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Learning From the Past? A Socio-Historical Approach to Food Practices
A way to illustrate how our understanding of food has changed over time, through a flipped classroom and practical activity.

By: Stefan Wahlen (Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen)

Session type: Multiple sessions, Undergraduate level, Small/Medium/Large size


  • Food consumption

  • Consumption as cultural


Introduction to the teaching example:

The goal of this activity is to demonstrate how our understanding of food and nutrition impacts what we eat. Analyzing cookbooks and recipes from various eras and locations allows us to ask: What function does tacit, common knowledge serve? What exactly do we know about food? How does nutrition science affect our understanding of food? Through the use of a flipped classroom and practical exercise, this exercise aims to respond to these questions and contextualize these ideas into a historical context.


The first section of this activity focuses on how food varies among cultures. Recipes from different eras show the evolution of our knowledge through time and the shifting cultural inclusivity of cookbooks. During the first week of class, students look through old recipes that were printed before they were born. Students might also ask their family or close friends for cookbooks. They are tasked with examining recipe details (such as cultural awareness, and healthy vs high-calorie meals), as well as how guidelines are written (eg, cookbooks were less explicit in the past). This demonstrates to students how information has evolved through time and how the practical application of dietary knowledge is formalized. It also highlights how changing behaviors (with respect to power, microwaves, fridges, etc.) is necessary when new cooking tools are introduced.


In the second half of this activity, students are required to select one historical recipe that they dislike (or might be disgusted by) and make a dish equivalent to it at home. The purpose of this is to demonstrate how taste and revulsion are social constructs as well as sensory ones. Students document the meal with photos, which they then post on an online educational portal in addition to describing bodily experiences. Students are recommended to prepare a small portion to reduce food waste (as an alternative, the exercise can omit the physical preparation of the dish and rather just describe why they would rather not prepare it). By questioning what a meal is and what it means to prepare food with others in a social setting, the lecturer uses images to demonstrate how food governs cultural structures. As a variation, this activity may also have students working together to produce a recipe or include family members to talk about what has been made and how it connects to the flavor of a meal.


The subsequent lectures in class continue the discussion of historical evolution but concentrate on large-scale issues such as the politicization or commercialization of food. It is feasible to expand on the socio-historical difference in later exercises by highlighting the advancements in food production and distribution networks that led to the modern industrial food system. For instance, students might examine historical or current policy efforts, such as those relating to food waste or the EU's agricultural regulations.

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