Messages about nutrition, our diets, “good” foods and “bad” foods are plentiful. They’re also often contradictory and confusing.
It’s a challenge for most adults to determine what’s fact and what’s pure fiction when it comes to healthy eating. So, how can we expect kids to know the truth about nutrition?
Dr. Angelica Neison is a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group who has a passion for culinary medicine. This is the practice of helping patients use nutrition, cooking and the science of medicine to restore and maintain health. She believes kids are hungry for both a variety of good foods and knowledge about nutrition.
Here, she offers her top 10 tips for teaching kids about nutrition through both setting a good example and letting them lead the way every once in a while.
1. Eat your veggies. In fact, eat vegetables or fruit at each meal. Make it visually appealing. Kids love color and eat with their eyes first. Teach them to “eat the rainbow,” the key to getting all of the wonderful nutrients vegetables offer.
2. Mix it up. Never give up serving your children a variety of foods. There’s an assumption that all kids love bland food and kids’ menus at restaurants seem to have a standard offering of chicken nuggets, hamburger or grilled cheese, often paired with fries. Most kids, if hungry, will try what you put in front of them. Don’t make opportunities to try nutritious foods harder for kids by not offering them.
3. Put down the processed foods. Limit processed foods, many of which have high amounts of added sugar and sodium. An occasional cupcake or bag of chips is fine, but don’t make it a daily habit. Offer different snack choices, such as nuts, vegetables, fruit or hummus instead.
4. Choices, choices — give kids choices. Kids love making their own choices about almost everything, so why not give kids choices about what they eat? Start with a trip to the grocery store or farmers market, let them pick one or two vegetables they like, and have them help you prepare their choices in the kitchen. Studies show that kids who prepare meals are less likely to develop diabetes and obesity, and overall consume quality, nutritious foods.
5. “Moo”-ve on from meat. Just like adults, kids can stand to have less animal protein in their diets. Protein can come from a variety of foods that are not meat. Beans, edamame, nuts, nut butters and even whole grains have protein and, as an added benefit, are often less expensive than meat.
6. Keep carbs cool. Carbohydrates provide fuel for active brains and growing muscles. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the best kind of carbs — whole-grain bread, pasta and cereal; brown rice; potatoes; fruit; peas; and beans — also provide vitamins, minerals and fiber. Baked treats, sweets and sugary beverages should be saved as an occasional treat because they don’t offer nutrition beyond a quick source of energy.
7. Don’t fear fat. Both kids and adults need fats. They are a source of energy and provide essential fatty acids necessary for a variety of bodily processes. In general, fats should make up less than 30% of the calories in your child's diet, with no more than one-third of those fat calories coming from saturated fat. Try decreasing processed foods high in saturated fat such as bacon, hot dogs and hamburgers, and choose healthy fats such as nuts, avocado and nut butters.
8. Ditch the diet. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids and teens don’t diet, but rather focus on quality nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. In fact, dieting has a negative effect on most everyone, but especially on a growing child who has hormones that will be affected if they drastically decrease their nutritional intake. Instead, help your child build a healthy relationship with food through your own example and attitude.
9. Focus on family. Eat together at least once or twice a week — more often is better. Developing a connection through cooking, and preparing food and eating it together, helps create healthier relationships with food. Eat mindfully without screens or phones at the table. Serve only the amount they’re likely to eat. Kids require smaller portions than adults, and they can always ask for seconds.
10. Eat for the environment. Sometimes telling kids to eat for their health doesn’t resonate — they are young and often feel invincible, after all. However, telling kids that eating for the environment can help prevent climate change may make them think twice about their choices. The tips I give my own kids — eat less packaged foods, eat less animal meat and try growing your own food — help them and their global community.