Teach Your Kids About Healthy Eating
My 4 year old came home from childcare a few weeks ago and started telling me what food is healthy and unhealthy. He mostly got it right...the apple was healthy, the cake was unhealthy. As a paediatric dietitian, you would think that I would be happy that my son knows about healthy and unhealthy foods….well the truth is that I was not that happy about this. I loved the fact my childcare had gotten in a dentist to talk about good teeth care, but I wasn’t so happy that my child had been taught about healthy and unhealthy foods.
Healthy Eating for Kids
For the last 4 years I have been very very careful about the language I use around my children when it comes to food. I have tried not to place value on food, and by describing a food as healthy or unhealthy this instantly puts value on food. Besides the fact that no one can yet agree what is healthy and unhealthy and we know the science of nutrition changes so frequently that a food that was once considered healthy is now unhealthy.
Researchers did a study where they asked adults to describe healthy and unhealthy foods but it found that they had a hard time describing what healthy and unhealthy means. The top answer for what is healthy eating was.....eating healthy foods. The answer was similar for unhealthy eating, the top answer was eating unhealthy foods. This is not exactly a great description. Kids are the same, it is very hard for them to conceptualise what healthy means and therefore is not a great way to teach them good eating habits.
How Healthy Influences Taste
Did you know that how we talk about food with our children can influence how they think a food is going to taste? Studies have shown that adults equated unhealthy food to mean tasty food. The more unhealthy the food was portrayed the consumers thought it was more likely to have a better taste and more likely to enjoy eating it. This is similar with kids. Another study which used a supermarket simulation found that even when a child perceived a food as healthy, their choices were based solely on its perceived taste and chose the less nutritious food.
The Dessert Bargain
How does it come to be that children and adults naturally think that unhealthy means taste good and unhealthy means the food won't taste as good? One of the reasons is because of the dessert bargain. Think about the times that you say to your child, if you eat a few bites of vegetables you will get dessert. This instantly tells your child that the vegetable is the bad food and the dessert is the good food.
Yes, this might work in the short term to get your child to eat but it is definitely not teaching your child good long term eating habits or to like the vegetable in question. Their mind starts to covet the dessert more and dislike the vegetables more, which means over time the offering dessert is less likely to work and the reward has to be bigger and bigger.
How do we Teach our Kids about Healthy Eating?
There are many great ways to teach our children about healthy eating. Teaching kids about healthy eating is so important for their long-term views about food and eating. Below are 5 ways to help teach good habits for kids without having to describe foods as healthy and unhealthy.
1. Talk to Your Kid's About Nutritious Foods
I know you are asking me what is the best way to talk about kids and food if its best not to say healthy or unhealthy. Kids need to understand why they can’t have ice cream for dinner every night! The ideal way to talk about food with your children is to talk about the benefit of the food.
Children are naturally curious so use this as a teaching moment. Avoid saying you eat the broccoli because it is healthy, instead say something like broccoli contains a vitamin called folate which helps keep your heart strong or meat has iron which gives you energy to play. With children it is also a good idea to link this with an activity that they understand. For example, the iron in meat gives you the energy you need to play soccer with your friends.
For foods that we don’t want our kids eating every day, you could say that the lolly does not have any nutrients in it to help you to grow/play soccer/play the piano etc so we don’t want to eat this food every day. Be careful about saying that this is a sometimes or occasional food. This is because sometimes doesn't mean much to a child.....sometimes could mean every few days. This is why I usually say that we don't eat these foods every day.
2. Family Meals
It is not a good idea to only teach your children about nutritious foods during a party when they are onto their 20th lolly at a party. No child is going to listen to you about food when they are having a good time with friends. This is why there are other good times to teach your children about food.
I have written about family meals in a previous blog post so you know how much I value family meals. Modelling good eating habits will have far greater benefit for your child then telling them a food is healthy and unhealthy. Use some of the mealtime to talk about the food you are eating. Get your kids to talk about how it looks and tastes and feels when they touch it.
3. Go Food Shopping Together
I know a lot of people hate going shopping with their children but shopping with them is another way to teach them about food. We all know that children know about chips and sugar-laden cereals as they are constantly marketed to about these products. So use the time at the supermarket to avoid the snack isle and show them the fruit and vegetable section. Talk to them about some of the veggies they wouldn’t know to get them interested. Again, this is not about eating the food, it is just about them learning something about nutritious foods. If you get a chance, a trip to your local vegetable market is a great learning experience.
4. Cook Together as a Family
Although kids in the kitchen can be a recipe for disaster (pardon the pun), cooking with your kids is another great way to teach your children about food. A recent study showed that school cooking programs have a positive benefit on in children’s food-related preferences, attitudes, and behaviours and cooking with your children at home would have similar benefits.
Cooking with your children is also a great way to spend quality time with them which is sometimes hard to come by in our frantic lives. So embrace the mess and chaos and let your kids come into the kitchen. Jamie Oliver has some great tips about cooking with your kids.
5. Gardening With Your Kids
Did you know that gardening can help with your child's knowledge about nutritious food? Gardening may also help improve a child’s recognition of, attitudes toward, preferences for, and willingness to taste vegetables.
I am not suggesting you start a huge veggie patch. I live in a unit with a small ground floor courtyard so we have very little space to have a garden but we do try and grow (mostly unsuccessfully) some herbs and veggies throughout the year. The kids love planting the garden and are even more excited when we actually grow something. When you are planting the veggies you can also use this as a time to teach your kids about healthy foods in a stress free way.
Teaching your children about nutritious foods through, cooking, shopping and gardening may be a much more positive way of doing this then using the words healthy and unhealthy. If your child asks about foods, teach them about the properties of the food and why it may or may not help them.
Was this helpful? I hope so. Please leave your comments below.
Dr Jennifer Cohen
"Providing Bite-Sized Pieces of Nutrition Information to Busy Families"
PS. If you would like more great tips on how to have calm and happy mealtimes with your family, please download my FREE guide on
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