At family mealtimes it is not uncommon for my kids to ask things like, “Does this food item have the “good” bugs in it?”, “What vitamins are in this ingredient?”, or, “Is this a food that the “good” bugs in our gut like to eat?” This occurs mostly due to the fact that we try to help them think through what food really does for their bodies and we want them to understand it on a deeper level than “this tastes yummy” or “this tastes yucky”.
We are by no means dietarily “perfect” in our family, but we do try to eat as many whole foods as possible while limiting processed items. Other than myself, no one else in the family suffers from food allergies or intolerances, but because I am the main cook and I have celiac and a dairy intolerance, it means that a lot of our meals end up being either grain free, dairy free, or both. It can be hard to walk the line of balance between prioritizing healthy options and not being too rigid or strict so as to cause disordered eating behaviors later in life. Here are some tips we have found useful in teaching our own kids about nutrition.
Talking about the different food groups represented on their plate
Every now and then, I will ask the kids to tell me which items on their plates belong to which food group. This can then lead to further discussion about a balanced diet, whether any groups seem to be missing, or conversely; in abundance, and for what reason. I might also ask them if they can remember anything that a certain food item is beneficial for. This starts to get them thinking about the fact that the food on their plate is fuel that can help their body to perform better. It also helps them to start thinking about the fact that different foods play different roles in the upkeep and maintenance of their body and its systems.
Distinguishing nutritious foods from treats
Kids like sweet things like cake and candy and without boundaries when eating them, they can become sick from over consumption. These sweet foods are high reward for the body (meaning they have a lot of energy available in the form of sugar and are often calorically dense). Therefore, a child, who may not understand the detriment of eating too many sweets; will keep on eating them because it creates feel-good chemicals in their brain. Because of this, we try to teach our kids about the difference between the majority of the food they eat which has nutrients in order to do something helpful for them, and the much rarer “treats” which don’t really do anything for them at all nutritionally, but taste good and can be enjoyed on occasion.
Teaching them to listen to their hunger and satiety signals
Kids are usually much better at this than adults. However, their brains can still be hijacked by factors like distraction, hyper palatability and advertisement. One way to encourage kids to listen to their body when it comes to hunger and fullness is to make meal times distraction free as often as possible. Granted, there will be those times when factors of time and convenience prohibit sitting down to a family meal, but for times when we are at home eating together; we concentrate on the food and the conversation. This means no TV, no phones, no books or toys, just us and the meal. This can be really hard to implement at first, but it is well worth the results. When you are focussed on your plate and not other things, you can concentrate more on the sensations of eating, chewing, beginning to feel fuller, and then finally satiation.
Teaching them how to read food labels
Ever since my son started reading, he loves to look at food item labels to look at the nutrition facts. He also looks out for negative ingredients like “high fructose corn syrup”, “partially hydrogenated oils” or “natural flavors”. I am an avid label reader because of my food restrictions but I believe that it is an important skill for everyone who cares about what they are putting into their bodies. Teaching your kids to start doing it while they are young will ingrain the habit for later on in life and it will just seem like a natural part of food shopping.
Letting them make their own choices while eating out
I can give my kids info about healthy eating until I’m blue in the face, but if they don’t learn about it firsthand from real life experiences then it won’t really sink in. When we go out to eat, we usually let the kids choose whatever they want from the menu regardless of which might be the healthiest item on the menu. This gives them the opportunity to see how certain menu choices make them feel later and then, over the course of time, will give them discernible patterns to help them remember which choices made them feel better than others. Once they make that connection, then that is the optimal time to discuss why. Additionally, letting kids make their own food choices while eating out also gives them a sense of freedom around food rather than a sense of restriction and morality.