Teaching Youth Food Safety: A Game-Based Learning Experience

Youth are the next generation of food handlers—they will prepare food for themselves and their families, and may also end up working in the food industry. It’s especially important that they learn how to handle, cook, and store food safely and how to know when food is not safe to eat. But food safety is not an intrinsically exciting topic for youth, so the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University developed Theme Park Kitchen, an online learning game that teaches youth food safety practices in engaging ways. This publication describes how we developed the game through a design process that articulated the proper steps of safe food handling. This publication also can help Extension agents and other educators use this game in formal and informal educational settings. The game is a redesign of “Ninja Kitchen,” launched in 2011 to teach kids food handling skills. This work is supported by New Technologies for Agriculture Extension grant no. 2020-41595-30123 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Teaching Youth Food Safety

A Game-Based Learning Experience

By Matheus Cezarotto, Pamela Martinez, and Barbara Chamberlin New Mexico State University Learning Games Lab


Teaching Youth Food Safety: A Game-Based Learning Experience

Copyright © Matheus Cezarotto, Pamela Martinez, and Barbara Chamberlin. 2023, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Published by Extension Foundation.

ISBN: 978-1-955687-45-4

Publish Date: December 14, 2023

Citations for this publication may be made using the following:

Cezarotto, M., Martinez, P., and Chamberlin, B. (2023). Teaching Youth Food Safety: A Game-Based Learning Experience (1 st ed). Kansas City: Extension Foundation. ISBN: 978-1-955687-45-4

Producer: Ashley S. Griffin

Editors: Dr. Rose Hayden-Smith, Heather Martin

Technical Implementers: Dr. Rose Hayden-Smith, Heather Martin

Welcome to Teaching Youth Food Safety: A Game-Based Learning Experience, a resource created for the Cooperative Extension Service and published by the Extension Foundation. We welcome feedback and suggested resources for this publication, which could be included in any subsequent versions. This work is supported by New Technologies for Agriculture Extension grant no. 2020-41595-30123 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For more information please contact:

Extension Foundation c/o Bryan Cave LLP One Kansas City Place

1200 Main Street, Suite 3800 Kansas City, MO 64105-2122 https://extension.org/



Attribution ............................................................................................................................................. 2 Table of Contents.................................................................................................................................... 3 Meet the Authors ................................................................................................................................... 4 Acknowledgments .................................................................................................................................. 5 Abstract.................................................................................................................................................. 6 Introduction ........................................................................................................................................... 6 Chapter 1: Food Safety and Game-Based Learning ................................................................................... 7 Chapter 2: Designing to Foster Change Through Game Play...................................................................... 8 Chapter 3: “Theme Park Kitchen” Educational Goals ................................................................................ 9 Chapter 4: Using the Game.................................................................................................................... 13 Chapter 5: Considerations ..................................................................................................................... 14 References ........................................................................................................................................... 15



Matheus Cezarotto, PhD

Pamela Martinez, PhD

Pamela N. Martinez is an Assistant Professor and Learning Technologies Specialist with New Mexico State University’s Innovative Media Research and Extension Department, and its Learning Games Lab. Dr. Martinez oversees product development and assessment for grant-funded research projects. She has over 25 years’ experience creating educational media and games and research strengths in diversity, equity, and inclusion, making sure all audiences are represented in developed media and have access to appropriate learning tools.

Matheus Cezarotto is an assistant professor on the Innovative Media Research and Extension team at New Mexico State University. Dr. Cezarotto provides inclusive design expertise for the team’s educational technology products, which include learning games, animations, and virtual labs, and researches how these affordances support learning. His published work focuses on educational media design, investigating and developing effective research- based learning technology tools.

Barbara Chamberlin, PhD

Barbara Chamberlin has been developing educational games, media, and interactive programs with Extension for almost 30 years. She leads instructional design of digital tools in the department, working with the amazing programmers, artists and designers on the team and collaborating with content experts at universities throughout the United States. Her areas of research include user testing, and the processes behind developing educational media. She oversees research and development in the Learning Games Lab, and developed the game models used in design at the Lab.



The authors wish to thank members of the previous design team of “Ninja Kitchen,” who developed an engaging and effective learning game, including a deep appreciation for formative testers and accessibility reviewers, who informed our understanding of user needs and strategies. We wish to recognize the most recent developers who engaged in the process of reviewing and redesigning “Theme Park Kitchen” with a commitment to accessibility and inclusive design; Amy Smith Muise for improving the written quality of this paper; the Extension Foundation team for their support, with special thanks to the catalyst guidance of Dr. Dawn Mellion and Dr. Chuck Hibberd. This program is made possible by funding from USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) through a partnership with Oklahoma State University and the Extension Foundation, grant no. 2020-41595-30123.



Youth are the next generation of food handlers — they will prepare food for themselves and their families, and may also end up working in the food industry. It’s especially important that they learn how to handle, cook, and store food safely and how to know when food is not safe to eat. But food safety is not an intrinsically exciting topic for youth, so the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University developed Theme Park Kitchen, an online learning game that teaches youth food safety practices in engaging ways. This publication describes how we developed the game through a design process that articulated the proper steps of safe food handling. This publication also can help Extension agents and other educators use this game in formal and informal educational settings.


Poor food safety practices lead to foodborne illness, an issue that affects approximately 48 million Americans each year. Of those 48 million, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that foodborne illness costs the country $15.5 billion annually. The good news is, we can reduce foodborne illness by educating consumers and producers about the risks and by teaching them best practices for minimizing and even eliminating chances of food contamination. Youth ages 11 to 13 are a priority audience for food safety education because they are at an age when they start helping their parents cook, making their own snacks, reheating leftovers, and preparing food from recipes. They also often are caregivers for infants, young children, and elderly family members (Byrd-Bredbenner, Abbot, Quick, 2010). Research shows that despite their cooking interest and capabilities, youth have a limited understanding of foodborne illnesses and food safety practices (Batista et al., 2023; Byrd-Bredbenner et al., 2007). The New Mexico State University Learning Games Lab (NMSU LGL) developed Theme Park Kitchen, an online learning game, to fill this knowledge gap. This publication describes how gameplay fosters behavior change and how NMSU LGL created Theme Park Kitchen using inclusive design for learning, which takes into account that everyone learns differently. We also articulate ways that educators and Extension agents can use the game in formal and informal educational settings.



As a discipline, food safety assesses and manages risks in all the stages of food production and consumption, ensuring that people have safe food (Yüksel and Günay, 2023). Food safety education is crucial in preventing microbial contamination that can lead to foodborne illness. Effective food safety education covers such topics as having good personal hygiene, cooking food to safe temperatures, avoiding cross-contamination, storing food at a safe temperature, and avoiding foods from unsafe sources (Medeiros et al., 2001). Research also suggests that gameplay is a highly effective way to teach youth ages 11 through 18 about foodborne illness and food safety (Syeda et al., 2021). Interactive educational tools give users agency while they learn specific content, in the sense of interacting with the content rather than passively receiving information without the possibility to give input, choose, or modify information/elements during the learning experience. Educational games are effective interactive media designed to teach specific content. Game experiences offer a customizable learning environment, provide meaningful and immediate feedback, can be a safe learning space, and support opportunities for players to apply the content and their understanding in a meaningful context. Empirical research supports educational games' effectiveness in teaching various content and changing learners' knowledge, attitudes, and behavior (e.g., Plass, Mayer, and Homer, 2020; Engledowl, 2023). In 2007, USDA-NIFA funded a two-state (New Mexico and New Jersey) research and education project that resulted in Ninja Kitchen (2011). In collaboration with Dr. Carol Byrd-Bredbenner from Rutgers University (The State University of New Jersey), NMSU LGL designed the game focusing on real-life tasks to enable youth to gain vital safe food handling skills to prevent foodborne illness. Players engaged in a fictional kitchen in which they prepared food and served customers by following food safety best practices, including handwashing, avoiding cross-contamination, and cooking at the right temperature. "Ninja Kitchen" was a hit, with more than 4 million plays. Research data indicated the game's effectiveness: A study of more than 900 middle schoolers who played it showed that it engaged participants and shifted their knowledge, attitudes, and intentions around food safety (Quick et al., 2013). In 2020, the game became obsolete with the discontinuation of Adobe Flash. With new funding from the New Technologies in Ag Education (NTAE) grant and support from the Extension Foundation (EXF), NMSU LGL redesigned the game to comply with the latest technologies and followed inclusive design best practices, including a deep review of accessibility and representation. The new game, “Theme Park Kitchen,” offers the same transformational activities and engaging play. It includes special features for users with visual, hearing, motor, and cognitive needs and can be played on a wider range of web browsers and with accessible keyboards and tools.



With an initial understanding of the content need, an interdisciplinary team of developers (programmers, game designers, artists) and food safety content experts collaborated in a design summit. Previous to the original summit, content experts conducted focus groups with youth to understand what concepts regarding food safety were unclear, what youth in this age range understood about preventing food borne illness, and how youth prepared, cooked, and stored food. Articulating a problem related to learning the content was the team's first step. To state the problem, the team looked at how foodborne illness has been taught, what kind of misconceptions or lack of understanding learners have, or — if they know the content — why their behavior does not reflect their knowledge (Byrd-Bredbenner, Abbot, and Quick, 2010). This research indicated that youth consider it important to learn about foodborne illness but experience barriers to learning; they also have the feeling that they are “ invincible ”— not susceptible to foodborne illness. Data also identify youths’ preference for learning foodborne content in an interactive and hands-on format, where they have agency. With research data, the team articulated the problems:

 How to teach youth food safety practices?

 How to give youth an understanding of how foodborne illness happens and the risks?

 What actions (behavior) youth need to learn to prevent foodborne illness?

The team defined intended changes for learners. The changes represent how learners need to be transformed to learn the content, including changes in learners’ knowledge and behavior:

 Knowledge: Users will gain knowledge about the causes of foodborne illness, including unclean hands and surfaces, cross-contamination of meat with other surfaces or foods, and safe temperatures and storage times.  Behavior: Users need to change behavior when cooking: including washing hands before handling food, avoiding cross-contamination of raw meat and other food items, and using a cooking thermometer to cook meat to the right temperature. To provide youth food safety knowledge leading to a behavior change, the team identified activities to foster that change . This is part of the process of moving from problems to transformational changes. The team created activities reflecting real-life tasks to enable youth to gain vital safe food-handling skills to prevent foodborne illness, such as washing hands before handling food, avoiding cross-contamination, cleaning kitchen surfaces, and using a cooking thermometer. With a problem, intended changes , and activities outlined, the team started thinking about incorporating those elements into a fun and engaging media product. The team designed product ideas using design activities such as brainstorming, drawing drafts, and making paper mockups. The group chose a game as the best media for this project based on the audience and content needs. In this cooking game, players need to handle food following food safety practices, avoiding contamination, and serving delicious food to customers. The design process used to move developers through the steps of articulating the audience, desired change, type of activity and engagement is now referred to as the “Transformational Design Process” (Chamberlin & Schell, 2018).



In redesigning the original game, developers kept the initial educational goals, while expanding the theme. After conducting user testing and focus group work with youth, designers decided on a theme park motif, with different “lands” or themed areas of th e park (Figure 1). Gameplay was intended to be similar to the original

game, but specific types of mechanics needed to change. For example, time pressure is often seen as a barrier to gameplay for individuals with motor skill needs, or those with cognitive impairment. Similarly, users who use alternative input devices may not be able to mouse over and click an item, and must play a game with keyboard controls. The design team re-designed the interactions with the game to reflect best practices in usability, while keeping the basic tasks the same.

The game world for the redesigned game is a theme park, where players explore five themed areas: The Tricera-stop; Aquari- yum; Outer Space Eatin’ Place; Med -Eat-Val; The Haunted Muchin’. In each area, players prepare and serve various foods to customers. Just as a new employee might learn to prep simple foods first and then move on to more complicated orders, the game uses a scaffolding approach to learning.

Players start in the Tricera-stop, serving drinks and microwavable single plates. Then they move on to the other themed kitchens, where they learn to prepare more complex foods, including combination foods such as a cheeseburger with veggies. More complicated foods require the player to use different stations and steps to prep the food, including a wash station for produce, grill station for meat, and a chop station.

Figure 1: “ Theme Park Kitchen ” game, available at www.ThemeParkKitchen.com

Washing Hands and Surfaces

Players start by learning the basics of hand washing. At first, the head chef tells the player to wash their hands, and gives instructions (Figure 2). The game player can see the contamination on the server’s hands and trays. After the initial level, the chef doesn’t always explicitly tell the player to wash their hands, but the sink is always available. The player can choose not to wash their hands, but if they make that choice, they cross-contaminate all of the food and make the customers sick. Similarly, the game progresses with the head chef explaining how to serve, cook, and deliver food — but it is then up to the game player to follow the proper processes.

Cooking Ready-to-Eat Foods, Frozen Foods, and Fresh Produce Figure 2: Theme Park Kitchen tutorial on handwashing, guiding players to keep hands clean.


The game progresses from serving drinks in the Tricera-Stop to delivering prepared fruit and vegetable salads and ham sandwiches. In the Aquari-Yum level, the player can heat and serve ready-made frozen foods. They must cook the foods in a microwave, also progressing to washing and serving fresh whole fruit (Figure 3). The head chef reminds the player that placing unwashed fruit on a clean tray contaminates the tray: After washing the fruit, players must also wash the tray before picking up the clean fruit. At these levels, the player can see brown and green “contamination” on the trays, reminding them when to wash. They can choose not to wash their trays, but if they make that choice, they will serve contaminated food. In this way,

Figure 3: The rinse station. When serving produce, players need to wash it first.

players can practice when to wash and when it isn’t needed, automating in their own mind when hand and surface washing is necessary. Before leaving this part of the Theme Park, the player also learns about slicing whole, washed fruit. If they place dirty fruit on the board to cut, it will contaminate other fruit brought to the board, and they have to wash the fruit and board again. Players are able to make mistakes, but quickly learn how to fix their mistakes. They are encouraged to replay levels in order to obtain mastery, which is recognized by a star system, based on how many customers they serve and how many they make sick.

Cooking Meat and Combination Foods to the Proper Temperature

As players progress to the Outer Space Eatin’ Place, the player gains a grill and a grill cook, where they can cook frozen meats. The player must identify which temperature meat must be cooked to, and eliminate cross- contamination by washing hands and trays after they have held raw meat (Figure 4). By this point in the game, players are managing all types of food: drinks, ready-to-eat salads and sandwiches, frozen foods that need to be heated, and meat that needs to be cooked. As they leave the three Outer Space Eatin’ Place levels, they have learned all the rules and processes for preparing foods, and they can still “see” the contamination from dirty hands, raw meat, or unwashed fruits and vegetables. In the last level, the head chef gives less advice, and the player is expected to make the right decisions about washing, keeping foods separate, and cooking to the proper temperature. Players are also making more complex recipes, such as a hamburger with cooked ground meat, lettuce that has to be washed, cheese, and buns as well as drinks and salad.

Figure 4: Players are guided to use a thermometer to cook meat following USDA guidelines.


Avoiding Cross Contamination

As the player enters the Mid Eat Val level, they are able to serve fish, along with chicken and sliced meat. This new ingredient offers additional learning points. In cooking fish, chicken, ground beef, and steak, the player relies on the temperature guide to realize foods must be cooked to different temperatures. In addition, the player can slice beef for a steak salad and serve fish that has been filleted. The food can be sliced or filleted before or after cooking, but if food is sliced before cooking, cutting surfaces must be washed before placing fresh fruit or cooked food on the board, emphasizing the importance of avoiding cross- contamination (Figure 5). Applying Multiple Food Safety Concepts The game has three main learning outcomes for players: Wash hands before preparing food, avoid cross-contamination from raw meat and dirty produce to cooked or ready-to-eat foods, and cook foods at the proper temperature. Throughout the majority of the gam e, players can “see” contamination on hands and surfaces: Dirt from hands is brown, contamination from produce is green, and possible bacteria from meat is red. In the final levels, the players can no longer see this contamination and must work from memory to keep customers safe. In this final level of the game, the player has an opportunity to test themselves, having practiced and internalized the proper behavior without seeing contamination (Figure 6). This is an important final step, as we cannot see contaminated hands, produce, and meat in the real world.

Figure 5: Raw meat contaminates surfaces; players need to clean it to avoid cross-contamination.

Figure 6: In the game’s final levels, players cannot “see” the contamination, adding an extra challenge for the player.

The first time the player tries to serve contaminated food to the customer, the head chef offers a warning and keeps them from doing it. After that initial warning, if the player serves contaminated food, it ends the level with a newspaper headline stating food safety violations have occurred.

Accessibility Challenges Leading to Better User Experience Removing motor control barriers . “Theme Park Kitchen” can be played using a computer trackpad or a mouse, but it also can be fully played using a keyboard. We intentionally designed the game this way to give players an alternative to clicking and dragging elements during gameplay and remove an interaction barrier, supporting users with certain motor needs for game controls. Also, being able to fully play the game using a keyboard improves the overall experience, allowing players to be agile while serving the customers. Feedback from user testing sessions shows youth players appreciate being able to play using the keyboard. User feedback also guided our team to

Figure 7: Tutorial on how to play using keyboard


provide game controls through the keyboard keys “WASD” keys (Figure 7), commonly used to play games, rather than the arrow keys. In addition, players can use keyboard shortcuts to improve gameplay, for example, using “M” to merge food items or “V” for control volume and sounds (Figure 8). The shortcuts support players who become familiar with the game and want to take quick action. Removing cognitive needs barriers. Time pressure is a popular mechanic in many games as a challenging element, requiring players to think and act fast during gameplay. On one hand, there are players who love time pressure and perform well on this type of gameplay. On the other hand, this mechanic creates barriers for players who may need more time to process

Figure 8: Keyboard shortcuts supporting quick actions in gameplay.

information and act; time pressure may frustrate them and prevent them from progressing.

To remove this cognitive barrier but still include a fun element for players, our team made a compromise in the game. The team intentionally removed the time pressure, replacing it with a star system. In Theme Park Kitchen, all the levels elapse in a set amount of time (progressively harder but very forgiving). Along with this timer there is a progression bar with a star (Figure 9). The timer begins when

Figure 9: Star system with a timer, which does not prevent players from progressing in the game

players start the level. When it ends, “the park is closed” and no more customers arrive. However, playe rs can complete serving the remaining customers in however much time they need. The gauge on the left fills up as players deliver food, and if they fill it up, they earn a star for the level. If players act quickly enough, they will get enough customers to fill the gauge and earn the star. If players need more time to serve customers, they still pass the level if they do not make anyone sick, but they will not earn the star.

During testing sessions, our team tested different time settings to see how we could make it challenging but still forgiving for players. Youth game consultants expressed enjoyment at being able to still finish the level and serve customers once the time is over. In addition, there are two possible endings to the game: a “normal” ending and a special ending if players earn all the stars in the game. Once players earn all the stars, it unlocks “master mode,” which enables them to play the game with special park merchandise, like dragon boba and dino nuggies.

Figure 10: Final character designs for “Theme Park Kitchen”


Representing a diverse audience. When redesigning the game, our team followed our inclusive design framework (Cezarotto, Martinez, Chamberlin, 2022) and intentionally revisited character designs, designing diverse characters and removing any possible stereotypes or tropes (Figure 10). As part of our design process, character designs passed many internal and external reviews and many rounds of youth game consultants' feedback through hands-on design activities (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Learning Games Lab consultants gave feedback on characters throughout game development.


Learners can play “Theme Park Kitchen” individually or collaboratively in formal (classroom) or informal settings such as afterschool programs. The game can be played on a computer, laptop, or tablet using a web browser. The game has five themed areas, with three levels in each area, progressively addressing food safety content. A player should complete the game in about 45 minutes to an hour. Players can play each round multiple times, learning from mistakes to progress. To be successful, the player must adhere to food safety practices to be allowed to serve safe food to the customers. Because the game will enable players to continue serving customers after the restaurant's closing timer, they can continue learning food-safe practices at their own pace. Each level offers increased complexity, and a star reward is given to play in master mode the quicker a player prepares and serves safe food. The star reward offers motivation to strategize how to complete the game efficiently and thoroughly, individually or collaboratively. Collaborative efforts during gameplay allow players to exchange strategies with one another freely. Player strategizing and collaboration are essential to social learning (Martinez, Chamberlin 2017). The instructor can choose whether to make this a collaborative effort or an individual one, which may be based on technology access. We recommend instructors play the game beforehand to familiarize themselves with the levels and content addressed in the game. The game has a function called “unlock all,” so instructors can access any level to plan a lesson on specific food safety content. For example, if they want to address cooking with a thermometer, instructors can ask students to unlock and play the Outer Space Eating’ Place levels, which address cooking with the grill and thermometer. From there, they can engage in discussions and complementary activities around the topic. One tactic an instructor might incorporate is to have players stop at various levels and ask them to describe how to advance levels more efficiently. Once classmates share their tactics with one another, instructors have them return to gameplay to try these new approaches. Encouraging open play and conversation among students makes gameplay enjoyable and collaborative.

Possible discussion topics may include the kinds of food safety practices that students follow at home, or the consequences of improper food preparation. Examples of discussion prompts:

 How often do you wash your hands before preparing meals or snacks at home?

 How often do you wash produce (fruits and vegetables) before you eat them?


 What are the proper temperatures at which to cook meat, poultry, or fish?

 When should a cutting board be cleaned?

What is cross-contamination?

 What type of foodborne illness can you get from cross-contamination?

 What type of foodborne illness can you get from improper cooking temperatures?

What does the game/level teach?

Discussing gaming strategies, like accessing the master mode, navigating the kitchen efficiently, or using the merging feature, can round out the discussion. Teachers can also encourage students to play at their convenience so they can try out different time management techniques.


Following best practices in food safety can prevent thousands of Americans from getting sick and reduce the number of deaths from foodborne illness and other related health complications. Education is one of the best ways to fight foodborne illness, supporting consumers with knowledge and safe behaviors around food handling. Youths ages 11 through 13 are in a critical transition when they start cooking and preparing food. Research shows this audience lacks key concepts on food safety and can benefit from tailored and interactive training for their needs and interests. Informed by research and best practices in inclusive design, our team designed Theme Park Kitchen , a game-based intervention that can be used in formal or informal settings. In the game, youth engage in a fun and safe space for learning, practicing different food safety practices such as handwashing, cooking using a thermometer, and avoiding cross-contamination. The previous version of “Theme Park Kitchen” (“Ninja Kitchen”) engaged youth in fun gameplay and shift their knowledge, attitudes, and intentions around food safety, as shown in a study with 903 middle schoolers (grades 6 – 8, from the northeastern and southwestern United States; Quick et al. 2012, 2013). We foresee the same positive transformational impact for this version of “Theme Park Kitchen.” Our research team will conduct an impact study for the game in the summer of 2024.



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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - CDC (2023, March 24) - Facts About Food Poisoning. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/food-poisoning.html

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Chamberlin, B.A., Schell, J. (2018). Connected Learning Summit, “The secret process for making games that matter.” MIT, Boston, MA (August 2, 2018).

Engledowl, C. (2023). Math Snacks: A history of cultivating digital game-based learning environments. In Technology Integration and Transformation in STEM Classrooms (pp. 247-271). IGI Global.

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