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.
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.
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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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
For us, no more than one a day.
3. Sugar is yucky
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Need More Baby Steps?
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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.
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