KJ Dell’Antonia recently asked this important question in her NYT blog: “How do you teach kids to eat well when you’re not with them?” It’s critical to guide your children’s food choices while they live at home, but what are the best strategies for sending them off to lead nutritionally sound lives?
So far, about 60 people responded to her query, and here is a summary of the best ideas. All of them are obvious, but with our nation’s exploding waistline, they bear a look.
— Cook and eat healthy, and exercise, yourself.
— Allow treats in moderation, don’t be overly restrictive.
— Don’t keep junk food in the house, and tell your children that your family doesn’t eat it because it’s not very good for you. They can have it sometimes when they’re out, but over the years they eat more at home than anywhere else and ultimately will identify most with that.
— Teach your kids to cook, and cook with them.
— Don’t prepare special “kids’ meals” in your home (and we all know what that means). Kids eat what the adults eat; their palates need to be developed properly. You don’t want them eating chicken nuggets and fries at age 30.
— Always serve balanced meals that include salad and vegetables.
— Pay attention to what your kids are being served at school. Lunch programs are often nutritionally poor. Don’t just close your eyes to it because it’s inconvenient to deal with.
— Eliminate the idea that dessert needs to follow every meal. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t.
— Develop your kids’ awareness of their bodies—for example, how they feel after eating a lot of junk, or overeating, or eating a well-balanced meal. Their bodies will send them the same cues that yours send you about different foods’ effect on “energy, mood, hunger, athletic performance and weight.”
— Teach your kids to read food labels and understand portion sizes, and especially to grasp the amount of sugar in different processed foods.
— Expose your kids to healthy ethnic cuisines and pique their interest and openness to the foods by talking about the cultures they come from.
— Watch some food documentaries with them that detail the nature and effects of the nation’s nutrition crisis.
— Plant a veggie garden.
Moderation was probably the most common theme, but in my own experience, moderation is a slippery slope. It’s important not to overly restrict kids, but at the same time, being too loose in the name of “moderation” is a common mistake.
The other thing to remember is that teaching your kids how to eat is just as important as teaching them to read or brush their teeth. They will lead shorter lives of poorer quality if they don’t learn how to take care of their bodies’ nutritional needs. Health starts with food.