If you’re like most parents, you want your kids to grow up to be healthy adults who enjoy a variety of nutritious foods and listen to their body hunger-satiety cues.
But with all the nutrition information available to us now, it is so easy to feel the pressure to educate them, teach them about nutrition. Just to make sure they KNOW what is right and wrong.
We feel it is our responsibility to get kids to understand nutrition and what it does to our bodies.
And while we can and should teach our kids very important things about food and eating, we don’t need to give them abstract nutrition lessons, talk about nutrients or warn them about the dangers of sugar and salt, especially if they are still small.
What we can do is to teach them daily about balanced eating, food enjoyment and a positive body image.
The good news is that we do not have to have our nutrition professor hats on to do that. Each of us can do it easily, every day, without even thinking about it. And in this post, I will show you exactly how to do that.
Problem with the traditional nutrition education
The main problem with the traditional nutrition education model is that it’s cognitive-based and abstract. And it’s not how small children think.
Kids are not capable of understanding abstract concepts like nutrients and their health benefits until the age of 12 or older. Before then, kids are concrete thinkers. This means that they see things as black and white and understand concepts literally.
Examples of traditional nutrition education:
- Chicken has protein
- Carrots have vitamins that help you see in the dark
- Broccoli is very nutritious
- Ice cream is full of sugar and is bad for you
- French fries are too fatty
Did you notice another thing? Talking about food this way makes eating delicious foods like fruit and vegetables a nutritional chore.
What your child may be thinking:
“These carrots surely taste awful if mom keeps talking about how good they are for me.”
“She never talks like this about mashed potatoes that are very delicious.”
So our kids pre-form their opinion about the food we are trying so hard to “sell” even before they try it!
Besides, if we label certain delicious foods as “bad” but our kids still want them, how does it make them feel? It may add feelings of guilt and shame around eating, something many of us, grown-ups, struggle with for many years.
And if you do not believe that traditional nutrition education does not work, ask any 5-7 year old to make a list of healthy and unhealthy foods.
And then ask which foods he enjoys more. Providing they are not afraid to upset you, the strong pull will be on the side of chips, pizza, candy and other calorie-dense foods deemed “unhealthy”.
Learning about food is not like learning the alphabet
So what’s the best way to learn about food and nutrition?
First of all, let’s acknowledge that our kids are eaters in learning.
Second, learning about food and nutrition is not the same as learning the alphabet. Just knowing what one needs to eat does not mean we will eat it, right?
Eating is a multi-sensory and deeply rewarding process. It is also closely regulated by what our bodies need. Kids are especially attuned to their bodies and respond to hunger and satiety in a very natural way.
Did you notice how they crave more food, especially more fat and sugar, at times of rapid growth and cut down on the amounts they eat when growth slows down?
This beautiful self-regulation mechanism allowed us to survive as species for generations. And preserving it in our kids is much more important than going on and on about nutrients!
In fact, kids are so much better at self-regulation than grown-ups, so it is something we should be learning from them. 🙂
5 Age Appropriate Lessons about Food and Eating
Remember I mentioned at the beginning of this post how we can teach kids about balanced eating, food enjoyment and positive body image? We do not need to be nutritionists for that.
But there are a few things we need to do and say consistently as parents.
I will now share 5 specific mealtime lessons where you, as parents, can give your child the best nutrition education out there.
If you have a child who is just turning into a toddler, there is no need to keep making them the center of attention at mealtimes anymore, as we tend to do with babies.
It is time to invite them to join you at the table as a family member, give them equal rights, make them feel responsible for their own eating.
The phrase that may help you out if your toddler does not want to come/join you. “You do not have to eat, but mealtime is family time.”
Snacks are everywhere and it is really hard to not use them to buy us some time. But transitioning to a set meal and snack structure is a very important part of growing up. So here is another lesson you can teach your little one: we eat at set times and then the kitchen is closed.
The phrase that will help you out when the snack demands accelerate: “ I know you really want xyz right now. But it is not snack time yet. We have to wait until snack time to have some food.”
Many toddlers and older kids go through a typical picky eating stage. And it is very easy to slip into a rut by serving only what they like for meals.
But by doing that, we cut on the important exposure to new and less liked foods. And our kids need this exposure to learn to accept more variety. Seeing a variety of food on the table and feeling comfortable around it is a big nutritional lesson.
What to do: when the main meal is a challenge, include a couple of accepted side dishes. And do not forget about yourself. Keep serving your favorite foods all the time.
The phrase that may save your mealtimes from a disaster: “On some days we have your favorite meal, on other days someone else in the family gets lucky. But there will always be something you can eat.”
Let’s remember that we have many years of experience as eaters. Our kids are still novices. So while going on and on about the nutritional properties of food is not necessary, describing food in a neutral way can provide the information kids need to learn more about it before deciding to try it (or not).
It gives them the sensory vocabulary they need and can make them more interested in food and eating.
The phrases you can use: “These peas feel smooth and round in my mouth. I made sweet potatoes today. They are a root vegetable, just like carrots, and are orange and sweet too.”
5 and final lesson:
It is OK to enjoy food that is considered less healthy. Kids are wired to enjoy sweet flavors and making them feel bad because of it is doing them a huge disservice.
Personal example: here are some examples of the food we now have in the house, after we have had three kids – cookies, sweet yogurts and white flour bagels.
Before kids, we did not buy them because we (my husband and I) do not like them. But our kids do. They have a normal biological drive to seek out more calorie-dense foods.
It does not mean that they graze on them – we still have a schedule. But they have regular access to their favorite food within the set snacks and meals.
This lesson will help you equip your kids with a healthy relationship with food and a positive body image. Especially when they bring home black and white messages about how sugar is addictive/makes people fat or salt causes cancer.
Here it goes. “It is just food. It makes our bodies grow and keeps us strong. It is good and important to enjoy food and eat many different things. And it is great to have access to your favorite food, like cookies or carrots. We are lucky to have so much choice and delicious options in the supermarket and at home.”
How to teach kids about food and eating outside mealtimes
And to top that up, I wanted to share with you a few fun food-related experiments/conversations to enjoy with your kids outside mealtimes.
Do you remember how I mentioned a few times not to focus on nutritional aspects? Instead, you can focus on sensory properties and integrate some geography, history or science knowledge:
- anything that gets your child to interact with food: painting with it, cutting open a watermelon, exploring the seeds.
- teach kids about how food grows and how to cook it.
- incorporate geography and science in your discussions. Where do bananas grow? Is avocado a fruit or a vegetable? Who brought potatoes to America? What makes spinach leaves green?
All these discussions and experiments will provide your child with more knowledge about food and nutrition they can understand than any lecture about nutrients.
Are there any other experiments/discussions I should add to this list?