have got the hang of finding information on the packet. Be sure to draw children’s attention to the column that displays information per 100g, as this enables them to make comparisons between different packets.

* The investigation

Ask the children to choose one feature of the different cereals to investigate. They might choose a relatively simple question such as:

* Which cereals are the highest in sugar?

* Which cereals are the lowest in salt?

Or something more complicated, such as:

* Which cereal is the healthiest?

* Which cereal would be the best breakfast for children?

If they select one of the more complex questions, they need to define the terms they are investigating – what do they mean by ‘healthy’, for example. The children can then use the cereal packets to answer their question and draw conclusions. In addition to this, ask children to note down anything interesting that they notice as they carry out their investigation.

* Drawing conclusions

This lesson can generate some interesting incidental learning:

* Sugar content – children might be surprised to see just how much sugar is in some popular breakfast cereals. Some cereals contain as much as 37g of sugar per 100g. To turn this into something concrete that children can understand, let them spoon out this much sugar (a heaped teaspoon is about 6g of sugar) into a dish.

* Salt vs. sodium – most children (and many adults) won’t be aware that salt and sodium are different, and that 1g of salt is equivalent to 2.5g of sodium (an internet search for ‘FSA sodium’ gives further information about this). Explore with the children why they think some manufacturers would rather list sodium content than salt content on their packaging.

* Healthy cereals – ask children to look back at their list of the healthiest cereals from the start of the lesson. Which ones did they decide were healthiest and how did they go about choosing them? After their analysis, ask if they’ve they changed their minds. There’s a good chance that children will have noticed that some cereals presented and packaged as being healthy can actually be very high in sugar compared to some ‘ordinary cereals’. Ask the children why they think this is. Do they think people would be surprised if they took the time to read the nutritional information?

It’s important to talk to children about their favourite cereals in the context of a balanced diet. Foods that are high in sugar, salt or fat can still be enjoyed as treats.

Extending the lesson

* The class could keep a food diary for a day and then analyse the food they’ve eaten, organising each item into its different food group.

* The children could design a healthy breakfast. Then they could come into school one morning to cook and eat their chosen menu.

* A great way to demonstrate that food contains stored energy is by showing children that it burns. This works especially well with dry food such as cereal. This could be organised as a teacher demonstration or with children, carefully supervised, having a go themselves using tea lights. A useful lesson plan can be found by searching online for ‘Nuffield Foundation food energy’.

Useful questions

* What role do proteins, fats, carbohydrates (sugars and starches), fibre, and vitamins and minerals play in our diet?

* Why do we need each one?

* Which food groups are particularly important to eat at breakfast? Why?

* Which of these groups should people eat in moderation? Why?

* Why do some manufacturers list sodium content rather than salt content on their packaging?

About the author

Form primary teacher James Clements is an English Advisor and the creative director at Shakespeare and More (

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