Health topic: Nutrition Health Promotion

Design healthy eating spaces

What's it about?

This strategy draws attention to factors beyond food and drink that influence healthy eating patterns at school. It involves taking a critical look at the physical space, time, and social culture of school meals, then making changes informed by best practice.

With small shifts in design, you can make it easier for students to focus on their food, and transform school meals into an experience they look forward to and enjoy.

Healthy eating is more than the foods you eat. It’s also about where, when, why, and how you eat.

~ Canada’s food guide

What's involved?

Design pleasant eating spaces

Use the school spaces you have to provide a comfortable and pleasant eating experience for students. Consider use of traditional spaces (like cafeterias or classrooms) and alternative spaces (like outdoor classrooms, learning commons, studios, and gyms). These spaces have the potential to support healthy eating if they:

  • Are well maintained and clean
  • Have access to facilities for hand washing and sanitizing
  • Are safe and accessible for all, including students with mobility challenges and food allergies

Bonus: Try to offer a variety of seating options—not everyone is comfortable with a single set up. For example, give students the chance to use different eating spaces or seating options each day or week.

Make eating spaces part of your school's routine cleaning schedule. Try these tips for cleaning and disinfection of public facilities.


Consider when students eat at school

If you can, build some flexibility into when students eat at school. This is especially important for younger students who may find it hard to wait for scheduled times to eat.

Try to provide at least 20 minutes for students to each lunch. Remember, the clock starts only after students have washed their hands, gathered or purchased their food, and taken a seat.

  • Have younger students head outside for unstructured play and social time before they eat—it’s shown to help kids focus on their food and reduce waste, and may improve behaviour. Learn more with the Reverse lunch toolkit: Play before lunch!

  • For older grades, connect with students about what works for them. They may have creative ideas about how to limit time spent transitioning in the hallways, waiting in line to buy food, or finding a space to eat their meal. 


Keep it positive 

For some students, eating at school can be an overwhelming or challenging experience. Use these tips to improve the social atmosphere at lunch (while also boosting the likelihood they’ll eat):

  • Engage students about the design of eating spaces and the changes they’d like to see—for example, they can design murals or create artwork for eating spaces.
  • Limit electronic distractions like phones, tablets, or movies during school meals. Instead:
    • Use conversation prompts or trivia questions to encourage discussion
    • Read out loud or play audiobooks
    • Set up lunch playlists 
  • Limit loud sounds (like whistles and bells) to help encourage conversation.
  • At least once in a while, encourage students to sit with different peers.


Make water the drink of choice

Use design concepts to promote drinking water throughout the school day. Try these proven actions:

  • Encourage students to bring reusable water bottles from home, and keep them handy in the classroom.
  • Provide easy access to water refill stations.
  • Designate time for water breaks during the school day.
  • Use posters and visual prompts to remind students and staff to drink water. Try the Drink water, if thirsty poster from AHS.


How it connects

Design features have been shown to influence the likelihood that students will drink water and eat healthy food (like vegetables and fruit) when they have the opportunity at school.

They’re an important part of the healthy food environment, a component of the comprehensive school health framework.

Get inspired with Nature and design, a story of how one Alberta school community transformed their healthy eating space.

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