With busy schedules, work and school activity commitments, nutrition in thought is very important but when it comes down to providing our families with healthy meals we tend to miss the big picture. With a billion dollar diet and exercise industry, we tend to think it is more difficult then it truly is. A healthy prepared meal at home is slowly fading away, leaving us with a future generation who for the most part cannot cook, have no idea what a healthy meal should consist of and they tend to live off convenient prepackaged snacks, drinks and meals.
Teaching children about healthy nutrition is not hard, it simply takes time, and this is where we run into problems because most families are overbooked and tired. If you think your child is learning about nutrition in school think again, there is very little curriculum that is devoted to nutrition in all school level health classes. Even if your children were getting more lessons on nutrition, it still needs to be applied to their real life at home meals and snacks.
It is alarming that many schools don’t give nutrition education the attention it deserves, especially with the rising childhood obesity rate. As a result, it should place a high level of pressure on parents to teach their children about the benefits of proper nutrition and making quality food choices. Teaching your child early on will also positively impact what they choose to eat when away from home, as they grow up and are faced with food choices alone, for example when they get their driver’s license or go off to college with a dorm meal plan that includes a buffet for most meals.
Nutrition education can be taught daily. Families typically eat breakfast and dinner together, there are multiple opportunities to teach your child how to eat well and make healthy choices. Parents can exert incredible influence, even when it’s not always welcome, to ensure their kids grow-up with healthy habits. Like anything, leading by example is the most powerful way to influence your child. Thus, you should model positive behavior around food. Avoid snacking on empty calories like chips and candy regularly, the, “do as I say and not as I do,” theory works poorly when it comes to healthy eating and your kids. Even your own child will not respect your wishes if you are being a hypocrite.
Involve your children with daily food choices. Take your children with you to grocery shop and involve them with meal preparation. Both are great steps toward improving their knowledge of nutrition. Try a new fruit or vegetable every week and look up recipes together on how to prepare the new produce.
Start discussing these topics around the dinner table:
Teach the difference between real food and processed foods. Use tools that have already been created like MyPlate or MyPyramid websites to teach portion control and benefits of certain healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, nuts, seeds, and proteins. Processed items are unnatural and packaged with misleading label claims and feature harmful ingredients that could contribute to health issues like obesity, ADHD, etc.
Stress the importance of drinking water. Water should be the first choice for hydration. Give your child a goal of ½ their body weight in ounces of plain water per day to consume. Juice and other sugar-dense (or even non-calorie artificially sweetened) beverages should be a rare treat. If you have a juice or soda addict, then start by adding fresh fruit to water in a pitcher and let it sit for a natural but subtle sweetness. If they insist on juice, limit it to one per day and opt for an all-natural no sugar sweetener like a stevia based lemonade, etc.
Adopt the plate method. Teach them what their plate should look like at each meal. Every time they eat, they should have high-quality protein, a fruit or vegetable, and a carbohydrate that is not processed like rice, potatoes, etc. Cook two different vegetables at mealtime so they have a variety to fill up half of their plate with. Use vegetables instead of starches when possible to make the plate method easier, examples include mashed cauliflower, Zucchini noodles, etc.
Breakfast should be consumed daily for all members of the family. NEVER send your child off to school without brain food. This is a recipe for poor mental focus and energy. That being said, try to incorporate fats into breakfast, a sugary bowl of cereal or plate of pancakes is just as bad as no food at all, a surge of glucose followed by a plummet of glucose is a recipe for a child who sleeps in class. Healthy breakfast options rich in protein and healthy fats include, Greek yogurt, eggs, almond butter toast, steel cut oats with chopped nuts, a protein shake, cold cuts and fruit to name a few.
Pack your child’s lunch and have them help you. School lunch programs have tried to adopt more healthy choices but simply stated the budget does not really allow for healthy flavor enhancement. Therefore, kids are either faced with an unhealthy school lunch or a really small bland lunch that meets nutrition guidelines. A lunch from home can provide the best of both worlds, a healthy lunch without the processed choices. A high fiber sandwich or wrap loaded with low sodium cold cuts and vegetables with fresh fruit and some trail mix is a satisfying lunch that will keep their energy up to focus in school and after school at practices.
Avoid being a “food cop.” Don’t force or nag your kids to eat foods they don’t like. Keep healthy choices around majority of the time and if a treat slips in here or there that is okay too. Learning healthy habits should be fun for the whole family and of course result in a long-term lifestyle change. If your child feels deprived, they will sneak food and gorge when you are not looking. Making healthy foods taste good together and modifying their favorite recipes at mealtime, will result in a healthy relationship that will hopefully last a lifetime.
Focus on what they need rather then what they cannot have. Aim to have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, protein at each meal, healthy fats at each meal like hummus, guacamole, nuts, seeds, heart healthy oils, and the most complex and unrefined grains/ carbohydrates possible, like quinoa, steel cut oats, brown rice, sweet potatoes, sprouted breads, etc. Ensuring that your children get what they need every day will result in less cravings for junk foods, because they will be properly nourished and not craving foods due to fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Slowly clean out your pantry and replace the old not so healthy items with healthier versions. Making small changes slowly will result in long-term results. No one wants to feel like his or her diet is getting overhauled.
Make it fun. Download educational apps, Green Box Heroes is a free app that includes recipes, educational stories, coloring, and exercises. There is also a actual book you can purchase, The Green Box League of Nutritious Justice, which includes even more exercises, fun super hero educational stories, and kid friendly recipes that the entire family will love.
This is a preview to an article that will be featured in Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine. Check back for the full article.
Dr. Kantor’s greatly anticipated new children’s book, The Green Box League of Nutritious Justice, is now available. Be sure to order this highly reviewed book, filled with healthy living tips for the whole family. A portion of the proceeds benefit the Children’s Miracle Network.