Last week, my third-grader’s gym teacher taught his class about the perils of processed foods while he was eating an iced brownie. I’m glad that nutrition is being taught at school, but it made me wonder about the calibre of the information that’s being delivered.
The incident reminded me that most nutrition knowledge ultimately has to come from parents. Not sure if you’re on the right track or teaching the correct information? Maybe you haven’t taught your kids much about healthy eating? That’s OK. Start by giving your kids the following five lessons on nutrition and healthy eating.
Lesson 1: The difference between whole foods and processed foods It may seem obvious to adults, but kids may not realize that there’s a difference between farm-grown whole foods and factory-made processed foods.
As a refresher, whole foods grow in nature and are minimally altered when we eat them. Some examples are vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, meat and dairy products. Processed foods, on the other hand, are the result of taking these ingredients and adding salt, sugar, artificial colours and flavours and preservatives to create different foods, such as deli meat, cookies, pop, chicken nuggets and chips. Altering these once-whole foods affects their nutritional quality and makes them less healthy.
When you’re grocery shopping with your kids, show them the difference and explain that whole foods are better for their whole bodies.
Lesson 2: Cooking 101 How can you get your kids to eat a greater variety of foods, enjoy more vegetables and have positive self-esteem? Let them cook! It’s empowering for them and important for their future.
Teach your kids how to read simple recipes, and explain cooking terms so that they know the difference between pots and pans or boiling and baking. Start with basics like scrambled eggs, pasta with meat sauce and a chicken-and-vegetable stir-fry.
If you’re not a cook yourself, no problem. Sign your kids up for community cooking classes, watch online videos and cooking shows together, or find inspiration in cookbooks and food magazines.
Lesson 3: Balanced meals Kids need to know the difference between eating four cups of buttery pasta and calling it dinner, and having a balanced meal. Teach them the importance of a balanced meal using the plate model. Divide a plate into three sections: half vegetables and fruits, one-quarter grains (there’s your pasta) and one-quarter protein-rich foods (meat, chicken, fish or beans). The plate teaches them the vital concepts of eating a variety of different foods and practising portion control. You can buy portioned plates or make your own divided paper plates using food-grade markers or long straws. After a few meals, kids will grasp the idea.
I hear the collective sigh. You can’t get your kids to eat one broccoli floret and now they have to fill half their plates with vegetables? I know. So start small. Simply having vegetables on the table at every meal shows children that these staple foods aren’t going away. Fruit can also be part of that half-plate.
Lesson 4: The 80/20 rule Model a healthy lifestyle by making nutritious food choices 80 percent of the time and leaving 20 percent room for indulgences, such as sweets and fast food. How does this look in practice? Maybe cook at home six nights of the week and order takeout on the seventh night to demonstrate that all foods can be part of healthy eating, as long as the emphasis is on eating nutritious foods most often.
This lesson teaches your kids that eating well isn’t about depriving themselves of favourite foods. Some foods bring nourishment, while others bring happiness. Both are important (in the right quantities)!
Lesson 5: Snacks versus treats Snacks are mini-meals made up of whole foods, such as apples with peanut butter, carrot sticks with hummus and cheese and crackers. A treat is a processed food, such as pretzels, gummy candy and cereal bars.
There isn't just a difference in taste. Snacks fuel brain power, promote concentration, nourish the body and provide sustained energy. Treats provide a quick sugar boost and subsequent energy drop, leading to fatigue and hunger. Use Lesson 4 here: If your kids enjoy snacks 80 percent of the time, they can have treats for the other 20 percent.
Cara Rosenbloom is a Toronto-based registered dietitian and co-author of Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts & Beans.