Healthy Eating

Classes offer a new approach to teaching nutrition at MHS

Bonnie Morris
Posted 2/10/21

MENDOTA – The Family and Consumer Science department is undergoing an upgrade at Mendota High School. Thanks to MHS teacher Melissa Sallee, students enrolled in Nutrition and Culinary Arts are being challenged to better understand the rights and responsibilities they have not only as consumers but also as the owners of their own bodies.

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Healthy Eating

Classes offer a new approach to teaching nutrition at MHS


MENDOTA – The Family and Consumer Science department is undergoing an upgrade at Mendota High School. Thanks to MHS teacher Melissa Sallee, students enrolled in Nutrition and Culinary Arts are being challenged to better understand the rights and responsibilities they have not only as consumers but also as the owners of their own bodies. Sallee believes that Family and Consumer Science (FCS) is especially important in offering students knowledge about nutrition as well as providing them a perfect opportunity to utilize what they have learned in other subject areas such as biology, chemistry, history, math, psychology, economics and physical education.

In creating the changes in FCS, Sallee was able to utilize her Master’s degree in clinical mental health and her background in developmental psychology, which provided great direction in her approach. “Planning for instruction requires many considerations,” Sallee said. “Not only are there multiple intelligences to consider but also the developmental needs of the average high school student. High school is a time when students are entering into the formal operational stage of learning. Simply put, they are beginning to have the capacity to picture the abstract and apply theory to concepts previously learned.”

The course sequence at MHS includes Nutrition and Culinary Arts I, II and III. In the introductory course, NCA I, students learn basic principles of kitchen skills, however, they also learn the basis of the body being a working organism contingent upon premium fuel (healthy food). They begin by learning that all calories are not alike.

“We compare empty calories such as the ones in donuts, potato chips and candy to calories that come with health benefits such as Omega 3s, antioxidants, lean protein, etc.,” Sallee explained. “This includes a discussion of the amount of energy the brain needs and how the brain is hurt by things common to the SAD (Standard American Diet). This also includes a discussion of the production of our great ally, serotonin, which is produced in the stomach.”

In the class, students are encouraged to first consider their own strengths and interests. They then have the option of doing a research project or they may choose to create a life-sized replica of their digestive system.

Students doing a research project must pull from their science and English classes to review literature and complete note-taking guides concurrently with live media. “This process allows the students to work on time management, filtering information, and application of systemic theory,” Sallee said. “Alternatively, students creating a life-sized replica of their digestive system start by tracing their bodies and then following a diagram to accurately sketch the parts of the digestive system that permit for mechanical and chemical digestion. Students create a glossary of each part, for example, understanding how food is absorbed via the portal vein.”

In completing either project, students not only rely on their other educational courses but they also work within their preferred learning style. Students learn how to use a rubric to counter check their understanding of learning objectives and guide their own learning. They create their own timeline, which includes a self-formulated checklist. While students are permitted to work independently, they are encouraged to ask for help as needed.

“This tether allows students to rely on their own autonomy and yet feel comfortable asking for help,” Sallee noted. “These executive functioning skills will serve the students as they progress through their education, soon entering the workforce and or college environment.”

By the end of the project, students have gone from seeing nutrition as a faraway concept to one of understanding that this is an important part of their own personal life. Sallee said they begin to understand concepts such as why you get heartburn, what happens when the stomach is overstretched by overeating, why having gallstones is painful, and the crucial importance of the liver and pancreas in the process of receiving nutrition. Concepts such as heart disease, diabetes, and Celiac disease come to life as the student sees the parts of the body affected via diet.

Furthermore, students are challenged to draw in knowledge from studying eating disorders. Before starting their projects, students spend time comparing and contrasting various eating disorders and how these impede wellness. As they diagram and explain the parts of the digestive system, they are able to better understand concepts associated with disordered eating such as fatty liver, a worn out pancreas, esophageal bleeding, visceral fat, and malnourishment. 

This foundational nutrition course prepares students to proceed with deeper understanding of their bodies as machines that need proper tending. “Self-ownership is a crucial part of the life long journey to being a properly nourished and well individual,” Sallee emphasized.

As students continue through the courses, they delve deeper into the causes of malnourishment. In Nutrition and Culinary Arts II, students build on the concepts from the introductory courses. They learn why lactose intolerance occurs and study how the villi in the intestines are damaged by gluten in a person who is gluten intolerant. Diabetes, which is affecting more and more Americans, is covered at length to reverse the impression many students have that diabetes is caused by eating a single donut.

In the third course, students are asked to consider the relationship between processed foods and disease. These advanced students learn about additives and GRAS ingredients (non-food substances that are generally regarded as safe for eating). They also learn how to make food from scratch. For example, Sallee said a foundation for home-baked bread would include making flour from dry oatmeal, then adding flax and wheat germ, which they do in class. They also use farm fresh fruits and veggies to make soup, sauce and dressing bases, as well as freezer jam, and noodles are made from flour mixed with eggs.

Because of current COVID-19 restrictions, Sallee noted that many changes have been made in the way classes are structured. In the past, students cooked in teams of four or five, spread across six kitchens. Now, they are assigned various activities that can be completed with minimal physical interaction. One student at a time comes to the demonstration kitchen and stands on the other side of the island while Sallee reads the recipe to them and they complete one step.

“We give margin for the six feet, and we wear gloves when a food is ‘ready to eat’ such as a prepared salad or smoothie,” she said. “NCA II is mostly based on sanitation principles and the serving of safe food so many of these rules are the same, such as avoiding cross-contamination, reduction of foodborne illness, and knowledge of food allergies.”

A personal journey

The idea to shift instruction in her FCS courses came to Sallee after she traveled through Canada and Europe. “I saw masses of people who were actually nourished. They were not surviving on the standard American diet (SAD),” she explained. “I attended a seminar on the island of Kos in the Mediterranean, where they spoke of food as medicine. We toured the Hippocrates Garden where extensive food science was utilized to raise organic, unadulterated food.”

Sallee recalled seeing the catch of the day hanging near the Aegean Sea, ready to be eaten. “Everything was so fresh and nutrient dense,” she said. “It appeared to me that there was a direct connection between this lifestyle and the mental health of individuals there. I saw much higher rates of physical activity and what appeared to be much less incidences of mental health problems.”

After experiencing a loss in her own family, Sallee knew she needed to shift her instructional focus when teaching FCS. “As adolescents, students have a true ability to be active participants in their own wellness over the course of their lives. I watched my father’s health decline with complications of diabetes,” she explained. “He developed osteomyelitis in his feet and due to the ransacking of diabetes on his body, he succumbed to the injury.”

While teens may struggle to apply random facts about nutrition, Sallee knows they desperately need the information because so many have only tidbits of knowledge regarding nutrition. By teaching Nutrition and Culinary Arts as a combination class, students are able to SEE and FEEL the concepts. The concept of ‘saturated fat’ means little to students but when they make tacos, they can see what saturated fat looks like. “I let the fat sit in the pan for them to see it go from an innocuous, clear liquid to a murky, orange wax,” she said. “Then we talk about that running through the filters of the body.”

Sallee hopes that by providing her students with scientific-based nutrition education, their lives will be healthier. “The lack of knowledge is no fault of their own nor their parents, it is simply in our busy world this area may go by the wayside,” she said. “Students tend to rely on media such as movies or commercials to understand nutrition and they end up with sometimes incorrect and most certainly polarized information. In class, some students actually say cutting produce is a new experience for them and I think fear over ‘doing it wrong’ keeps a lot of folks hooked on the processed food wagon. To me, intervening at a young age with my students is a personal mission. They have the power within themselves to change the trajectory of their wellness. The time is now.”