Using Food to Teach History

History can be a difficult, remote subject. Teachers often run into problems teaching history because it seems to have no relevance to the lives of children. Children’s chronological abilities – the understanding of time – develop relatively late. For most children under the age of nine, three years ago will seem far away in time, while the Roman Empire will not. Their conception of history is rooted in their development as people.

This means that food – something children have a wide experience of – is an ideal teaching tool for history teachers. It gives children a physical experience, which means that most children will learn from it much more easily than from a lecture or a DVD. It also connects their lives with the lives of people from the past in a direct way. Teaching history with food can also give lessons that  “yuk” factor that so often motivates children, especially boys, to learn!

One way of tackling this is to cook historical meals in class. If this is not possible, then the teacher themselves can prepare and bring in foods for children to see and taste. If you are doing this, there is clearly no point in teaching, say, the medieval peasant diet this way – pea soup and rough bread – because the children won’t be interested. But a Roman or a Greek meal, with some things adapted for modern palates, especially if eaten while wearing historical dress, could be interesting.  Teaching the history of the Celts is easy with food – children can whisk milk to make butter and grind corn for flat bread.

It goes without saying (but will be said anyway) that good teachers observe all due health and safety, especially with regard to children’s allergies.

If you are looking to engage that “yuk” factor then obviously preparing food isn’t an option. But you can always make something analagous: instead of a medieval feasting pie with lots of different types of bird stuffed inside one another, you can make something with different types of fruit, for example, or different vegetables. This would work to demonstrate the principle. If you are studying cooking or preparation methods (such as lack of hygiene) you can demonstrate this safely to children as they watch.

Another way is to use food to demonstrate difference. Different types of bread can be used to illustrate the difference in production and eating habits. Different implements can be shown to highlight changes in eating fashions. There are also artworks you can make with foodstuffs such as cereals or pasta and this can be used to show how different societies would eat.

You can show DVDs of series which tackle historical eating fashions. Children will learn from this, but ideally it should be accompanied with some hands-on experience as well.

You can then broaden the experience by using it to inspire creative writing or art. Drama can be used as well. Drama based on famines, or thin medieval diets, or modern obesity culture would be very useful in developing historical understanding. As wide an experience as possible is essential to maxmise the learning of children.

Food, being the source of life (along with water) to all of us, is naturally of use in teaching too. It just needs a creative teacher – and then, amazing things could be opened up in the minds of children.