2 Food Rules for Teaching Kids How to Eat

Do your children know the difference between green apples and green Skittles?

My daughters, ages 6 and 8, are relatively good eaters. Though my youngest goes through phases of requiring a sales pitch with every ketchup-flooded meal, for the most part they both have a basic understanding of which foods are healthy and which are not. A few years ago, that same 6-year-old requested a snack after school, quickly adding, “And make sure it’s a junky one.”

But when school let out for the summer (including their weekly nutrition class, which is now, beautifully, part of the curriculum), I decided to go one step further and set a simple goal for myself: to teach my children the provenance of everything they put in their mouths—no matter what it is, from their nuclear-orange cheese doodles to the artisanal strawberry jam we buy at the farmers’ market and spread on our morning toast. The idea isn’t to turn myself into a micro-mom-ager who attempts to body-block every additive headed down her children’s throats. It’s merely to educate them so they’ll be equipped to do the body-blocking themselves. (I jump on any opportunity that allows for nagging to be outsourced.) My approach is two-pronged:

First, for a long time now, we’ve been playing a game in the car called “Natural-Not Natural.” My husband and I point at something out the window (a road sign, a tree, a New Jersey Turnpike chemical plant), and they have to shout out which category it falls under. Turns out it’s remarkably easy to apply this game to what they are eating in my kitchen (green apple: “Natural!” Green Skittle: “Not natural!”). After just a few rounds at the dinner table, my 6-year-old began initiating the game herself—which can be both satisfying (broccoli: “Natural!”) and shameful (Bosco: “Um…”).

Secondly, I have also begun reading ingredient lists aloud, eliciting giggles from the kids when I’d get to words they had never heard before. (Who knew the phrase “pyrodoxine hydrochloride” could ever be funny?) Lesson number one: The fewer ingredients you recognize, the greater the chance that it’s junk. This led naturally to lesson number two: The shorter the list, the greater the chance that it’s good for you.

Of course, this methodology is not foolproof. Knowing that the green apple is more natural than the green Skittle doesn’t necessarily translate to action; i.e., it doesn’t mean the girls have ever politely declined the candy for the fruit when given a choice. Also, it turns out that those nuclear-orange cheese puffs (purchased at Trader Joe’s) are made of all-natural ingredients, but none that are actually nutritious. How does one explain that natural doesn’t always equal healthy? I’ll leave that lesson for nutrition class.

Jenny Rosenstrach is a writer, editor and mom of two young girls. She writes the blog Dinner: A Love Story.

What tactics do you use to teach your children about eating healthy? Chime in below!

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