Setting healthy eating habits doesn’t have to be a dinner-time standoff over a plate of uneaten peas. Take the lecture out of teaching your children about healthy eating by setting the example, explaining how food is fuel and by letting them get their hands dirty.
Jodi Nemeth, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, says it is important that children learn how eating healthy now can help them down the road. For instance, dairy foods like milk, cheese and yogurt provide high-quality protein and essential nutrients such as calcium — all of which contribute to healthy growth.
“I often explain to my pediatric patients and my own kids how important dairy is for their bone health and you only get once chance to build your bones,” she says.
Early childhood is a great time to introduce a variety of healthy foods and make positive associations with them, such as how good foods make them feel, how fun it is to garden, going to a farmers market, helping prepare foods and smelling that food cooking.
Diets that contain mostly healthy or nutrient-dense foods mean there is room for treats that taste good and bring joy. “For my family, that may be going to a local ice cream shop on a hot summer night, enjoying fresh-made chocolate chip cookies or Grandma’s apple pie,” Nemeth says.
Here are some ways Nemeth suggests explaining healthy eating.
Fueling up, just like a car
Teach children their body is like a car. A car needs to be filled with good quality gasoline for it to run well. When the gas tank is empty, the car cannot run. A human needs good fuel that comes in the form of nutritious food. “When our tank is empty, we don’t have the energy to run, play and do schoolwork,” Nemeth says.
Feel the hunger
Encourage children to listen to their bodies for feelings of hunger and feelings of being satisfied. “Kids enjoy learning about how food fuels their bodies,” Nemeth says. “I explain that protein-containing foods like meat, beans and dairy can help your muscles grow stronger; carbohydrates like pasta and fruits can give your muscles and brain energy; and how important dairy is for calcium and Vitamin D to build your bones.”
Get their hands dirty
“Giving children hands-on food experiences such as washing, preparing, smelling, taste testing and serving foods makes it fun and increases their confidence with different foods,” Nemeth says. They may not like everything they try but encourage them to try again and remind them their tastes may change later. “Family meals are a great opportunity to introduce new foods and for parents to be role models for healthy eating,” Nemeth says.
Have fun with it
The Wiggles came out with Fruit Salad Yummy Yummy in the 1990s, a ditty about making and eating fruit salad. Nemeth suggests checking out a rock-n-roll nutrition program called Jump with Jill, started by a registered dietitian. “You can check out the website jumpwithjill.com and watch her fun videos and listen to her songs about nutrition.”
Set the example
“As the parent we have to set the example,” Nemeth says. “We need to model choosing a variety of healthy foods, eating appropriate serving sizes, trying new foods and making meals a pleasurable experience. As the parent you are in control of what groceries are purchased, what meals are planned and appropriate portions.”
Lean on MyPlate
MyPlate, the nutrition guide published by the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, uses a cartoon depiction of a plate and glass to describe how to incorporate food groups. “I have had my own kids think about the MyPlate picture when they are packing their lunch or if they need to make themselves a quick meal before a sports practice,” Nemeth says.
Learn more about healthy foods for the whole family at United Dairy Industry of Michigan’s site milkmeansmore.org.