Healthy Eating for Kids
Posted: April 8, 2009 at 4:58 pm
We all have questions about how to teach children about healthy eating. Children learn about food best by seeing the adults around them eat in a healthy way -- plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains instead of refined grain products, and limited amounts of added sugars and added fats. Meals should not be a battleground. Keep junk out of the house, offer lots of choices, and don't make an issue over food likes and dislikes.
It's best not to make a big issue about "proper diet" with children; the concepts are complex and food should not be an issue or a focus of their lives. You set the example, and they internalize it without conscious effort. If they ask ("why can't I have ??? that Johnny eats?), treat it the same way you would any religious/ethical/ethnic position where yours is different from his friends': a matter-of-fact "this is the way we do it in our house" approach.
Don't fight what goes on outside your house -- your children WILL eat whatever is served at school, friends' houses, the mall, and everywhere else. But when they're grown, bringing up their own kids and becoming conscious of their own health, they'll remember what mother/dad said and did.
At all ages you can find plenty of opportunities to teach "stay close to nature" concepts that relate to food: where it comes from, how it's prepared: visits to farms, gardening with your kids, letting them help to prepare foods from scratch and later, cooking "lessons", etc. Keep it fun and sociable. Parents and teachers used to take these opportunities for granted, but today it's not as easy; lots of kids -- and adults -- have never picked an apple or seen a tomato plant, and don't know how to boil water.
If weight is a concern, increase physical activity. Large children may be athletically gifted and should be encouraged to participate in sports and do weight training. As with food choices, the example set by parents and other adults will be more important than anything you say. Get active as a family. Hike, bike or swim together. Don't make children feel they should limit the amount of food they eat – just steer them away from "junk" food as much as possible. Kids will eat anything and everything outside the house, so you can only influence what's available at home.
There are no easy solutions to the alarming increase in childhood obesity, type II diabetes and early puberty, but you can make a start by limiting refined carbohydrates in your house, serving lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and other seeds, and getting the whole family involved in active recreation.
We do recommend avoiding foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils as much as possible; all children will certainly eat some, but where you can find alternative brands that don't contain them -- cookies, crackers, cereals, peanut butter -- we think it's worth the effort. There are no long term studies yet, but the harmful effects of trans fats apparently accumulate. This is one good reason to shop in specialty food stores such as the Whole Foods or Fresh Fields chains, organic markets and health food stores, where there is usually a wider array of choices that don't contain partially hydrogenated oils. Check the list of ingredients.