Engaging Children in Healthy Food Choices

Nutrition and childhood obesity are hot topics these days. Nutrition can also be a fun topic, especially for kids. Parents can use educational techniques such as matching, math and self-discipline to teach nutrition in a way that will engage and inspire.

Matching: Young children love to find pairs. Place a copy of My Pyramid on a visible place such as the fridge. As early as 1 year old, we can guide our child to point to each group on the pyramid and to what is on our plate. At the end of the day, we can review together if we have covered the Pyramid. Food Pyramids can be found at www.mypyramid.gov website.

Team work: Just as we want to play with people that are good team members, so do we want to eat foods that are good team members. Certain foods work together to enhance their nutritional value. For example, Iron and Vitamin C. Iron that comes from vegetable sources is not absorbed by our body as easily as iron from animal sources. However, if we add a source of Vitamin C to the meal that includes a vegetable source of iron, the Vitamin C enhances the body’s absorption of iron. A citrus fruit is the perfect dessert after a simple (and inexpensive) home made bean burrito.

On the other hand, caffeinated sodas, tea and coffee interfere with the absorption of iron. They actually decrease the amount of iron absorbed by our bodies if consumed at meal times, in addition to increasing the number of non-nutritive calories. Caffeine and Iron are not good teammates.

Math: From fractions to multiplication, we can reinforce math concepts at home and at the same time develop healthy eating habits. Let’s look at an example: The serving size for cooked rice is ½ cup which represents a serving from the Grain group. Using our math skills for portion control, we can teach our children to enjoy a variety of different foods throughout the day.

Children can use math to look at food labels and find those foods with the higher amounts of calories per serving size. As a family, decide if you can ‘afford’ those calories in your regular diet. This is a great time to discuss the empty calories in drinks such as soda, fruit juices and more. Do the math with your family – your kids might be amazed at how many calories they drink in one single day!

Self-Discipline: Discipline is not scolding or punishment; it is the act of choosing consciously. One concept that is very helpful for children is to differentiate between “home food” and “outside food”. Even if we keep junk food out of the house, children will discover sodas, chips, candy and other unhealthy options at birthday parties, family and friends houses. It is important to establish and practice the concept that “home food”, based on choices from the Food Pyramid is different than “outside food” that are special treats and shouldn’t be part of our daily choices.

Teaching nutrition begins early on. With tools such as the food pyramid and food labels, children can learn that healthy eating is a daily adventure.

Lizette Franks is a nutritionist at Vista Community Clinic. For more information or to make an appointment, please call 760-631-5000.