Teaching Children About Healthy Foods

Have you ever wondered how to talk to your kids about nutrition?  It’s important to help children develop healthy relationships with food, and that starts with how we talk about what we eat.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is NOT labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  I struggle with this myself, even as a dietitian!  It’s important to get away from describing things like pizza as ‘bad’ and fruits and vegetables as ‘good.’  Children—anyone, really—may then think they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for eating those foods.  The truth is, no food has a moral compass, and that all food gives us some degree of nutrition, even if it’s just a little.

It’s also easy to fall into the trap of using vague terms, like ‘healthy,’ or introduce complicated concepts, such as high cholesterol.  Describing food using age-appropriate language is critical.  The problem with the term ‘healthy’ is that it’s not very well defined.  One person might deem cookies a healthy choice, while another may not.  We also don’t eat ‘healthy’ food all the time, which may present a problem for youngsters who don’t understand why cookies are OK one minute, but not the next. 

What I like to say to my daughter, who is almost three years old, is that a food “does good things for our body.”  I use that phrase a lot, because it’s easy for her to understand without getting too specific.  Sometimes, I’ll go a step further and add a bit about what a food might do for our bodies.  For example, if she’s eating a protein food, like meat, I might say: “This chicken helps us have strong muscles.”  Or, if she’s drinking milk, I might say: “Your milk helps you have strong bones.”   Basically, in the under-4 category, you’re sticking to easy concepts, such as foods giving them energy to run around, or strong bones and teeth.

Older children can understand a bit more about foods, so you can start introducing bigger words and concepts.  This is a great opportunity to start talking about ‘eating the rainbow.’ Here are some examples of ways to describe the different colors of fruits and vegetables:

RED

Age 5-6:  Red foods have lycopene.  Lycopene helps protect your heart.

Age 7-12:  Lycopene is an antioxidant, which helps protect our hearts, skin and bodies. It makes food red. 

ORANGE

Age 5-6: Orange foods have Vitamin A.  Vitamin A helps our eyes.

Age 7-12: Vitamin A is found in orange foods, like pumpkin, sweet potatoes, mangoes, carrots and cantaloupe.  It helps keep our eyes, heart, lungs and kidneys healthy.

YELLOW

Age 5-6: Yellow foods have Vitamin C.  Vitamin C helps make our boo-boos all better.

Age 7-12: Vitamin C helps heal our cuts and helps us fight off colds.  It’s in a lot of fruits and vegetables, like oranges, bell peppers and pineapple.

GREEN

Age 5-6: Green foods have prebiotics and fiber.  They help our tummies stay healthy.

Age 7-12: We have ‘good’ bacteria in our gut that eat prebiotics.  The good bacteria help us stay healthy and fight off the bad germs and bacteria that get into our bodies.

BLUE/PURPLE

Age 5-6: Purple and blue foods have antioxidants in them.  They keep our bodies and brains healthy.

Age 7-12: Antioxidants protect our bodies and brains from damage over time.  Antioxidants are in a lot of foods, especially brightly colored ones like beets, berries and grapes.

Holly R. Layer is a Registered Dietitian and a freelance writer.  She lives in the village with her husband Andrew, an East Aurora native, and their daughter, Maelle. She blogs at www.thehealthypineapple.com.  Questions can be emailed to Holly at eanews@eastaurorany.com. 

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