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Food for Thought: Teaching Kids to Eat Healthy

Summer is a perfect time to teach your kids about nutritious foods and eating healthy. Obesity in children is a growing problem, so it’s important that your kids learn early in life how to eat healthy. The sooner they learn how to develop healthy habits, the better. Involve them in meal planning, grocery shopping and preparing healthy foods. These lessons will equip them with the ability to make healthy food choices at a young age, which will influence their eating habits for life.

The Nutrition Facts Label

While grocery shopping, teach your kids how to read a nutrition facts label; if you take your kids to a restaurant, show them where they can find the nutrition facts information. If your child suffers from food allergies, being able to understand food labels will help him recognize ingredients he needs to avoid.

The nutrition facts label on packaged foods and drinks lists the serving size, number of calories and amount of nutrients (fat, carbohydrates, sugar, fiber, protein, and so on) per serving, and the ingredients. Focus on one or two aspects of the nutrition label at one time, so as not to overwhelm your kids. This will also help create interest and hold their attention. Repeat information often so that healthy eating and nutritious food choices become habit.

Start by pointing out the serving size and how many servings there are for a food product. Also show them how to compare calories per serving of similar products. Serving sizes can vary, so make sure your kids know to look at the number of grams per serving for each product. Point out the number of grams of carbohydrates, fiber and sugar and explain that a higher amount of fiber and lower amount of sugar is usually healthier than the opposite.

Some healthy foods are very calorie dense and too many servings can add up to a lot of calories. Remind your kids that serving size is important and to always look at how many servings are in the food product. Familiarize them with what a serving size looks like, especially for calorie dense foods like peanut butter, nuts and dried fruit.

Explain to your kids that the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If you’re reading a cereal label, tell them it would be best for the first ingredient to be a grain – not sugar, fructose or high-fructose corn syrup, or another sweetener – and that the grain is a whole grain.

Teach your kids about grains and how to spot a whole grain in the ingredients list. Show them examples of whole grains (oats, barley, buckwheat, whole wheat flour, brown rice and so on) and processed grains that are not whole (rice flour, enriched wheat flour or white flour).

Show them how to spot trans fats (partially hydrogenated oil or anything that has been hydrogenated), and that it’s best to avoid, or at least limit them. Also give examples of ingredients that contain a high amount of saturated fat (butter, palm kernel oil) and explain that these need to be eaten in moderation. Show them examples of healthy fats in food labels and also educate them about foods that are good sources for healthy fat.

Farmers Markets and Local Farms

You can teach your kids some important lessons by taking them to a farmers market. Ask the farmers where their farms are located so your kids will understand that the food is grown local to where they live. You can share with them the importance of eating locally-grown foods to financially support the farms and local community, and to reduce environmental impact by purchasing foods that require less transportation to get from farm to market.

Educate your kids on the differences between organic and conventional farming and foods. Also teach them about seasonality. Not only will they learn about the availability of certain foods at different times of the year, but they can learn why. Encourage them to ask the farmers questions about why foods grow better at certain times of the year.

Your kids are more likely to eat a fruit or vegetable if they know what it is. Help them learn what all the fruits and vegetables are – show them what a turnip looks like, what it’s called, where it grows and what it tastes like. You can also enlighten them with the knowledge that most fruits and vegetables are available in many different varieties – including turnips.

As you walk through the farmers market, let your kids help you pick out the best-looking fruits and vegetables and be involved in planning meals for the next few days. Show them what to look for so they can learn how to choose the freshest produce. Then pull up your favorite recipe app on your smartphone and let your kids help decide what meals to make using the fresh produce at the market.

Visit a local organic dairy farm that offers tours. Explain to your kids what it means for milk, yogurt or cheese to be pasteurized and organic, and what growth hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, pesticides and herbicides are. Also explain why they should care what the cows eat, and that some farms allow their cows to feed on fresh pasture, while other farms feed their cows GMO corn and soy.

Healthy Foods at Home

Summer is a great time to make meals and snacks that are loaded with all of those fresh fruits and veggies you bring home from the market. For a fun summer dinner, make grilled pizzas. Let your kids choose the veggies and cheese they want for their own pizzas. For a healthy snack, make whole wheat zucchini bread – low fat and loaded with fresh zucchini.

Bake low-fat cookies and treats using whole grains and healthy fats. Find recipes using healthy oils or avocado in place of butter and whole wheat flour or other whole grains in place of white flour. Use your fresh-from-the-market fruit in nutritious fruit shakes, lassis and fresh fruit salad. Make a watermelon slush by blending together ice, watermelon and a small amount of sugar in a blender. Make your own healthy Greek yogurt ice cream: blend together yogurt and fresh fruit and freeze in the blender or food processor; remove when frozen and re-blend for a creamy texture.

Encourage your kids to eat healthy by keeping your kitchen stocked with lots of healthy snacks such as fruits and vegetables washed and cut and kept in baggies or food storage containers; hummus, Greek yogurt dip and other healthy dips to go along with the fruits and veggies; whole grain crackers and a few different cheeses; light popcorn; dried fruits and nuts; and nut butters made without hydrogenated oils.

Children’s food tastes are often times related to foods their mother likes and dislikes. By choosing healthy foods to eat, you’re likely setting your kids up for healthy habits down the road. With all this said, have a burger and some ice cream! Show them that it’s fine to eat indulgent foods too – it’s part of celebrating and enjoying life – so long as they know they should be eaten in moderation and in an appropriate portion size, and that healthy foods should make up the bulk of their diets.