Creating a Buzz Around Beans

By Lisa Didier, BeanMeals

Lisa Didier, Engagement Officer for the research project BeanMeals, reveals how the team worked with schoolchildren across Leicestershire to help them feel excited about trying unfamiliar foods.

Smiling children giving the thumbs up as they eat a bean-packed school lunch

Beans, regardless of the country in which they are grown, are filling, affordable, sustainable and nutritious. So, why are we focusing on UK beans in our project?  Here in the UK, we currently import amount large quantities of dried beans from North America, mostly for use in baked beans. Our researchers want to determine whether increased demand for domestic dried beans would decrease the environmental impact of shipping and create new enterprise opportunities. Our beans, two new varieties of haricot called Capulet and Godiva, developed at the University of Warwickshire, are designed to thrive in UK summers. 

The BeanMeals project brings together researchers from different universities in diverse disciplines such as eating behaviours, plant genetics and food systems to understand how to achieve healthy diets that benefit the planet. Based at the University of Oxford, the project takes a fork-to-farm approach, starting with the consumer. We’re working with partners in Leicester City Council and Leicestershire County Council, who share our aims. One of our goals is to understand how to get schoolchildren excited about eating beans as an unfamiliar food.  

A group effort 

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to encourage them to try new foods! We were supported by local authority caterers in both the county and city, catering managers, cooks, lunchtime supervisors, headteachers and teaching staff in the six primary schools in which we tested our beans. 

In the classroom, the children learned about the health benefits of adding pulses to their diets via lessons in healthy eating, food systems and food waste, as well as cooking and food growing sessions. 

The school cooks relished the challenge of adapting their recipes to accommodate the beans in tasty meals, from lasagne, chilli and curry to ingenious pizzas and pasta sauces. Midday supervisors supported the project by encouraging the children to try the beans when they appeared on the lunchtime menus. Two of the schools supported a series of ‘family cook-and-eat’ sessions in school, after which participants took ingredients (including beans) home to create meals as a family.  

Beans means fun 

It was clear that the enthusiasm and support of everyone involved has contributed to the buzz we created around beans. Associating beans with fun meant the children were more open to trying new, unfamiliar meals.  

We took time to play with the beans. For some of the children, it was the first time they’d handled dry beans. When asked how these activities made them feel about the bean meals on the lunchtime menus, they replied that they were “curious” and “intrigued”. One said, “I’ve always tasted baked beans but never the other beans. I never knew that they existed.” Even the simple act of investigating a new raw ingredient can be an important step towards tasting it for the first time. 

Children excitedly playing the Beantopia board game.

Another exciting element was our board game Beantopia, co-developed by games designer Joanne Craven and a group of children. Designed to appeal to the children’s sense of competition and fun, Beantopia brings the food system alive and helps players understand that beans are healthy and sustainable. The teachers and children loved our game and we are pleased that it will continue to be played in each of the six schools long after the BeanMeals project concludes in November 2024. 

Lisa Didier, Engagement Officer, BeanMeals 

About BeanMeals 

BeanMeals is an interdisciplinary research project based at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. It is funded by the Transforming the UK Food System for Health People and a Healthy Environment SPF Programme, which aims to fundamentally transform the UK food system by placing healthy people and a healthy natural environment at its centre.