You Are What You Ate: Food lessons from the past

As part of the You Are What You Ate project, primary school children in Wakefield will be able to walk to school in medieval costume, take part in a themed assembly and learn about different food from periods of history in a workshop designed to teach them about nutrition.

The project aims to teach children about the importance of a balanced diet for their health and fitness. It is being lead by academics from the University of Leeds and University of Bradford, and cultural officers from Wakefield Council.

Dr. Iona McCleery, overall project coordinator and historian based at the University of Leeds, said: “The aim is to explore how we can learn from the past to improve our health”.

Activities will combine several elements in an innovative way. As part of Wakefield Council’s successful ‘Walking to School’ initiative, children will accompany a medieval woman called Joan (aka Sally-Ann Burley) to school dressed in historical costume, with the aim of encouraging them to remain active. Rachel Wilcox, project member and Childhood Healthy Weight Project manager for NHS Wakefield District, said “a balanced diet must include plenty of exercise”.

The children will learn more about Joan in the morning assembly and a workshop. They are asked to imagine that the year is 1461 and that Joan is a local woman who cares for soldiers wounded the previous year at the Battle of Wakefield. Children are asked to help her prepare meals for the soldiers and to think about questions such as, what foods would have been available and how were they booked in the days before electricity? How can Joan feed hungry men with a balanced diet for the least amount of money? The children will then get an opportunity to prepare and try a quick and easy no-cook medieval recipe.

Schools can also opt to book a medieval-themed dinner developed by Kingswood School Caterers to complement the morning’s activities.

Project member Professor Janet Cade, nutritional epidemiologist in the School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds said: “Improving nutritional health it is not just a matter of considering what food we eat but also how we eat it, with whom and when.”

Dr Iona McCleery added: “Food choices both today and in the past are based on lots of different factors. We want to say to kids that eating well can be fun to do with friends and family and that it can be done on relatively little money. We have to get this message across to children as young as possible if we are to improve the health of future families.”

Each class will compete for a prize: a trip to the osteology laboratory at the University of Bradford for a special children’s bone workshop, where they will learn more about the effects of diet on the human body across history.

The first school to participate in the scheme is South Hiendley Junior and Infants School near Barnsley on 14 January 2011, but primary schools across the district will also be involved over the next three years.

You are what you ate: food lessons from the past is a three-year research project funded by a Society Award from the Wellcome Trust. Project members are working together to prepare and deliver a wide range of schools activities, exhibitions, festival stalls, cooking demonstrations and bone workshops.

The next free public events are two adult bone workshop focusing on archaeological evidence for the effects of sugary diets to be held at the University of Bradford on Wednesday 26 January 2011, 2-5 pm and Saturday 26 February 2011, 2-5 pm. To register phone (0113) 3431910 (Wednesday and Thursday only) or e-mail [email protected]

For further information:


Contact the University of Leeds Press Office on 0113 343 4031.


Notes to editors


  1. The Wellcome Trust is a global charity dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. 
  2. Iona McCleery has been lecturer in medieval history at the University of Leeds since 2007, prior to which she held a Wellcome Research Fellowship in the History of Medicine at the University of Durham.
  3. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK’s eighth biggest research powerhouse. The university is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The university’s vision is to secure a place among the world’s top 50 by 2015.