In deep winter, in the long weeks after the December break, the symptoms are easy to recognize. I walk into a classroom to listless stares and yawns. Students are drooped over their desks, some resting their heads on their arms. A pencil rolls under a desk and nobody goes after it. Eyes are half-closed, coats are halfway off. There’s no vaccination for it, but in New York public schools it’s as dependable as flu season: the winter doldrums.

Maybe it’s all the indoor recesses, the dark afternoons, the mornings that somehow feel painfully early. Maybe it’s the slushy misery of the weather. Whatever the cause, it can infect us at any age. Our minds feel more sluggish, our bodies more sleepy, and our work or studies a little less exciting. Classrooms that were buzzing with anticipation at my arrival in September are suddenly a very tough crowd, and teachers shoot me apologetic glances as I set up my materials.

As a teacher, it’s tempting to deal with this by getting loud and performative (grab their attention by any means necessary!) But I’ve found that often, what students need is much simpler. They need to get back in touch with the world around them in small, meaningful ways, by waking up their senses one by one. Luckily for me, food education is a wonderful means of checking in with the body and brain.

We usually begin our classes with a guided tasting. I ask students to sit up, roll up their sleeves, take a couple of deep breaths, and notice whether they are hungry or full, tired or antsy. I direct their attention to the plate of ingredients on their tables – sometimes it’s an array of spices, sometimes slices of fresh fruits or vegetables, sometimes a local product like honey or cheese. What colors do they see? Are the ingredients strange or familiar to them? How do they think each will taste? Some faces flicker into smiles of recognition, and some perk up a little with curiosity. When they take a sample of the first ingredient, I ask what it feels like in their hands, what it smells like. Fresh mint usually gets a good reaction – “it smells like summertime!” one kid sighed last week. Kids might notice the smoothness of a greenhouse cherry tomato or the sticky juice of a tangerine. They aren’t allowed to taste yet, and as anticipation builds, they often look to their fellow students to ask in a whisper if they’ve tasted this before, if it’s good. The scent of cumin reminds one student of his mother’s stewed chicken. Another grins with excitement as she gets ready to taste queso fresco; it’s the same cheese her dad puts in his quesadillas.

When they finally take a taste, it’s with full awareness of flavor and texture. Some nibble cautiously, others chomp away with abandon. The tang of fresh lime juice or the heat of chili powder is an unexpected departure from the everyday sensory experience of the classroom. Tasting ingredients has an enlivening effect on the group – whether the reactions are positive or not, there is an immediate buzz of commentary, which I encourage. “I could eat twenty of these!” a second grader cried after popping a cherry tomato into his mouth this week. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever had,” another informed me solemnly after a tiny nibble of sharp New York cheddar. I ask them what it reminds them of, what they would combine it with, whether it would be better cooked or minced or stirred into a sauce. As kids compare opinions and we push them to use “juicy” vocabulary to describe textures, flavors and aromas, the classroom wakes up little by little. It’s hard to feel droopy or listless when your classmate is squealing with delight at a sour lemon or urging you to taste cheese drizzled with a little clover honey.

 

The concept of “mindfulness” is thrown around a lot these days; it’s a buzzword splashed across lifestyle magazines and used to sell phone apps. But the idea of slowing down and paying close attention to our senses, of savoring and truly noticing each bite of food, is a real and very simple way of practicing mindfulness during what can sometimes feel like a mind-numbing season. Kids in particular, whose day-to-day lives are hyper-structured and built on repetition and routine, benefit hugely from the chance to pause and check in with their bodies, their senses, and their taste buds. It’s why our Spoons curricula tend to focus on creating “taste explorers” through eating and cooking, rather than lectures on nutrition.

As we move from guided tasting to our next activity, whether it be designing imaginary fruits, mixing a vinaigrette, or cooking up black bean and squash quesadillas, I notice an extra current of energy in the classroom. Kids might sneak an extra chickpea, hold thin slices of apple up to the light, or sniff at a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar as we measure and mix. It’s like fresh air has been let into the room. That’s the power of food during these dark months: to engage all five senses, to shake up our routines, and to wake us up from the winter doldrums.

 

Click here for a citrus recipe that’s sure to wake up your taste buds!