Back in 2011, a survey revealed that almost half (42%) of parents in the US found it harder to read a nutrition label than the assembly instructions for IKEA furniture. Unfortunately, things haven’t gotten much better in the last few years.
A 2017 study involving more than 3,800 adults in the US found that almost a quarter could not figure out from the nutrition label how many calories were in a full container of ice cream.
What’s more, 41% could not calculate the percentage daily value of calories in a single serving. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, those who had a better understanding of the label tended to consume more vegetables and fewer sugary beverages.
Why does this matter? Well, because parental knowledge is key when it comes to teaching kids about nutrition. Help set your kids up with the skills to assemble both a flat-pack dining chair and a healthy dinner by starting nutrition education early on.
How can you teach kids about nutrition? Here are some ideas:
Research has consistently found that children are very much capable of self-regulating their own food intake if allowed to serve themselves and finish eating when they feel full. Yet, as they get older, kids usually learn to ignore what their tummy tells them, instead coming to rely on cues from parents when making choices about how much and what to eat.
This is because many parents worry over their child not eating enough, but don’t have a clear understanding of recommended calorie and nutrient intakes for children of different ages. Added to that, many parents find mealtimes a struggle at the end of a long work day and just want to get some food into their child before putting them to bed, so they come to rely on treats as rewards, overriding children’s natural self-regulating mechanisms.
Children find it particularly difficult to avoid overeating in restaurants and at social gatherings where they watch adults overindulge time and again. Kids look to their parents, caregivers, and peers for guidance on how to navigate the world, so be sure you are modeling good habits around food choices.
Talk about how you’re choosing foods in a restaurant or at a potluck. Ask for a take-home container at the start of the meal (or, better yet, bring your own), and cut large portions down to a reasonable size before you even begin eating.
At home, take time to plan healthy meals, and involve your kids once they’re old enough to help. It’s also a good idea to be adventurous with food choices, so your kids learn to keep trying new things, even if they don’t like them at first.
To help prevent kids clamoring for unhealthy foods, avoid stigmatizing or banning certain foods or using them as rewards for eating foods they already see as less desirable (such as vegetables).
A healthful approach and open dialogue will help kids differentiate between foods that should make up a significant part of a healthy diet and those that are occasional treats. If you can, have a few healthy treats on hand when out and about, such as sugar snap peas, mini bell peppers, and blueberries.
Put these in separate small containers so your child can hold them and serve themselves. That way, you won’t have to rely on unhealthy snacks if/when hunger strikes, and your child learns an important lesson in being prepared and how to satisfy hunger in a healthy and delicious way.
Giving kids some authority is a great way of motivating them to follow through on the choices they make. One easy way to do this is to have a pizza party! Give each kid their own base and offer them a range of options for vegetables and protein to create a balanced pizza.
To keep things healthy, consider a hummus or homemade pesto base (get your kids to help you make these fresh!) instead of a cheese pizza.
Learning doesn’t stop at the school gate. Help your kids figure out algebra and calculus in a fun, hands-on way where they can eat their homework! If you’re game to pair math and nutrition:
Get creative and come up with some equations and physical diagrams using pasta shapes, beans, or vegetables
Lay out a times table grid on the dining table with beans, or work out some simple algebra with apple, broccoli, and carrots standing in for the ABCs
Ask your kids to guess which foods have the most calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates as a way to talk about different types of these macronutrients
Have your child pour out what they consider a single serving of their favourite food, then get them to pour out what the label says is a single serving. Chances are, they (and you) will be shocked at the difference.
Interactive games are a great way to engage and entertain kids while learning about healthy eating and instilling life-long nutritional habits.
For example, a treasure hunt that encourages your children to look at and learn about different foods in the grocery store can help fuel their curiosity, making them more willing to try new foods. Needing to find specific information on a nutritional label also helps kids learn what to look for in healthy foods and how to read a label to find it.
On your age-appropriate treasure hunt, you might want to ask your kids to find:
A fruit or vegetable for every colour of the rainbow
A breakfast cereal with less than 5 g of sugar per serving
A loaf of bread made with whole wheat flour
A type of nut or seed that they have never eaten before.
Playing these games and encouraging kids to talk about food and nutrition labels from an early age helps set them up to make healthy choices as they grow. Kids need to learn how to recognize healthy options even when they can’t see the nutritional information (think vending machines and restaurants).
It’s also important for parents to educate themselves about nutrition and to use nutrition labels. One recent study found that when parents use nutrition labels regularly, not only are they more likely to have better blood lipid status, but their kids tend to be less overweight.
Familiarize your children with the basics of healthy eating now, and help pique their curiosity and enthusiasm for nutritious food. That way, they have a greater chance of enjoying a wide, varied diet that supports their health throughout life.
Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT
Leigh Matthews is a health and wellness writer specializing in plant-based nutrition and environmental health.