Wednesday, September 29, 2010

7 Strategies for Teaching Your Kids What Real Food Is

kids in garden Credit Frank Van Delft/Getty Images

Help your kids make healthy choices with these simple guidelines.

By Blythe Copeland 

Every parent wishes they had kids who always chose pineapple over popsicles, broccoli over cookies, and yogurt over pudding -- but for most kids, those healthy choices don't come naturally. Still, no matter how young your children are, you can put them on the right track to a lifetime of healthy food choices with these seven strategies that help them learn what real food is, where it comes from, and why it tastes better than anything from a box with a cartoon character on it.

1. Get them into the Garden

Kids are notorious for declining foods they don't recognize, but getting them to help you in the garden means they can not only identify everything from basil and broccoli to eggplants and zucchini, but also watch it grow from the seeds they picked out of your gardening catalog. Encourage them to help you grow herbs in a windowsill garden, plant a backyard garden behind their sandbox, or keep a few tomato plants thriving on the porch if you don't have much space. Even better, work with your child's school to add gardening to the curriculum: A recent report from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that kids who help in a garden have better science skills, read better, and have a better understanding of food production.

2. Spend a Day on the Farm

Once your little ones have the hang of growing their own small plants, show them how the pros do it with trips to nearby farms. Pick apples and pumpkins in the fall, harvest berries in the summer, and stop by the dairy for a look at where milk, ice cream, and cheese come from. They'll learn to connect the food at the supermarket with the people and animals that produce it, and you'll be able to stock up on the best produce, meat, and dairy in your neighborhood.

3. Teach them to Cook

Photo credit: Karen Moskowitz/Getty Images

Once you have the raw ingredients, show your kids how they turn into breakfast, lunch, and dinner with age-appropriate cooking lessons. Kids who aren't old enough to dice, chop, and peel can still stir, pour, and crack eggs (as long as you don't mind a little extra clean-up -- but they can help with that, too). Even how-tos on easy, kid-friendly foods, like pancakes and grilled cheese, will get your little ones into the habit of knowing exactly what they're eating -- and give them the tools to make healthy choices as they start navigating cafeteria lines, birthday parties, and restaurants. This is also a great opportunity to talk to them about how processed food is different from what you're making from scratch -- that those fast-food chicken nuggets aren't the same meat as your breaded chicken breast tenders, for example.

4. Encourage them to Eat their Veggies

Maybe you're dealing with a picky eater who won't eat anything but macaroni and cheese with a side of broccoli -- that's normal. But exposing your kids to a wide variety of food gives them more options once they grow out of mac-and-cheese, so keep offering it, even if they keep rejecting it; often, picky eaters will need to see a food 10 to 15 times before they eat it. The temptation to let them eat Cheerios every night so that the rest of your family can have a quiet dinner is strong, but if you can get them try every vegetable at the farmers market (raw and cooked), you are almost guaranteed to find something that they like -- and someday salad bars, vegetarian entrees, and leafy green sides will be a natural alternative to fries.

5. Be a Role Model

Photo credit: Ross Whitaker/Getty Images

You're the most important food model in your child's life -- so if you're making healthy choices, they will too. Maybe this means revamping your whole family's diet, trading dessert pops for fresh fruit and after-school cookies for carrots with dip -- or maybe it just means ordering the vegetable of the day instead of the garlic mashed potatoes at your favorite restaurant. But either way, making healthy meals a priority for yourself and your kids means you're all more likely to choose nutrition over convenience and instill good decision-making habits in your junior food-lovers.

6. Teach them to Read Labels

While your kids don't necessarily need to scan every nutrition facts label for calories and grams of sugar, it's never too early to teach them what to look for when it comes to ingredients on their foods: Does applesauce need sugar? Does pasta sauce need high fructose corn syrup? How many grains are really in that whole wheat bread? GIve them the tools to thick critically about the cereal and cookies and candy they want you to pick up at the grocery store -- and then show them how making treats from scratch can be just as delicious (and more natural) then the packaged ones they see ads for during Saturday morning cartoons.

7. Let them Help you Shop

Photo credit: Marcy Maloy/Getty Images

Shopping with a crowd might take longer, but kids who pick out foods they're excited about are that much more likely to eat them when they show up on the dinner menu. Take them to the farmers market with you and help them pick out fruits and vegetables in a variety of shapes and textures, or make a game out of finding something delicious in every color that they know. School-age kids can choose the fruits and vegetables they want in their lunch box each day -- while you can be sure they are getting the nutrients and health benefits their growing bodies need.

More about Teaching Your Kids to Eat Healthy
40 Healthy School Lunch Recipes to Make for Your Kids
This NOT That: Lunchbox Replacements for the Worst Junk Foods
7 Strategies for Packing a Healthy, Green School Lunch