Covering the Basics: Food with Children

It’s so important to start talking to kids about food early on, and in a way that helps them have a good relationship with food.

Last month, I wrote about how to talk to children, in two different age groups, about food, specifically the fruits and vegetables that make up the colors of the rainbow.  For example, with the 5-6 year-olds, introducing the term ‘lycopene’ and with a short description (“Lycopene helps protect our heart.”) is about as much as they can understand.  Older kids, ages 7-12, can understand a bit more detail, such as the term ‘antioxidant’ and a description of what they do (“Help protect cells in our body from damage”).

While it seems like every parent wants their kid to eat more vegetables, there is so much more to talk about when it comes to food!

I also brought up the concept of not labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in front of children in my column last month, but it merits a quick recap.  Food serves to give us nutrition, (hopefully) taste good, and just about any food can have a place—even a small one—in your diet.  Something that helps me remember not to use those terms to describe a food’s ‘healthfulness’ is to think about assigning food morality…which is ridiculous, right?! So, try not to label that package of Oreos as ‘bad,’ or that organic kale as ‘good.’  Instead of those terms, you could say something as simple as “Oreos are really sweet, and they give us energy, but they don’t have a lot of things our bodies need.”  As for the kale, you could explain that dark green leafy vegetables are high in iron, or that vegetables give our bodies lots of vitamins and minerals.  What we don’t want to do is raise a bunch of littles who are preoccupied with eating only ‘good’ foods, or thinking they are only ‘good’ if they eat their fruits and vegetables.

Because finding the right words can be hard, here are some easy phrases you can use during the day, while grocery shopping or at the dinner table.

-I know you’d like a snack; dinner is soon.

-Milk helps our teeth and bones get strong!

-This pepper gives us lots of Vitamin C, which helps us fight off colds.

-This yogurt a lot of added sugar.  I’d rather buy something that has more fruit in it.

-Meat is a protein food—that means it helps our muscles grow.  Would you like chicken or beef for taco night this week?

-You don’t have to eat it.

-I’m not offering hot dogs today, maybe they will be on the menu tomorrow.

-That’s all I’m offering of (that food) right now, you may have more another time.

Lastly, have you considered serving dessert WITH dinner?  It’s an idea I saw on a pediatric dietitian’s social media account, and I instantly fell in love with it!  Including a small sweet with a meal means it’s not a reward, and ensures your child doesn’t overeat simply to receive dessert.  As a kid who always cleaned my plate and enjoyed my dessert a little too much, it’s important to me to help my daughter create a different relationship with food, especially sweets.  I don’t want her to feel pressure to eat, or to view food as a reward.  Instead, I want her to feel free to eat as much (or little) of the foods offered.  Simply include a small amount of a treat on the same plate as their meal, and let the child know that’s as much as you’re offering at this time.  It may be hard to watch them eat a brownie before the broccoli, but let them—they decide in what order to eat their food.  Trust that they’re learning to listen to their hunger signals, and that they’ll also eat some of the other food offered at the meal.

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