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Food technology, home economics, cooking, or healthy eating? Making a case for the term ‘food literacy’

Kim Smith, PhD Researcher at City University of London

Increasingly, UK policy recommendations include food education. For example, the Levelling Up white paper recommends children leave school knowing ‘how to cook six recipes’ (LUHC, 2022); the Department for Education’s holiday activities and food programme guidance mandates daily nutritional education (DfE, 2022); while England’s National Food Strategy recommends improvements across the food and nutrition curriculum. Yet what is notable in each policy is the variety of terms employed to describe food education.

Similarly, a lack of consistent food education terminology was discovered in our recent research analysing how primary school curriculums around the world address food education and food literacy (Smith et al., 2022). For example, primary school food curriculums are called Cooking and Nutrition in England, Home Economics in Japan, Food Technology and Health and Wellbeing in Scotland, while Norway has a Curriculum in Food and Health. This highlights a distinct lack of terminology consensus in primary education, unlike in secondary education where the term ‘home economics’ is more consistently used (McCloat & Caraher, 2020). But what difference does this make?

Analysis of 11 food curriculums highlights the perspective from which curriculum names are derived, and the topics that are included. So, science and design-based food technology has an industrial manufacturing focus; nutrition education focuses on food’s nutritional composition and function, teaching children how to eat healthily and avoid disease; home economics – heralding from the days when only girls were taught to cook – maintains a domestic focus; while generic ‘cooking’ concentrates on practical techniques for turning ingredients into meals.

What these different names have in common is a siloed approach to food education. Each curriculum covers a narrow range of food topics, driven by a singular perspective of food. However, children today grow up in a world where the food system is the leading cause of planetary and public health crises (GLOPAN, 2020). In order to thrive in and leverage their role in improving this food system, children must be equipped with skills and knowledge to eat healthily for life. For this they need a comprehensive food education.

‘In order to thrive in and leverage their role in improving the food system, children must be equipped with skills and knowledge to eat healthily for life. For this they need a comprehensive food education.’

The term ‘food literacy’ (FL) represents a comprehensive food education. Defined as ‘a collection of inter-related knowledge, skills and behaviours required to plan, manage, select, prepare and eat food to meet needs’ (Vidgen & Gallegos, 2014, p. 54), it is a new and evolving term, uniquely representing a broad food education perspective, including sustainability and sociocultural topics (figure 1).

Figure 1. Food Literacy Competencies for young adults grouped by three FL themes

Source: Slater et al. (2018)

Identifying curriculum names and food education topics included in primary curriculums showed that while each country took a unique approach to food education, what they called the curriculum determined the topics included and how comprehensively they addressed food literacy. FL was most comprehensively addressed in Norway, Australia, Slovenia and Scotland where curriculums covered food and nutrition, and socio-cultural and sustainability themes. Notably, Norway’s Curriculum in Food and Health – its name devoid of siloed perspective – addressed a broad range of FL topics, and demonstrates that a comprehensive primary school food education is possible.

What a curriculum is called directly shapes curriculum content, impacting the skills and knowledge children develop. Food literacy is a pertinent term for the food education that children need today. Modern, comprehensive and new, it is devoid of gendered, domestic or industrial associations. While no consensus on what primary food education is called or constitutes yet exists, the term food literacy could be employed to bring policy coherence, broaden food curriculums, and equip children with the skills and knowledge they need to be healthy. In Ontario, Canada, for instance, the recently enacted Food Literacy for Students Act, 2020 embeds a comprehensive food education for 4-to-16-year-olds, and demonstrates some exciting policy potential.

See Smith et al. (2022) to learn more about primary school food education and how different countries’ curriculums address food literacy.


Department for Education [DfE]. (2022). Holiday activities and food programme 2022.

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities [LUHC]. (2022). Levelling up the United Kingdom.

Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition [GLOPAN]. (2020). Future food systems: For people, our planet, and prosperity.’s%20Foresight%20report%20’Future,operate%20sustainably%2C%20within%20planetary%20boundaries

McCloat, A., & Caraher, M. (2020). An international review of second-level food education curriculum policy. Cambridge Journal of Education, 50(3), 303–324.

Slater, J., Falkenberg, T., Rutherford, J., & Colatruglio, S. (2018) Food literacy competencies: A conceptual framework for youth transitioning to adulthood. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 42(5), 547–556.

Smith, K., Wells, R., & Hawkes, C. (2022). How primary school curriculums in 11 countries around the world deliver food education and address food literacy: A policy analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(4). 

Vidgen, H. A., & Gallegos, D. (2014). Defining food literacy and its components. Appetite, 76, 50–59.

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