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Monday Mission: Teach Kids How to Eat

Knowing what food is healthy is not something kids just know. You have to teach your kids how to eat. Start when they are young with simple rules to start a life of better health.

Why and How You Should Teach Your Kids About Healthy Food.

Your mission, if you choose to accept, has nothing to do with holding a fork and spoon properly.

I want you to make an effort, as the new school year gets underway, to include lessons about healthy food for all the kids in your life, whether they’re yours or not.

Some time ago a reader gave a post suggestion, asking me to somewhat reinvent the food pyramid for very young kids (non-readers) and so that it’s properly turned on its head for traditional foods values.

Why and How You Should Teach Your Kids About Healthy Food

I set about thinking on this idea, but I realized that the prospect of teaching kids that young how MUCH of various food groups to eat, and trying to help them seek balance between the groups, is already asking for failure. I think that’s too much for 5-year-olds and under to comprehend and juggle at once, so it’s really just simplifying.

 

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bag of cherry tomatoes

Here’s how I would (and do) teach young ones:

1. Fruits and vegetables are always healthy foods

My kids know they can eat fruits and veggies at other people’s houses, but nothing else. Those are the only easy-to-define and never-adulterated foods to choose from. Anything else has too many possibilities and rules.

2. Desserts are only okay when a parent says they are

Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies on a rack

For us, no more than one a day.

3. Sugar is yucky

bowl of brown sugar

Only a fun food, seldom eaten. Artificial sweeteners are poison, never to be touched. (I know my kids can’t tell what foods have “artificials” in them before they can read, but when I talk about them it lays the groundwork for why I’ll be saying NO to the Gatorade G2 series when they get them as soccer treats, and what to look for when they can read ingredients. If mom says there’s artificial sweetener in something, they know it’s off limits, no arguments.)

4. Most crunchy snacks in crinkly packaging are yucky

They don’t have to know why. (For adults who do want to know why I say this: Because they’re almost always made of white flour for starters, and usually add trans fat and/or sugar to boot. Kids won’t be able to follow all that though. My kindergarten daughter just knows that crunchy snacks are “junky food.”

5. Finishing your meat and cheese and eggs is more important than finishing your bread or bun

Plate of cheese and homemade crackers

Cheese that is runny or dippable is usually fake cheese, but not always. (Again, it’s too hard to teach pre-readers the difference between refined flours and whole grains, and the difference between healthy grains and not. If they’re not with you, protein sources have less of a chance of being non-foods than breads, although fake cheese and processed meats pose a problem, see next point.)

6. Yogurt is always okay if it’s white, but not if it’s colored

bowl of homemade yogurt with berries

We only drink milk at our own house to keep it simple since we opt for organic, raw milk. At this age, they’re not going to a lot of places without me, and if my kids took school lunch, I’d have them opt for water. Flavored milk counts as a dessert.

7. Nuts and dried fruit are usually a good option

bowl of almonds

As long as you don’t have allergies, conventional nuts might carry some salt, but they’ll be a ton better for your kids than other “snack” options if there isn’t real fruit offered.

8. Some meat isn’t healthy

bento lunch with shredded beef, cheese, tomatoes and carrots

For kids who are ready to differentiate: You can teach that certain meats aren’t so good for you, like hot dogs and pepperoni, and the difference between real cheese and fake cheese.

If I was going to make a visual, which would be a good idea for pre-readers but not something I’ve ever taken the time to do, it would be more of the “MyPlate” than the food pyramid, except not with portions.

The Food “On/Off” System

healthy bento lunches

ON the placemat:

  • lots of different fruits
  • lots of different veggies
  • a pat of butter
  • an example of meat, cheese and eggs (probably one of each)
  • a piece of dark brown bread
  • a glass of water on the placemat
  • a bowl of plain yogurt with fruit near the plate
  • a little baggie of nuts and raisins near the plate
  • (I’d make portions larger for fruits and vegs but not talk about that part with the kids, just let the visual speak for itself)

off the placemat:

  • candy, cookies, ice cream
  • brightly colored yogurt
  • crinkly snacks: Goldfish, pretzels, chips
  • white bread, especially hamburger/hot dog buns and pizza, which they’re likely to see at many social events
  • “fruit snacks” which are more sugar than fruit 90% of the time, so it’s not worth teaching how to find the sliver of good ones; just have those on hand for treats in your own home
  • whatever else you find your kids tempted by…

How Strict is Too Strict?

Anyone can teach children in their presence about healthy foods. We can all encourage our kids to eat healthy foods, mostly leading by example and including these lessons in context at the table, in conversation when packing school snacks, and as opportunities come up when others feed your kids (all too often!).

Making rules about what your kids can and can’t eat, especially as they get older and might be out of your care, is trickier. The balance between strict and safe food rules and not being so strict that the kids lie, sneak, and rebel to excess as soon as they hit puberty is a tricky one.

For our family, it’s important to have some wiggle room. For example, we allow one “dessert” a day, which includes any junky food they encounter. On Sundays, a Sabbath rest, they get two. Sometimes I’ll only offer fruit for dessert or a homemade dessert that I feel a lot better about and sometimes we’re too busy for dessert (or they don’t eat a good meal), so they ultimately get less than 365 “junky treats” in a whole year.

When they go to their grandparents to spend the night, we let them spoil the kids (to a degree). It’s a rare occurrence (and we do deal with the consequences the following Monday in behavior, usually).

My son is now 13 years old, and the opportunities for food are getting greater and greater. I’m thinking about a new “party policy” where he’d be allowed to have one of anything he wants, as long as he’s eaten a decent healthy meal first. I think that will cut down on sneaking and rebellion and give him some boundaries but also some choice, and hopefully if he has “one of everything” on the dessert table and it’s really too much, he’ll feel sick and learn his lesson (fingers crossed).

He’s at the age where we’re talking more and more about the components of food and why we eat what we do, so it’s time to let out the apron strings and the “one dessert a day no matter what” rule a little when it’s a special occasion. He’ll have to start owning his own health, and the kid does take a pile of tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers to sink a ship, so I’m not worried about his veggie intake and enjoyment. I haven’t tried that new rule idea yet, but I’m curious to see how it goes.

Why Bother?

kids with a bowl of salad

Is it important to teach kids about healthy food?

I hope that’s a rhetorical question with an obvious answer for you. Kids will learn what they see and absorb what they’re taught, and the time is NOW to train them in the way they should go, whether it be with food, health, kindness, or faith.

We live in a world where the grocery store ads pretty plainly lay out what kids are expected to bring for lunch based on the rock bottom deal the past few weeks:

  • white bread
  • cheap lunchmeat
  • processed cheese
  • apple juice
  • head lettuce
  • Lunchables (on sale for $1 each – they don’t weigh hardly anything, but they won’t go bad, so boy should you stock up!)
  • Chips Ahoy

It’s an uphill battle against the “standard” lunch, hot lunches in almost all schools, and the fact that kids are being given food everywhere they go. Your kids will be out of your sight, and unless you’re willing to put up with finding them eating Oreos and a juice box on a daily basis like this mom vented in frustration on Facebook, you need to both train them about what healthy food looks like and have ground rules. They may or may not follow them, but you have to do your best.

In our home, if my kids had Oreos and a juice box, that would count for dessert for that day and the following. I’d probably serve something awesome if possible, like homemade ice cream (or even store ice cream, just to make them consider the consequences of making their choice). This of course would not work if the child was offered more Oreos and another juice box every single day, out of my sight, but it’s always worth a try!

Also helpful: the biggest list I could brainstorm of healthy snacks to send to school when the school says “no homemade,” a growing problem for make-from-scratch real foodies.

What strategy do you use to train your children about healthy foods? How do you help them make good choices away from home and away from you?

Need More Baby Steps?

Monday Missions Baby Steps Back to Basics

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That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.

Sign up to get weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

19 thoughts on “Monday Mission: Teach Kids How to Eat”

  1. Pingback: 40+ Real Food, Real Healthy Snacks for Kids

  2. This is great advice!!

    We’ve been pretty calm about parties because by the time our son was old enough to attend alone, he’d learned that too much sugar and food coloring will “ooble” his tummy, so he takes moderate portions, or if he’s served a large piece of cake he pauses partway and considers not finishing it. The only strict rule we have for him is, no ground meat of any kind and no hot dogs. This is because of the risk of food poisoning from ground meat (esp. when we have no idea how it was cooked) and the nasty chemicals in hot dogs. In our area these days, if a party is a cookout, people usually offer veggie burgers or cheese sandwiches. My son actually enjoys amazing his friends by bragging that he has NEVER eaten a hamburger or hot dog!

    We recently learned a way to feel better after too much white flour or sugar which is pretty effective, but I think my son is doing well at learning from experience, too.

  3. Jennifer G. Miller

    There must be some idea that commercially manufactured with ingredient labels is safer than someone making at home. Is this for food allergies (the peanuts issue) or food safety reason (bacteria)?

    Either way, I think homemade can be safer. Industrial food has wider margins for non-ingredients than I would at home. Just the “shared equipment” on the label is supposed to make you aware that there could be something else in it. Please!

  4. I just spent the weekend with my 21/2 yr old niece. She eats pretty healthily – mostly homemade food with the occasional gogurt thrown in. Her current favorite snack is grapes. I had to laugh when she got her ‘special grown up treat’ the other day – it was a V8 fusion juice box. Not something she normally gets so it’s special and might help her fit in with her peers, but it’s still better than Kool Aid or Capri Sun (I think). That night we went to a party and the (childless) host had gone to the store and picked up juice boxes for the kids – he said he followed a mom and bought what she bought. I think they were juicy juice brand but not sure. Anyway AH did not get one because she’d already had her treat for the day.

    The next day her snack was organic freeze dried apples from COSTCO – I didn’t see packaging but the only ingredient according to my SIL is ‘apples, freeze-dried’ so I would guess they are ok.

  5. Great topic! I’m trying to help them understand what the different foods do to their bodies. Do you know of any preschool books that demonstrate it? So hard to keep the explanations simple but more than good vs. bad. Thanks!

    1. Rose,
      I don’t know of any, but that would be a great book to write!! We always just say “growing foods” for healthy foods b/c they’ll help you grow big and strong and smart, and then “fun foods” – but we don’t have anything preschool-specific about the way bad foods impact the body…
      🙂 Katie

  6. I’ve always told my older daughter that she can eat whatever she wants as long as it’s not everyday or a lot. She understood at an early age generally what foods are good for her and what foods are not. She often turns down birthday cake and candy, even though I’ve never restricted her from it. I think it’s just her personality — she is often concerned about doing what’s “right”. I’ve seen how restricting “treats” can backfire with other kids and even adults. My younger daughter; however, has a different personality and seems to have an insatiable sweet tooth. Therefore, I’ll have to work a bit harder at educating her, but it won’t be too hard because we constantly talk about good and bad food in our household.

  7. I have to say that my rule for parties is pretty much “whatever.” At this point, my kids are getting “better” at finishing a juice box and a piece of cake–but they usually stop themselves way before they’re done.
    We went to an ice cream social at school last week and they both served themselves big bowls of ice cream with candy toppings–and couldn’t eat more after a few bites.
    I do worry more about the backlash than I do about cake once a month.
    We don’t do organized sports yet….

  8. Jennifer G. Miller

    Since we homeschool we can really make our lunches healthier, but the quick packed lunches are difficult to keep healthy, particularly for my one son who has serious egg, wheat, and dairy allergies. I would love to see suggestions (particularly protein) that would fit the bill

    1. Yikes, Jennifer, that’s a big 3 allergies! It sounds like protein would be easier though, as long as you keep leftover meats on hand. My standby for grab-and-go lunch is freezing homemade chicken nuggets (you wouldn’t have to use the egg) and then they’re thawed by lunch: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/recipes/homemade-chicken-nuggets/

      Nut/dried fruit bars would be good for him, too. Maybe more ideas here? http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2013/08/07/10-bread-free-packable-alternatives-to-sandwiches-for-a-healthy-lunch-on-the-go/

      Good luck! 🙂 Katie

    2. But he’s NOT allergic to nuts? Peanut butter. Other nut butters. Trail mix with plenty of nuts.

      Hummus.

      Beans and salsa, with safe chips for dipping.

      1. Jennifer G. Miller

        I like those ideas, and he enjoys those foods, but I’m not entirely convinced that legumes are healthy, and they definitely aren’t a complete source of protein.

  9. Great article! But, for real? There are schools that have banned homemade food? Homemade is somehow bad? I’m not sure I’d like the school telling me what my kids can eat for lunch. Good thing mine are all grown up.

    1. Lori,
      It’s for treats brought in to share (although I think I heard of one recently than banned all of it, yikes) and it has to do with food allergies and parents of food-allergic kids being able to pinpoint exactly what’s in the food and ensure against cross-contaminants. It makes it tough to find healthy options though!
      🙂 Katie

  10. Cinnamon Vogue

    Katie I take my hat off to you for this great article. Great advice. I think you can do a whole series of articles on Kids and healthy eating habits.

    I personally would reduce dairy consumption dramatically. Contrary to popular belief it is not needed. It being a good source of calcium is just pure marketing hype. Yes a little bit of milk and dairy is fun to eat of course but no more than twice a week. Countries with high dairy consumption invariably have high cancer rates.

    I find teaching children to cook or prepare food at an early age (like starting from 2.5 years) is the best way to teach about healthy eating habits. If you condition and train children at an early age to take their time in prepearing food they won’t reach for the easy quick junk food solution.

    The second issue is how to do you teach your children not be swayed by the bad food choices of other kids. I am thinking the best way is to teach your children to take a leadership position in educating and influencing other children to make good food choice by demonstrating, so those children in turn put pressure on their own parents to make good food choices for them.

    1. I’ll touch on that interaction between kids in tonight’s post a bit…

      You would cut back on dairy, I would cut back on grains, many would cut back on meat…that’s why “fruits and veggies are good!” is number one and the rest will need tweaking for each family! 😉 Katie

  11. Sally { with eager hands }

    Schools are putting restrictions on homemade food? What is this world coming to??? We don’t do sweets at home, but they get junk every.single.Sunday at church and then AWANA, and then AGAIN at church on Wednesday night. We are already considered “that family” because our children don’t drink sodas (though I have never said NO, but they know it’s terrible for them…and my 12 year old accepted some Sprite recently because she didn’t want to cause a scene, then had a stomach ache for hours that night.) and I feel bad for restricting everything else out of our house. I am praying about it, though, for greater resolve and a positive solution tha doesn’t alienate us from the group.

    That said, I found this post to be a wonderful refreshment for me, and it has put the issue back before me! Thank you!!!!!

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