Feeding Healthy Habits
A 10-Step Guide for Helping Children Thrive
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It’s not easy raising children in today’s media-saturated landscape. From TV and video games to internet and mobile devices, our kids are exposed to a steady stream of persuasive marketing messages promoting low-nutrient junk foods. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association warn that media’s pervasive influence over children’s food preferences increase their risk for poor nutrition, obesity and chronic diseases later in life.
Protecting children against marketing forces may seem like an uphill battle, but these strategies can help provide a solid foundation for good health.
1 Teach children to be media savvy. Andrea Curtis, Toronto-based author of Eat This! How Fast-Food Marketing Gets You to Buy Junk (and how to fight back), says, “Kids don’t want to be duped.” By showing children how the food industry tricks them into buying foods that harm their bodies and the Earth, we can turn kids into food detectives that reject processed foods and sugary drinks.
2 Feed children’s curiosity about where food comes from. Take children to farmers’ markets and U-pick farms; organic growers reduce exposure to harmful pesticide residues. Kids that might turn up their noses at supermarket spinach tend to eat it in bunches when they’ve helped grow, harvest and prepare it. That’s the story behind Sylvia’s Spinach, a children’s book by Seattle-based author Katherine Pryor.
3 Introduce children to the rewards of gardening. Connie Liakos, a registered dietitian based in Portland, Oregon, and the author of How to Teach Nutrition to Kids, recommends introducing children to the magic of planting seeds and the joy of caring for a garden—even if it’s simply a pot of herbs on a sunny windowsill or a small plot in a community garden.
4 Teach children how to cook. Teresa Martin, a registered dietitian based in Bend, Oregon, says learning how to cook frees us from being “hostage to the food industry.” She believes cooking is such an essential life skill that we should be teaching it along with reading, writing and arithmetic in kindergarten. When we cook, we’re in control of the ingredients’ quality and flavor. Plus, cooking together creates parent-child bonding. Invite children to help plan and prepare family meals and school lunches. (Remember to slip a note inside a child’s lunch box with a few words of love and encouragement.)
5 Visit the library. From simple children’s stories about food adventures to basic cookbooks, libraries open up a world of inspiration and culinary exploration. Find stories about seasonal foods to prepare with a child.
6 Prioritize family meals. Children that eat with their families are better nourished, achieve greater academic success and are less likely to participate in risky behaviors. Family meals provide time to share values, teach manners and enjoy caring conversations. To foster peace and harmony at the table, Liakos advises families to “keep emotion out of eating, and allow children control over how much they eat.” Establish rules banning criticism, arguing and screens (TV, phones) during mealtime.
7 Reject dieting. Weighing, shaming and putting children on restrictive diets is a recipe for developing eating disorders. Instead of stigmatizing children by calling them “obese”, Liakos emphasizes creating healthy eating and activity habits for the entire family. Children may overeat for many reasons, including stress or boredom. Pay attention to sudden weight gain, which could be an indication that something is wrong, she says.
8 Find or create a “tribe” of like-minded parents. Set up play groups with parents that share similar values. Advocate together for improved school food policies, establish a school garden or plan group field trips.
9 Spend more time in nature. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one hour of daily physical activity. Locate parks and hiking or biking trails to strengthen children’s innate love for their natural world. According to research at the University of Illinois, spending time in nature also helps reduce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
10 Protect children’s sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against TVs, computers and smartphones in children’s bedrooms. Children, depending on their age, need eight to12 hours of undisturbed sleep each night to support physical and mental health, and help prevent obesity.
Remember that our children are hungriest for parental time, love and support.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, the “Food Sleuth,” is an award-winning registered dietitian, writer, speaker and syndicated radio host based in Columbia, Missouri. Contact her at FoodSleuth@gmail.com.
Resources to Help Children Thrive
• Kids Gardening.
• American Academy of Pediatrics: A Healthy Family Media Use Plan.
• Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood: Screen-free Activism.
• Center on Media and Child Health.
• Common Sense Media: Eating and Exercise Tip Sheet.
• Eat This! How Fast-Food Marketing Gets You to Buy Junk (and how to fight back), by Andrea Curtis.
• Prevention Institute: Stop Junk Food Marketing to Kids.
• How to Teach Nutrition to Kids, Connie Liakos.
• I’m Like, So Fat!: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World, by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer.
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This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Natural Awakenings.