Food Diaries

Andrew Ruis's picture

Colleagues—I am contemplating the potential pedagogical uses of food diaries, relative to the work involved for both students and instructors, and I'd love to hear from folks who have tried it. Have you ever had your students keep a food diary (i.e., a log of all the food they ate during some period of time)? If so, what were your pedagogical motivations for doing so? How did you do it? How did you assess it (if at all)? How well did it work? Would you do it again? If someone were cosidering doing it, are there any resources you would recommend? Any and all thoughts about food diaries as a pedagogical exercise would be appreciated.

Thanks in advance!


I can't speak much to the pedagogical side, but I did try a food photo-journal for a week: The pics are (blurry) evidence of the monotony of my diet at the time. I can imagine any number of writing exercises coming out of analyzing one's own food intake, from nutritional to social habits (like frequently eating alone in front of one's laptop...).

My colleague, Brandon Fralix, and I taught a Histories of Food course where we required students to keep a food diary for one week. We proceeded this with a pre-test that asked them questions about their level of activity, their caloric consumption, and their distribution of calories (throughout the day, across nutrients, and from food v. alcohol). The students found this an amazingly helpful self-reflection activity. In terms of pedagogy, it set the students up to really care about the content of the course over the semester, and they had a personal point for which to understand the historical processes that have shaped food and consumption over the years. We evaluated it on a complete/incomplete basis, but it also fed into several self-reflection activities they were required to do over the course of the semester. It was rather tedious for students and instructors, but it was worth doing for a week in the beginning of the course.

Dear Andrew,

I also have not tried this as a pedagogical exercise, but I wanted to weigh in quickly (pun unfortunately relevant). It's worth being aware that for many people with disordered eating in their past or present keeping strict food journals can be triggering in the clinical sense. While counting calories and nutritional intake (for instance) could be a very healthy, exciting pedagogical experience for some, it may endanger the physical and mental well-being of other students. Eating disorders have the highest fatality rates of all mental disorders (more than PTSD, depression, etc.) and this is well worth keeping in mind as a pedagogue.

However, I do applaud this idea as a creative exercise in engaged and participatory learning. If one were to encourage this in the classroom, I would be careful to create space for students to privately voice concerns or complete non-triggering variations on the assignment. Perhaps it could be a teamwork exercise where only one person in each group volunteers to track their food, while one person tabulates nutrition and content, and another person researches the sources/origins of the food, etc?


Anastasia Day
Hagley Scholar, History Department
The University of Delaware

I teach an American foodways seminar, and have had students create food diaries for a week (one near the beginning and another near the end of the semester) and then give a formal presentation on their eating habits (NOTE: this is a speaking intensive course, so students had to do many presentations).

The positive part was the opportunity for students to self-reflect on their eating habits and put their own food practices in conversation with our reading assignments and class discussions. This was on top of developing their presentation skills, which we were working on as well.

I did, however, have a semester where two students had anxieties about discussing their personal relationship with food--one had an eating disorder and another had a recently diagnosed food allergy that greatly limited her food options. I worked it out with them to be as honest as they wanted to be, and (what was great) was they were quite frank with their peers about the issues they faced. In this situation, it helped that my class is only 15 students, and folks were really comfortable with each other by the end of the semester.

I hope this helps!

Before using food diaries as a pedagogical tool, it may be worth considering potential unintended consequences. Julie Guthman (2011) has noted that "... even critical discussions of health can incite self-discipline" (60). In Chapter 3 in her book, Weighing In, Guthman discusses her experience teaching a course on the politics of obesity which contains some examples of student journals. A number of students indicate that discussing things like "healthy eating" and "body size" made them more self-conscious about weight and food choices. Guthman also points out that she didn't fully anticipate her students' difficulties taking a critical approach to these topics: "What I did not foresee was the extent to which students were already enrolled in ideas that conflate self-care and particular embodiments with personal responsibility and good citizenship" (52).

As a registered dietitian, I am familiar with the use of food diaries, and I think it is important to understand that they are both an "intervention" as well as a way to record information. The act of having students record food intake is very likely to change intake (and in a clinical setting this is exactly the point).

These comments are not meant to discourage the use the of food diaries altogether, but to acknowledge and address these issues as part of the pedagogical process. It may be that Chapter 3 from Guthman's book--and its discussions of "healthism" and "coproduction"--would be a good way to approach that.

Thanks for all of the thoughtful responses! This gives me a lot to think about.

Also, if anyone has tried other participatory or reflective learning activities around issues of food and nutrition, I'd love to hear about them. Emily Contois mentioned on Twitter that she has students do "food mapping assignments, e.g. where your food for a day came from," which strikes me as something with a lot of pedagogical potential.

I just did a "rhetoric of food packaging" with a group at NC's Governor's School recently. I distributed some food packages (saved the interesting ones from recycling) and had them work through what they thought they were being persuaded of--besides to buy the food, we just took that most obvious one off the table--and the means of persuasion. I also asked why this means of persuasion was being employed, what assumptions were involved, and what authorities and identities were being called forth. This opened up discussions about rhetoric and identification, authority, ideographs ("natural" and "healthy"), narrative, visual rhetoric, science, data, etc.

Thanks, Adele, that sounds like a great exercise!

Not to tout my own horn, but in the hopes it would be helpful, I just published a paper on the origins and history of the net weight amendment on mandatory nutrition labeling its relation to the current Nutrition Facts panel.

“Proscribing Deception: The Gould Net Weight Amendment and the Origins of Mandatory Nutrition Labeling,” in Setting Standards: The History and Politics of Nutritional Theories and Practices, 1890-1930, Elizabeth Neswald and David Smith, eds. (New York: University of Rochester Press, 2016).