How to Become a Nutrition Teacher

Introduction

For many decades, schools employed teachers (primarily women) to offer courses in home economics, where students learned about sewing, clothing, textiles, housecleaning, and food – from cookery to nutrition. While the concept is now dated, home economics once served as a pathway into higher education for many women in the early 20th century. By the early 1920s, various social programs and research initiatives started focusing on nutrition and its impact on child development, with many contemporary college and university nutrition programs evolving from earlier home economics programs.

Today, there are opportunities for both men and women to teach nutrition to students at all levels of the education system, with the minimum needed to enter the field being a bachelor’s degree.

How can I become an elementary nutrition teacher?

While few elementary schools employ full-time nutrition educators, some school boards employ a nutritionist on a part- or full-time basis to visit schools across the district on a rotating basis. More often than not, however, nutrition at the elementary level is taught as part of the school’s physical education curriculum.

To become an elementary school physical education teacher, one must:

  • Hold a bachelor’s degree, with a specialization in physical education, where students encounter coursework involving nutrition, as well as personal health and wellness related to school-aged children.
  • Complete a teacher education program, and undergo a student-teaching experience, which provides valuable hands-on interaction with students at the elementary school level
  • Become certified and licensed to teach in their state

Although elementary schools do not generally employ nutrition teachers, most schools do hire school nutritionists, which educate children on making healthy food choices. School nutritionists, however, are rarely certified teachers since their primary job is to develop, select or prepare food and food plans for a school environment. To become a school nutritionist, an individual must hold some form of certification from the School Nutrition Association.

How can I become a middle school or high school nutrition teacher?

Over the past two decades, the once-standard home economics curriculum offered in North American middle and high schools has been nearly phased out, and replaced with a range of new types of courses that include “Family Studies” or “Family and Consumer Studies.”

Typically, middle or high school family and consumer studies teachers have completed a bachelor’s degree in the field of family studies, nutrition or a related field. For example, at Queen’s College, aspiring Family and Consumer Studies (FCS) teachers can choose from one of two pathways: (1) a post-baccalaureate program (for candidates who have already completed a bachelor’s degree in another discipline) or (2) a bachelor’s degree (for incoming students with no previous postsecondary education). Either way, prospective FCS teachers need to complete courses in the sciences (biology, chemistry, etc.) and FCS-specific courses, such as food science, nutrition and meal planning. Some middle and high school nutrition teachers also hold a related master’s degree, as required by state.

ingredients for a healthy breakfast - berries, fruit and muesli, vertical, close-up, top view

The National Center for Education Statistics states that more than 90 percent of schools cover the following topics as part of the nutrition curriculum:

  • Identifying healthy foods
  • The relationship between diet and health
  • Nutrients and their food sources
  • Dietary guidelines and goals

In the past, food pyramid guidelines were taught as the nutritional standard, but have since been replaced by MyPlate, the current nutrition guide recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture. Many topics are covered at all instructional levels – from elementary school to secondary school. However, high school teachers are more likely to educate their students on pressing age-appropriate topics such as eating disorders, healthy weight control, and body image.

The educational pathway of an individual with an interest in teaching nutrition to middle and high school students is also affected by whether an aspiring educator plans to teach nutrition courses as part of the broader family of consumer studies curriculum, or nutrition courses as part of the physical education curriculum. Nutrition is also covered in middle school and high school health classes. In that case, candidates are expected to complete the required coursework for earning a degree in family studies, physical education or health education. Other requirements include completing a teacher training program, passing applicable examinations (including content area tests), and becoming licensed and certified to teach in a state of residence.

What is required to become a college/university nutrition professor?

College nutrition professors typically hold at least a master’s degree, and in most cases, a PhD in nutrition or a related field (food studies, dietetics, or agriculture). At the college level, professors teach courses on nutrition that benefit students pursuing a career as a nutritionist or dietician, or for programs where nutrition courses are taken as electives, like nursing programs.

Because experience in the field is a valuable asset for a nutrition professor to have, some two-year colleges will hire job candidates that possess a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, dietetics, or dietetics and food administration, in addition to having certification as a registered dietician. 

University nutrition professors must hold a PhD in nutrition or a related field, and be engaged in relevant research regarding topics associated with food and nutrition. Nutrition research can range from scientific studies on the impact of genetically modified vegetables, to sociological studies on the distribution of food, to food preparation in different regions and across cultures. Professors may also choose an area of specialization and primarily focused on teaching specific fields of study, such as public health, epidemiology or mitochondrial DNA variation. Depending on their research and the nature of their appointment, they may work in a nutrition science program, agriculture program, and in some cases, a food studies program.

Nutrition studies professors are expected to teach courses in their field; carry out related research; recruit, train, and supervise graduate and postdoctoral students; and contribute to the governance of their program and the broader university.

In order to qualify for a tenure-track position, nutrition professors are expected to:

  • Teach lectures and hold lab sessions for undergraduate and graduate students
  • Mentor students and serve as an academic advisor
  • Guide a graduate or undergraduate student in teaching assistant positions
  • Stay active in the field, such as sit on health related school boards or participate in community-related task forces
  • Attend professional conferences and provide consultation pertaining to an area of expertise

What is the job outlook for nutrition teachers? 

The need to hire teachers and professors specializing in nutrition is steady due to increasing emphasis being placed on leading a healthier lifestyle and making nutritious dietary choices. Job vacancies at middle and high schools will continue to emerge through 2022, as aging educators retire and school enrollment continues to rise, especially in the West and South.

Every year, a nationwide listing of teacher shortages is released by the U.S. Department of Education, which pinpoints an abundance of open teaching positions by state and school district. For instance, the following states were identified as experiencing a widespread shortage of family and consumer sciences teachers for the 2015/2016 academic year: Maryland (for grades 7-12), West Virginia (from grade 5 to the adult level), Wyoming, and Wisconsin (for their Family and Consumer Education (FACE) program).

Since higher education offers a range of courses specifically addressing the overall subject, major and careers related to nutrition, more jobs are found at the postsecondary level for nutrition-related educators. For example, the BLS cited that in 2014, most teachers of nutrition were employed by colleges, universities and professional schools (2,350 professors), followed by 1,050 professors hired at junior colleges.

What is the compensation for nutrition teachers?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median salaries earned in 2014 for teachers belonging to a group known as home economics teachers (which includes those who teach courses related to childcare, finance, home management, and nutrition) were as follows:

  • Elementary and middle school teachers – $53,760 – $54,940
  • High school teachers – $56,310
  • Postsecondary teachers – $63,390

The overall salary of a teacher who concentrates on or touches upon nutrition generally depends on the type of degree one earns (such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition, health or physical education, for those who teach outside of postsecondary schools), place of employment, and geographic location. For instance, the BLS reports the following states (with annual mean salaries) as paying the highest salaries to home economics-related professors in 2014: Michigan ($85,480), California ($83,370), Ohio ($81,640), Arizona ($77,510), and Georgia ($76,950).

To make the most money as a teacher of nutrition, professors were interestingly paid more when employed at junior colleges, as they earned an annual mean wage of $71,180 in 2014. That same year, professors hired by colleges, universities and professional schools made an annual mean wage of $68,980.

In conclusion, nutrition is an academic subject that allows educators trained in other disciplines, such as health, physical education and food studies, to assume a teaching position at a high school, college or university. While the majority of nutrition education majors are employed at the postsecondary level, opportunities to teach nutrition to elementary, middle and high school students also come in the form of physical education and health courses. To enter the field as an educator, an individual can earn as little as a bachelor’s degree, and with experience related to the field, even teach courses at a community college.

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