Junk Food: How To Teach Your Kids About Nutrition
Dietitian Advice on Healthy Food vs. Junk Food
With marketers tempting kids with the latest and greatest TV commercials and food packaging for junk food, it is becoming more and more difficult to get kids engaged in healthy eating. The good news is that despite our challenging environment there are some simple things you can do at home and with kids to help increase their interest in healthy foods.
Parents and caregivers at home are the single most important influencers of healthy eating and lifelong eating habits. As a parent or caregiver if you haven’t made the greatest choices over the years, keep in mind it is never too late to learn and implement healthier choices and be the role model that you want to be.
How to get kids to eat healthy food:
1. Cook with them
When people ask me what the best way to teach kids about nutrition would be, I always respond the same way. Most kids don’t need to know much about calories, carbs, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, instead they need to know about food. Knowledge about food starts in helping them understand how food grows, how to prepare it and cook delicious foods in the kitchen.
To inspire healthy habits with your kids simply cook with them at all ages. Teach them how to use a knife early on and involve them as a little chef, sous chef or head chef. If you don’t have great culinary skill don’t worry, you can learn together!
Watch cooking TV shows (including kids cooking competitions) or find a YouTube video of something interesting they want to learn. You can also give them the task to search in the library, at home in your cookbooks or online for healthy recipes to try together.
This summer find a kids cooking camp they can register in (from my experience those that are chef taught are far superior to those that are not). You will love the fact you don’t need to pack lunch and that your kids will come home ready to cook dinner and dazzle you with their new skills.
Take kids to the farmers market or you-pick-farms to teach them about how food grows, name new foods and choose fresh foods to come home and cook. If you don’t know how to cook them, do an Internet search or find a YouTube video of “how to cook ______” to learn along side your child. Let them whisk the scrambled eggs, stir the pancake batter, mix up the muffins and when age appropriate slice the veggies for the stir-fry or make the homemade breaded chicken fingers.
For more age appropriate teaching ideas check out these public health resources for teachers and educators here.
2. Eat meals together
With so many extracurricular activities happening over the dinner hour it is becoming more difficult for families to eat together. Protect this time as much as possible since research shows families that eat together have better nutrient intakes, less risk of obesity, less risk of eating disorders and have kids that perform better academically.
Eating together is one of the few times that families get to connect together and check-in about challenges. Research also shows that families that eat together also have kids that are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
Eat as many supper meals together as possible (even if this means having a larger after school snack and a later supper meal together when everyone can reconvene). If you currently eat few meals together start with Sunday dinner and grow from there. Also consider eating breakfast together as another way to connect and model good eating habits.
3. Parents choose what to eat, kids decide how much
I am an advocate of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding which emphasizes parents choose what to eat, kids decide how much.
Our kids need to grow up with structure and the security that food will be offered at regular times and that sometimes they will get their favorites and sometimes they will get not-so-favorites.
We want to exposure our kids to a large variety of healthy “grow foods.” Keep in mind it can take at least 15-20 times for a new food to be accepted. The best approach to getting picky eaters to try new things is to make mealtimes non-stressful and to eat together and offer a good variety of healthy meals. In time kids will surprise you.
Instead of saying “just try one bite” instead try the expression “you can try one bite and if you don’t like it you can politely spit it out.” Offer a napkin or a “no thank you” bowl at the table if they tried them and didn’t want to swallow them. This might sound strange but kids are more willing to try things if they know they have an out.
Kids decide how much to eat and if they are going to eat anything at all. Respect your child’s request to ask for more food and also to leave food on the plate, as we want them to listen to their hunger cues and respect them. Be clear that this is the meal that is available and that another snack or meal is not going to be offered for a few hours.
4. Balancing a mix of “grow foods” and “fun foods”
At each meal provide three things for balance (grains/starches, vegetables and/or fruit and a source of protein). At snacks offer one or two of these items and space them out with enough time that they will be hungry for the upcoming meal.
Look at healthier ways to provide treats such as homemade frozen yogurt popsicles, oatmeal date squares, oatmeal raisin cookies and apple crisp. Try making nachos on Friday night for supper with cheese, meat/beans, fresh made salsa and guacamole. Make air popped popcorn with butter and a pinch of salt rather than packaged microwaved style popcorn full of preservatives.
It is also important to teach them how to manage “fun foods” such as sweets and savory foods chosen more for taste, celebration and social fun. This means teaching embracing a philosophy that all foods can fit. If you don’t include any fun foods at home your child may eat a dozen cookies at a friends house rather than a couple since basic psychology suggests we all want what we can’t have. The healthiest, most flexible eaters lifelong have exposure to a wide variety of all foods.
Need more support with family meal planning and how to manage junk foods for your family?
As Registered Dietitians that specialize in meal planning, weight concerns, emotional eating, eating disorders, digestive health, heart health, diabetes and sports nutrition we can see you in our local Calgary nutritionist office or as an Online Dietitian by phone or video conferencing for virtual nutrition counseling. Find out more about our Dietitian Nutrition Counseling Programs here.
As university trained Registered Dietitians, you can count on us for credible advice and practical meal planning so you don’t have to stress about food anymore. You can achieve a healthy and joyous relationship with food and your body. Let’s talk about what this can look like for you. CONTACT US.