It’s been a while since we’ve had a guest blogger here on The Lunch Tray, and today I’m thrilled to welcome back child feeding expert Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD. Maryann has a terrific new book out, How to Raise a Mindful Eater, which details eight key principles for nourishing a child’s relationship with food. Today’s guest post is taken from “Principle 4: Make Nutrition a Rewarding Part of Eating.”
The Best Way to Educate Kids About Nutrition
by Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD
There is no shortage of attempts to educate kids about nutrition both in schools and at home. Schools often have programs or health classes for kids. According to one review, experiential or hands-on learning produced the best outcomes such as increased knowledge and a preference for fruits and vegetables. Yet they are the least likely to be used in class in favor of curriculum-based learning.
Curriculum-based learning makes sense for teaching reading, writing, and math. For kids to become good readers, they need to learn to sound out words and put them together to form sentences before they can read stories. Same with writing and math, learn a small bit at a time, practice, and move on. Food is actually the opposite. Because children don’t have the ability to think abstractly about nutrition until they are older, messages like “fruit is high in vitamin C” or “we eat foods without artificial additives” aren’t effective. Worse yet, when they are given too many details too early, kids’ concrete minds turn the information into absolutes. What children really need is more exposure and experience with different foods before they can apply the nutrition part.
Take a pilot study done with nine-year-olds. One-third of the class was given educational materials about the benefits of eating fruit, another third weren’t given anything at all (the control group), and the last third was exposed to fruit by their teacher. At the end of the intervention, the education and exposure groups increased their fruit intake. But it was only the exposure group that kept eating fruit a year later. We also know that children who regularly cook eat more fruits and vegetables than those who don’t. In the early years, it makes sense to focus on the experiential learning for kids while providing teachable moments. As they get older, they will ask nutrition questions, which I believe is the best way to learn because the interest is there. With a solid foundation about food, how it’s prepared and pulled together for balance, nutrition information presented later can be the icing on the cake. After all, kids in high school benefit from knowing how to read a label, interpret advertising, and a whole slew of other nutrition topics.
Nutrition education is not what makes kids eat and prefer a variety of food. It’s the daily exposure and learning about food that gets them involved. Yet nutrition education at the right time, with a solid foundation of different food experiences and preferences, adds great value.
Below I discuss nutrition education by age to see how it gradually builds overtime (I’ve left out infancy and preschool for this post).
Help children see the connection between eating and meaningful activities
When you can, point out the connection between food and meaningful activities. Kids that play soccer will have more energy to run if they eat a balanced meal before game time (“I know you want chips, but to have energy for your game, a sandwich with some fruit is better.”). If they typically have trouble focusing on homework, help them see how different foods can help their concentration (“I know you want chips but something with more food groups, including protein, will help you focus better. Why don’t I use the leftover chicken from dinner last night to make you a quesadilla?”).
Try to keep this truthful without exaggerating benefits. If a child is told she will grow big and strong from eating veggies and sees she is no stronger or taller after a while, she won’t believe such statements. Worse yet, she’ll figure out that “these foods are so bad mommy and daddy have to lie about the benefits to get me to eat it!”
Teach more about food
As kids get older, you can build on your food teaching by explaining the different food groups and how you put together balanced meals and snacks. Slowly allow them to start making a snack or packed lunch with your guidance. This is also a good time to teach specific skills in the kitchen instead of them just helping.
Expand on their nutrition questions
Children are the most interested when they ask questions about nutrition, which inspires learning. Be sure not to blow off these questions but to take time to sit them down and explain things. Also, ask them to share what they learn at school, even if it’s just a friend offering up nutrition advice. Because what they learn in the outside world may not be in line with what you want to teach them.
Give them more cooking responsibility
In the later teen years, parents need to think about how children will do on their own with food. Pick a night each week when they can choose a meal and make it from start to finish, getting all the ingredients, too. This is great practice for when they are away at college or out on their own. Even if children stay at home, they should contribute by making meals.
Get specific about nutrition
Think of everything you do in regards to food and teach it to your teen. Whether it’s reading labels, gathering credible nutrition information, saving recipes, or grocery shopping, be sure they are well versed on these topics before they leave home.
DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE NUTRITION
The goal with nutrition education is to provide just enough information in developmentally appropriate ways, until a child is ready to be on their own. Too much, you risk misinterpretation and eventual burnout. Too little, and you have missed opportunities to build positive connections to nutritious foods and physical activity.
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Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, is a family nutrition expert and author of several books including her most recent: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food. Find out more about Maryann’s books by visiting MaryannJacobsen.com
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