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Five Steps for Teaching Kids About Nutrition

Nutrition isn’t just about the things you eat—it involves adjusting the language you use, building a sense of community, and shifting your mindset surrounding your body. Gaining a thorough understanding of nutrition early in life will greatly benefit your kids as they get older, helping them to avoid disordered eating patterns. Here are five steps for teaching kids about nutrition that anyone can put into practice. 

1. Avoid using foods as a form of reward or punishment.

Some foods are better for your body than others, but it is good practice not to classify foods as “good” or “bad.” Though it may be tempting to label processed foods as “junk,” this implicitly encourages restrictive eating; salty snacks, rich desserts, and wholesome vegetables will all benefit you, simply in different ways. 

Ultimately, you should encourage your child to make balanced choices, while allowing them opportunities to eat what they want (in moderation, of course). This is because forbidding certain foods will only increase the risk of unhealthy cravings and binging later in life.

Assigning moral values to different foods creates a confusing emotional relationship with nourishing the body. For example, threatening to take away your child’s dessert as a consequence of their misbehaviour tells them that certain foods, specifically treats, must be earned. In adulthood, they may struggle with emotional eating as a result, which is not an appropriate coping mechanism.

2. Remember the importance of social eating.

We tend to forget that eating is a social and cultural activity. Eating with others builds a sense of community; it is nourishment for the soul, as well as the body. Whether you’re having cake at a birthday celebration, or candy during a family movie night—feel free to indulge once in a while! Count memories, not calories. 

Taking the time to sit down and eat meals as a family also helps children learn how to eat mindfully. In a society that is constantly pushing productivity, it’s rare to see people put thought into what, why, and how they’re eating. 

Instead of picking up fast food, try to have a home-cooked meal. You’ll get a chance to bond with your family while also showing your children more wholesome food options.

3. Let children listen to their hunger cues.

Do not force your child to clear their plate at mealtime, or lash out at them if they don’t finish their entire lunch at school. Learning how to recognize hunger and fullness cues is an important skill that will help them avoid instances of overeating throughout their life. 

Allowing kids to determine how much they should eat of certain foods will teach them to listen to their body. Too much of anything, regardless of what it is, can be a bad thing.

4. Assess your own mindset surrounding “healthy eating.”

The way you speak about yourself, as well as your eating habits, can have a greater influence on your child than you might think. Children are very observant, and they pick up on the things adults around them do. For example, if you are on a strict diet or count calories during mealtimes, kids will learn from this and may implement these practices in their lives. 

Take a moment to consider the foods in your home. Do they reflect the same idea of nutrition that you hope to pass down to your child? If you have the tendency to stock your kitchen with highly processed, packaged foods, kids will naturally gravitate towards these foods. On the other hand, only buying low-calorie options may make your child feel pressured to restrict their calorie intake. 

Make sure to stock your fridge and cupboards with a variety of foods, and practice what you preach by showing your children how they should be eating. It’s difficult to help kids build a healthy relationship with food and their body if you’re struggling as well.

5. Do not focus on how food may affect outward appearance.

Popeye’s famous line, “I’m strong to the finich, ’cause I eats me spinach, I’m Popeye the sailor man!” inspired a plethora of kids to eat more vegetables, but altering your physical appearance should not be the primary objective for children. 

Instead of putting an emphasis on the idea that your child should eat certain foods to alter how they look, focus on the less superficial benefits, such as fueling their brains, and improving their intelligence, creativity, and curiosity, all the things that truly make them special.

Author: Elena Massing