I began a major overhaul of my own eating habits earlier in the year for purely selfish reasons. I was feeling tired and sluggish, and was experiencing quite a few digestive problems. While I had always cooked most of our meals, and tried my best to limit junk food and fast food from my kids’ diets, I didn’t think their own eating habits needed much of a change at all.
Slowly but surely though, as I started “cleaning up” my own diet, I realized our whole family could benefit from better food choices, and I started realizing that as the primary caretaker of this family and the one who does all the grocery shopping and cooking, I play a vital role in their developing relationship with food. I want my kids to understand the role food plays in our lives, how our food choices affect how our bodies act and feel. I want them to know from the beginning just how enjoyable eating can and should be, because when the enjoyment goes out of eating, nutrition suffers. And while I want my children to grow up strong and rely on a healthy and nutritionally balanced diet to do so, most importantly I want healthy food choices to feel natural to them, never forced.
Only time will tell if the steps I’m taking now to teach them about food will have any long-standing positive effects, but for now I can only be hopeful that they will. At any rate, I’m leading by example and explaining as I go, and they’re both asking lots of questions along the way. Here are 8 things I want to teach my kids about food and eating healthy from the start, and how I’m going about it in the most positive, yet subtle way I can.
An Understanding of How Food Is Grown 1 of 8
What started as a hobby and a way to test our skills at growing actual food has turned into an ongoing teaching and learning experience for the kids. As our farms shrink in number, and urban sprawl continues, kids have less access to see farms in action, and learn valuable lessons in how our food is grown and produced. Before we started our own garden at home, their knowledge of where our food came from was limited to what they saw me buy at the grocery store. But with our tiny little 4x8 garden at home, with very limited crop variety, they now get to see how the average fruit and vegetable is grown from start to finish, and better yet, they're seeing just how much work it takes to grow the food we eat, which leads to ongoing discussions about food waste and appreciation. It has also helped to develop a bit of independence, knowing they could grow their own food if they really had to. Occasional trips to the local farmer's markets, and even visits to semi-local farms have further expanded their understanding of how food is grown. They may not get it entirely right now, but my hope is that an eventual understanding, and appreciation for the food we eat will emerge.
Tip: Even if you don't have space for a garden, hanging herb gardens and even some vegetables do quite well when suspended in nutrient-rich potted soil, and still shows the process and work that goes into growing food. Take advantage of local farm tours, if available, as well.
An Understanding of How Food Is Made 2 of 8
Cooking with my kids is messy and time-consuming, but it offers them and me so many valuable teaching moments. From how to properly cut a vegetable, to understanding the chemical reactions that cause dough to rise, teaching my kids how to prepare their food makes them somewhat reliable for feeding themselves, instilling pride and a sense of ownership . It teaches them self-care and independence, and hopefully gives them an appreciation for the many meals I prepare for them on a daily basis, although that may come further down the road.
Tip: If you want to cook with your kids but are a little hesitant, start with something simple yet interactive, like adding ingredients to the pot while you're making a stew, or have them fill the enchiladas with shredded cheese, or shape the meatballs. While spills and splashes can still occur, these tasks have a much smaller mess factor, than, say, mixing a batch of cookies where flour can fly all over the kitchen.
Variety Is the Spice of Life 3 of 8
While my son seems convinced to prove me wrong on this, I will persevere and continue to show them how exciting food can be. By keeping them on their toes with what I serve up for dinner, I hope they will eventually learn that food should never be boring and many times can be an adventure. This week I cooked up a romanesco broccoli for the first time, and in spite of their looks of horror at and squeamish squeals, they both tried the eerie-looking vegetable, and you know what? They loved it! While our food adventures do not and will not always end in triumph, small victories like this encourage me to keep going.
Tip: Having my kids help prepare their own food, especially when it's new, has been a huge help in getting them to actually try it and enjoy it. When preparing the romanesco broccoli, for instance, I had them wash it, place it in an ice water bath, and then toss it with the butter and spices when it was done cooking.
Eliminating The Concept Of Bad Foods 4 of 8
While not all foods are created equal and have varying nutritional values, I don't want to place foods in strict off-limit categories. Rather, through some education and understanding of how food works and ranks, let them decide what they like and enjoy, and do so accordingly. I'll continue to set up general guidelines when it comes to "junk" foods like fries and candy, but don't want to set up the assumption that commonly labeled "bad" foods like carbohydrates are truly bad.
Tip: Lead by example, and eat a wide variety of foods, and avoid talking negatively about certain foods, for fear of making you put on weight or sabotage your weight loss goals. Let them see you enjoying bread with dinner, or indulge in occasional desserts.
Preparing Your Own Food Takes Time and Is Never Wasted 5 of 8
In today's fast-food culture, we often aim for quick results at the highest rate of convenience. How quickly and cheaply can we make our food so we can dine and dash? From boxed potatoes to one -pot dehydrated meals, meat included (!), we've taken what was once meant to be occasional convenience items and turned them into a staple of our everyday diet. At least I know I did for a very long time. But one of the biggest learning lessons I've experienced through this lifestyle switch is that to eat real, whole foods, free of preservatives and chemical additives, I have to make much of it myself, from scratch, and doing so takes time. In the beginning I resented the time I spent in the kitchen, but I've grown to love the time I can dedicate in the kitchen to preparing our meals. I don't spend hours in the kitchen everyday, but when I do, the kids notice. And even if they don't fully appreciate it right now, they are witnessing that preparing wholesome food for a family of 5 takes time.
Tip: I don't have time to cook elaborate meals every day. Who does, really? But I aim to cook 3-4 dinners a week at home and try to prepare extra servings when I do so that we have leftovers. This makes my job easier and teaches the kids that we don't waste good food!
Not All Food Is Created Equal 6 of 8
While I want to teach my children there are no "bad" foods, I also want to teach them that not all foods are created equal. This requires age-appropriate conversations, explaining how certain types of food can give us energy or zap our energy, and how food can even affect our moods and how our bodies work and feel. While not every meal comes complete with a drawn-out conversation explaining nutritional benefits and components of each ingredient, we do take occasional moments to explain why I buy certain foods and not others, or why I prepare brown rice over white rice. My hope is that by teaching them how foods work, and the role they play in keeping us healthy, as opposed to just flat-out restrictions and rules, they'll make their own good choices when the time comes.
Tip: Reading labels is a bit much for my 6- and 8-year-old, so instead I keep it simple by explaining what the food groups are, and what each food group does for us. For example, at snack-time when they ask for chips, I instead offer them a string cheese, explaining to them that the protein from the cheese will help fill their tummies and give them more energy to play, whereas the chips are really just there for us to enjoy on occasion because they taste good.
Good Food Builds Community and Is A Display of Love 7 of 8
There are few things as longstanding and as common across every culture as sitting down to enjoy a meal together. While teaching my kids about food as fuel and energy is important, I hope I can also convey the important role food plays in building community with friends, family, neighbors and colleagues.
Tip: Hosting friends and family around the dinner table is an enjoyable and important part of teaching kids about building community through food, but I've found nothing is more impactful in showing love and friendship through food as taking a meal to someone in need. Whether it's a new mother or a family struggling to take care of a very sick child, my kids have witnessed firsthand how important food is for a family in need.
Indulge & Enjoy Competently 8 of 8
The Ellyn Satter Institute, in reference to raising healthy eaters, guides parents to determine what you feed your child, as well as where and when, letting the child determine how much they eat. Through this system, their natural body shape will form as genetically predicted and according to their lifestyle, including level of activity and diet.
So while I may want to "teach" my kids to know when to say when, I need to instead provide the right foods, and trust that when indulgences come into play, they will naturally eat the "right amount". Therefore as long as I'm providing a generally nutritious diet for my children, they should be able to enjoy indulgences in the amount of their choosing on occasion. This level of trust may go awry from time to time, as any parent can recall a time or two when their kid didn't know when to stop with the Halloween candy, over the course of time balance will occur without harsh restrictions or punishments.
Tip: Instead of setting up hard-fast rules and bans on junk food, accept treats as a natural part of childhood and allow the indulgence on occasion.