What you need to know about teaching kids about nutrition and the one big mistake that often backfires. And, learn easy nutrition activities for kids and toddlers!
As a mom to three boys that are getting older by the day, I find myself constantly wading through the challenge of teaching them about nutrition so that they grow up and make their own wise decisions about the food they eat and their health. This is not easy.
My kid’s world is filled with weekly treats at school, junk food from well-meaning family members, and manipulating commercial marketing that influences them to want more candy and food with all sorts of artificial ingredients. At the grocery store, we pass aisles full of foods that I would mostly deem “not so healthy.”
But, as much as I want to avoid “unhealthy” foods and keep them from entering their precious little bodies, I know that this is very much the world they live in and they need to learn how to navigate it themselves. After all, I’m not always going to be the one packing their lunch or putting dinner down in front of them.
I want my kids to think and grow up and have respect for their bodies, to make wise choices about the foods they eat.
And, even more importantly, there is a very wrong way to teach our kids about nutrition, one that could backfire in the worst kind of way. And, many of us fall into this trap, especially parents of picky eaters, because we’re so darn worried that they aren’t getting the vitamins and nutrients they need to grow and learn.
I’m glad you’re here because if we can all start to talk to our kids about healthy eating and nutrition in a way that leaves a positive impact on them they can grow up learning how to eat well.
Teaching Kids About Nutrition: What NOT to Do
Maybe its the occupational therapist in me, but nutrition is important to me personally. I try to eat well and eat foods that I know are good for my body. But, I’ve been extremely cautious in talking to my kids about being “healthy.” In fact, it’s a word I totally avoid using and is rarely spoken in my house.
That’s because as a feeding therapist, I know that we run into a whole slew of problems when we start labeling foods as “healthy” and “not-healthy”, or worse as junk food. These are common words in the American language and we use them a lot, but for kids, we’re ultimately distinguishing foods as good and bad.
You may be thinking, so what, that’s true.
But, kids are bombarded with junk food all the time, and unless you’re living on a remote isolated commune in the middle of nowhere, it’s just about impossible to avoid it. Your kids will see other people eating these foods. They will be given these foods, they will like them, and want more of them.
In our best efforts to educate them, when we label foods as bad, unhealthy, or junk, then we could make them feel bad about themselves for enjoying it, and we also set the stage for a classic parent-child power struggle.
Teaching Kids About Nutrition: The Right Way
Teaching kids about nutrition without having it actually have the reverse effect is possible! However, how to do it effectively goes against the common strategy of labeling foods as healthy and not-healthy. So, we have to step back and think about how we’re going to teach them so they don’t feel bad about sometimes having junk food and enjoying it. And, so that they can grow up to be healthy adults.
How do we get there? Follow these steps for teaching kids about nutrition:
1. Have no goal in mind
- Often when we start to teach kids about nutrition it’s because they’ve had three candy bars or they haven’t eaten anything but garlic bread at dinner. We get worried and feel pushed into a corner, in an effort to control what they’re eating we start a nutrition “lesson.” This is not a good time, you are not in a good place friend (and, I speak from personal experience). Before you ever say a word about nutrition, ask yourself, “Am I saying this to try and control what they’re eating right now.” If the answer is yes, do not pass go.
2. No matter what, avoid labeling foods as healthy, bad, or junk.
- We just talked about this a lot, but as a reminder, we want to keep all foods on a neutral playing field.
3. Don’t forbid any foods.
- Although it has pained me terribly, there have been foods that I have bought on an occasion or two because my kids want them so badly. I don’t make them earn these foods or put any parameters on them like, “We can only buy Doritos once a month.” I keep it vague and now that my kids are old enough to ask (and beg) in the store, I’ll simply say, “Oh, that isn’t on the list, is that something you’d like to get another time,” when they ask about getting a “junk” food. Likewise, I don’t forbid food at parties or friend’s houses.
4. Focus on education, not dictation.
- Instead of focusing on if a food is healthy or not, think about really teaching your child about that food as if you were teaching them the colors of the rainbow or what mammals are. That means describing the food without any prejudices and maybe talking about different ways to prepare it. For a really young child, that may be talking about what color, smell, or texture a food has. For older kids, you may say something like, “Oh, this is steak. It’s very similar to the hamburger you like. The hamburger is the same type of meat, but all ground up. Steak and hamburger are both beef and that has a lot of protein in it. Protein gives us energy and helps make us stronger. “
5. Create conversation
- When you’re teaching your child, encourage an open discussion and skip the lecture. Ask questions like, “What type of food do you think that is?” Or, “There’s something really cool about salmon. It’s sort of a super fish because it has these special ‘vitamins’ (omega 3’s) that actually help our brain grow. Did you know that?”
6. There are special benefits to most foods, even desserts
- Just like in the above example, one of the first ways I like to start teaching kids about nutrition is to simply tell them what sorts of advantages we get from food when we eat them. I use the word vitamin as a blanket term, especially for younger kids. I’ll even talk about how dessert tastes good and can be very enjoyable. It’s important to talk about the benefits as they apply to all people though, not just to your child. We cross the line into pressuring our kids to eat when we say things like, “Spinach makes you have big muscles. Do you want to have big muscles?” Do you see the difference?
- Head over to the best picky eating strategy to learn about how to avoid pressuring our kids to eat, and why that’s so important.
7. Eating too much of any food could not be good for our body.
- This is a line I use a lot, especially with my recovered extreme picky eating kiddo. He still has a tendency to want lots of the food he really loves and may ignore everything else. While I don’t want to pressure him, I do want him to know that sometimes if we eat a lot of candy, it can give us a stomach ache. I’ll also say the same would be true if you ate tons and tons of broccoli and nothing else because the truth is, you can also end up with a stomach ache and likely not enough energy.
8. Teach the difference between a protein, fruit/vegetable, and carbohydrate.
- Talk about how most foods fit into one of these categories and that they each have their own benefits. I also like to emphasize that when we eat some of all these foods are body feels the best. And, then I get specific, which kids really need, “That means you can run, play, and learn at school without feeling sick or tired.”
Kids in middle school and older can handle more details, but for most kids this is a great place to start. On top of these 8 tips for teaching nutrition to kids, you can also teach them why it’s important to sit down for meals, and that snacking in between can ruin your appetite.
Remember that you are your child’s best teacher without saying a word because they learn first from watching you. Eating and preparing the foods you want them to eat is more valuable than you may realize. Lastly, think of teaching your child about nutrition as a gradual process, and not something you need to sit down and do all at once. The goal is to create an environment and lifestyle around healthy nutrition!
When’s a good time for teaching kids about nutrition?
Now that you’ve got some tools on just how to teach your kid about nutrition, you’re probably wondering when its a good time to teach them.
First, the most natural time is while you’re eating. But for picky eating kids, mealtime can be a high-stress time already and anything you try to teach them could come off as an attempt to coax them into eating something. If that’s the case, avoid mealtime, but otherwise when you’re eating together is a great time to talk about nutrition.
Second, is while you’re preparing meals together. Cooking with your kids is powerful for many reasons, and if you want to talk nutrition this is a perfect time to do it. You’ll find that the conversation flows really well while you’re both busy with tasks in the kitchen.
Third, if neither of the above options will work for your child, think about another time of the day, away from food, when you’re likely to get their attention. Maybe while your driving in the car or when you’re tucking them into bed. You can bring it up by saying something like, “You know I wanted to ask you, do you know that most foods fall into three different food groups?”
Teaching Toddlers and Preschoolers about Nutrition
*Because I want to be totally honest with you, you should know that while I was taking pictures for this post my kids were devouring the cheese curls, and that’s okay.
For the younger crowd, we’ve obviously got to keep this a lot more simple! If you have a toddler or young preschooler, you’ll follow the above steps, but you want to keep it simple and tangible. This means getting them in the kitchen with you. Hand them fresh fruit and veggies at the grocery store before it goes into the back of the cart. Ask questions or label them if the food is hard or soft and what color or shape it is.
Unpacking groceries, preparing meals together, or even having a play picnic are all great ways to start having that conversation with your toddler! Keep it basic and focus on exposing them to a wide variety of foods, even if they aren’t willing to eat them just yet.
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Nutrition Activities for Kids?
I want to warn you to be very careful of the nutrition activities for kids that you see on Pinterest, many of them focus on labeling foods good and bad. But, if you’re looking for some fun ideas to use at home or for the teachers, in the classroom, these are some of my favorites.
- Food Groups Sorting Activity Printable – Simple free printout for kids 4 and up. Cut out different foods and put them into one of four categories (fruit, vegetable, grain, or carbohydrate.)
- Grocery Store Bingo – A fun printable to take to the grocery store with you, lots of foods listed by category!
- Sort fake foods – Perfect for toddlers and preschoolers, simply take your pretend foods and have them sort it into fruits, veggies, protein, and carbs. For the youngest kids, I’d work on just fruits and veggies!
- Grow something together – I know starting a garden can be really intimidating and maybe even undesireable, but it can be done so simply. Even just one pot. Get tips and tricks to grow a simple garden with your child.
- Read children’s books that teach about nutrition – This is a great way to start a conversation about food and nutrition. These are some of the one’s I read with my kids:
And, if you’d like a guide for yourself on establishing good eating habits in your home, click here to get my cheat sheet that I’ll send right to your inbox.
Before you go, I wanted to share something to bust this myth about what my kids are actually eating. I’m keeping it real y’all. Tell me what you think in the comments.
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.