5 Tips for Teaching Nutritious Food Choices, By Suzy Buglewicz

It can seem like an impossible task to steer kids toward healthy food choices when they face a daily stream of endless advertisements depicting other kids happily devouring high-calorie foods loaded with sugar, fats, and sodium. But according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), our food and physical activity choices affect not only our health but how we feel today, tomorrow, and in the future. Studies show that a child’s nutrition has a direct impact on how healthy he or she will be as an adult. With the holiday season behind us, and fewer visions of sugar plums and other treats dancing through our heads, there’s no time like the present to reinforce a balanced diet. And the bottom line is that kids won’t know about good food choices unless their parents show them what foods they need for their bodies to grow strong.
1. Plan menus as a family. One of the best places kids can learn about food and healthy eating is in their own kitchens. Sitting down to plan a week’s worth of family menus might sound daunting and time consuming, but it will make the next two tips much easier and worth the effort. Pick a time before the week starts and decide on about 5 days’ worth of menus. Pull out a few cookbooks, ask the kids for their input, and let them choose some of their favorite recipes. Nutrition experts recommend that parents offer a range of healthy choices that are similar in nutritional value instead of simply asking kids what they want to eat. It’s a win-win since the kids feel in control by getting to make the choice, and the parent knows that, whatever the choice is, the choice will be healthy. Encourage them to create a menu board on which they write down and decorate the week’s menu. Don’t forget to include desserts—healthy desserts, of course!
2. Go shopping. If you want your family to eat healthily, you have to shop healthily. Take your kids to the grocery store (feed them before you leave the house!), and, for the older kids, encourage them to read the nutrition information on the labels of their favorite snack foods. (Get Real with Shaun T™ and Shaun T’s Fit Kids® Club both offer guides for teaching kids to read nutrition labels.) Ask them to look at the sugar, fat, and salt contents, and explain that the higher the percentages, the unhealthier the foods are. The more involved kids are in the shopping and meal planning, the better informed they’ll be to make healthier choices about what they eat, even when you’re not there to remind them.Another benefit of taking kids to the grocery store is giving them supervised control to choose healthy snacks for the family. Consider fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season when they are at their peak flavor, and encourage the kids to choose a fruit and/or vegetable they’ve never tried before. Include breakfast items on the shopping trip, since studies show that eating breakfast gives our bodies the fuel we need to have enough energy for the rest of the day. And if you don’t want your kids to eat junk food, don’t buy it. Experts warn that eating too much junk food is contributing to the rise in childhood obesity.
3. Get cooking. It’s no secret that eating out puts on more pounds than eating home-cooked meals. Eating at home also gives you a better idea of reasonable portion control, which has gotten out of control at restaurants, where plates are often supersized with extra starchy and fried foods like bread and french fries. Even with multiple family activities and schedules, vowing to cook at home just one more night a week than you do now can make a difference. Teach your kids how to cook; if they’re too young, encourage them to help you in the kitchen. Not only will they learn what goes into a healthy meal, preparing meals as a family allows for quality family time. Kids can even reinforce what they’ve learned in school by helping look up and read recipes and measure ingredients. Even if you’re really pressed for time, a meal as simple as grilled chicken breast with a green salad and a baked potato provides a nutritious dinner that can be on the table in 30 minutes.
4. Take a walk on the wild side: try something new. Kids need healthy food choices to fuel their growing bodies and active lifestyles, but sometimes they get stuck in a rut eating only things like carrots or cucumbers as their “healthy food choices.” When introducing a new food on their plates, serve small portions so you’ll both feel a sense of accomplishment when they finish eating. And be sure to let your kids see you try new foods so they’re more likely to step out of their comfort zones and try something new as well.The USDA recommends starting with one new healthy food at a time and adding a new one each day. One of the easiest ways to add more fruits and vegetables to a picky kid’s diet is to serve the food cut into bite-sized pieces with healthy but tasty dips or spreads. Apple slices with peanut butter and carrots, celery, and broccoli with low-fat ranch dip, flavored hummus, or even homemade salsa are great choices. Talk to your kids about what different types of foods do for the body, such as the importance of calcium for building strong teeth and bones and vegetables and grains for building healthy muscles and having a healthy digestion system. If the kids only want to eat junk food because they think it tastes good, explain that they will ultimately face issues like fatigue, obesity, and high blood pressure, which will lead to lifelong health problems.
5. Practice what you preach. Be a good role model and show your kids that a nutritious diet is all about balance, not deprivation. Go ahead and let them see you splurge on an occasional chocolate bar or donut, but make sure they also see you regularly eating your fruits and vegetables. Continue the healthy eating trend when eating out as a family and encourage your kids to make healthier choices. A sub sandwich on whole wheat bread with a side of baked potato chips is a much better choice than a greasy burger and fries. The nutrition choices parents teach kids when they’re young will likely stay with them as they grow. And while you can’t expect bad habits to change overnight, small steps to improve what you eat along with regular exercise will lead to a lifetime of healthy habits.
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