Helping Kids Love Math—One Bite at a Time!

By Ann McCallum

Quick! What is it going to be: multiplication or meatballs? Tangrams or toast? Or, my personal favorite—Fibonacci or fruit salad?

Actually, there is no need to choose. Math and food go together like, well, circumference and pie (that is, uh, pi). Indeed, the kitchen is the perfect place to cook up a lesson on math. Not only is this venue a tasty place to learn, but food preparation also promotes healthy eating in children, family togetherness, and valuable life skills.

How does one turn a potentially dry topic into a succulent math meal? Let’s take the idea of multiplication meatballs, for example. For early learners, memorizing multiplication facts can be a real challenge. One way to make this task easier is to put together a tangible (and tangy) set of meatball arrays—an organized model of multiplication facts formed by arranging objects into columns and rows. Start with your favorite recipe for meatballs. Then, to show the product 12, for instance, you can make a 3 by 4 rectangle of meatballs, a 2 by 6 arrangement, and then a 1 by 12 array of the meatballs. It’s a hands-on (and mouths-on) way of building conceptual knowledge and visualizing multiplication.

Suddenly, multiplication facts aren’t just randomly put-together number sentences; there’s logical sense to every factor and product relationship. That’s much tastier than the grind of memorizing flashcards, right?

Okay, how about some tangrams and toast? Tangrams come from an ancient Chinese puzzle made up of seven polygons. Tangram toast is a wonderful way to introduce and reinforce geometric concepts: similar and congruent shapes, angles, vertices, parallel and perpendicular lines, and the relationship between polygons such as right triangles, parallelograms, and squares. Math language is rich and meaningful as a child manipulates the tangram pieces.

Again, a simple idea—constructing shapes from toast—can lead to a lifelong understanding of key math objectives. Here’s what you do: Start with a piece of unbuttered toast, the larger the better. (Alternatively, use more than one piece of bread if you desire larger individual shapes.) Lay a tangram pattern (traced onto paper) on top of the toast and cut around the perimeter to make the bread square. Use a table knife to press down on all the lines within the tangram puzzle. Remove the pattern and cut all the way through each indentation, creating seven separate pieces. Add butter if desired, and perhaps some cinnamon sugar for a treat.

Arrange the tangram pieces to make pictures and shapes or simply to explore geometric concepts. The ideas for tangram patterns are endless—check the Internet or one of many books on this topic. The discussion that ensues might include how the different-sized triangles are similar versus congruent (same shape versus the same shape and size). Or how about the newly created tangram figures? Which figures are convex? Which figures are concave? The math lesson resonates, not only because of the visual aspect of the tangrams but also because children are engaged in the food preparation.

A third example involves number patterns, an often perplexing topic for many children. However, a clear path to understanding can be found when children prepare Fibonacci Snack Sticks.1 Leonardo Fibonacci was a mathematician who lived in Italy from about 1170 to 1250. While he didn’t actually invent the famous Fibonacci sequence, he did make it popular, which is why the well-known number pattern bears his name.

Use this math recipe to introduce Leonardo Fibonacci and to discuss how this set of numbers has far-reaching implications. With this easy recipe, children skewer pieces of fruit on a stick. They start with one piece of fruit—maybe a strawberry? Another one of something is added, followed by two pieces of fruit, then three, and then five. If there is still room on the stick, eight of something can be skewered on.

Hint: Use the larger pieces of fruit first. For the last items—the five of something and the eight of something—use small items such as raisins or slices of banana.

Each snack stick, eaten plain or with a little chocolate sauce, now displays the intriguing Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 … Of course, children should be sure to ask whoever they’re sharing the recipe with to work out the pattern first before eating.2

Sound easy? It is! Sound fun and educational? Absolutely.

Mathematics is so much more than learning by rote and applying formulas—instead, try crunching numbers and eating arithmetic! Granted, there is, obviously, a place for pencil and paper tasks; however, by pairing essential math principles with delicious and logical math recipes, children internalize valuable math lessons rather than just memorize steps. Just as critical, by cooking up math children learn to love the subject and perhaps will develop a greater tolerance for persisting when the math gets more complex later on. Finally, when children eat math, they learn that math + food = fun!

Ann McCallum is the award-winning author of several children’s books, including two math fairytales and her newest book Eat Your Math Homework: Recipes for Hungry Minds, which School Library Journal says: “… for a homeschooler, … is a kind of godsend.” McCallum maintains a website and blog at www.AnnMcCallumBooks.com. She is blessed with a wonderful family.


  1. The complete activity can be found in Eat Your Math Homework: Recipes for Hungry Minds, Charlesbridge, 2011, illustrated by Leeza Hernandez. Return to text.
  2. Solution: Always add the previous two items to get the next term: 1 + 1 = 2; 1 + 2 = 3; 2 + 3 = 5; etc. Return to text.

Copyright, 2012. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, January 2012. Read this digital, interactive magazine free by visiting: www.TOSMagazine.com or read on your Kindle Fire or Apple and Android devices by downloading the free TOS apps.