There are leaders and certain behavior therapists who state that it is bad to label foods as healthy or unhealthy (or junky). Claiming that it might make a child feel bad about eating something deemed junky, they advise that all foods should be in the neutral category, teaching children that it’s not good to eat too much of anything, whether it be a Baby Ruth or broccoli.
I wholeheartedly disagree with this sort of nutrition education for kids and think that kids can and should differentiate between a healthy food and a junky food. I agree that no food should be forbidden but teaching little ones about what is healthy for their bodies and what is “just for fun” food should be an important part of any child’s education.
When Healthy Eating Started With My Kids
All three of my kiddos were introduced to healthy foods, well, from the beginning. With my twins, I nursed them for almost a year but always needed to supplement because, although I felt like a milk cow for the first year of their life, I had a hard time supplying enough breast milk naturally. I refused to feed them traditional formula, so I opted for making my own. Imagine the look of horror in my husband’s eyes as I crushed therapeutic-grade supplements with my overpriced mortar and pestle, mixed with an array of other infant friendly nutrients, and blended them in my Vitamix until it reached the perfect consistency for a bottle nipple.
After a while, I felt like they still needed something more, so I researched some more until I found one of the closest protein compositions to human breast milk: raw goat milk. For months, I drove over an hour each week to pick up my supply of raw goat milk to feed my baby girls. Now I know there is scepticism about consuming raw milk, but for me, I felt (and still feel) more confident in the production and check-and-balance process of raw goat milk than traditional, pasteurized products. But that is for another article.
When my twin girls started eating solid foods, everything was made by me. Everything. I made their own baby food, mashed up avocado, and watched as their faces turned into little green monsters. And to this day, my husband still pokes fun at the fact that for their second birthdays, their “cake” consisted of organic yogurt with fresh berries, topped with two flickering birthday candles.
When my son was born, it was a little different. For starters, there was only one of him, so I could nurse him without needing other supplementation. The other difference was that he has been nearly vegetarian his whole life. Although he will eat the occasional steak, likes hamburgers, and will sometimes tolerate pork, if he could eat black beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, he would. I think he has eaten eggs maybe twice in his whole life and overall will not touch any chicken product, whether the chicken or the egg! But I will say that my son got a cake for his second birthday.
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking that I am over the top. When my twins were babies, I probably was. Having two babies who were born underweight and watching them being fed with a feeding tube for their first few days of life is enough to make this mama a little nutty about nutrition. But I also love nutrition and I vowed, long before I was ever pregnant, that I would teach my kids about healthy eating and hopefully, get them to love nutrition and nutrient-dense foods as much as I do.
How I Explain Nutrition To My Kids
When my kids were still eating in high chairs, I started their nutrition education around colors. I found and fed them the brightest-colored foods I could (avocados, mangos, kiwi, and broccoli to name a few). When we took the twins to Hawaii when they were 9 months old (which I would never recommend), I sent my husband to the store to find yams and all he could find were these funny little eggplant-colored potatoes that cost about $7.50 per pound. Yep, I was even making their baby food in Maui.
Using colors helped them get excited about food because it was pretty to look at and play with. It was as if it was easier to convince them to try foods that looked like the Play-Doh colors they had just been playing with.
Now that they are a little older, I use color to talk about the health factor. For example, my kiddos know that if something is green and does not come from a box, it’s pretty healthy. And the darker shade of green it is, the healthier it is! They also know that, just like the rainbow needs all of its colors, we need a variety of colors on our plate.
2. Proteins, fats, and carbs
I’m pretty confident that my twins cannot differentiate the macronutrients but they can tell you that they need protein and veggies at every substantial meal. They know that when they open their school lunchbox, they are going to have some sort of protein (to give them energy for the whole day), some veggies (to help their eyesight and their tummies), and some fruit (nature’s candy for extra energy bursts). I always throw in one or two junky snacks because I know that’s fun for them too and I also believe that if you completely deprive kids of the junky stuff, they tend to just want it more.
3. Including my kids in the process
My kids love to help me harvest the veggies and herbs in our garden. And here’s a little secret: they will usually try it if it’s something they have picked. My kids don’t love zucchini and squash but they have all tried it more than once because they found and harvested it straight from our garden. I also encourage them to help with cooking and dinner prep. Now sometimes I have to take over and just get it done but when little ones are involved in the cooking and learning about the foods they eat, they are altogether more invested in what they are eating.
4. Finding healthy alternatives
My kids get all of the fun kid foods that every other child has, but as much as I can, I aim to find the healthiest alternative around. To this day, my girls do not like pancakes or waffles from a restaurant. That’s because their taste buds were formed at a very young age against anything super sweet (maybe the yogurt and berry in lieu of a birthday cake wasn’t such a bad thing after all). Do they eat pancakes and waffles? Of course! But the breakfast treats they get are usually gluten-free, Paleo friendly, and void of all the excess sugar. And they love them! In fact, they prefer them. Same goes with dessert. Of course they love a good old s’more over the fire, but they have grown up eating dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate, which helps this mama feel better as they smear marshmallows around their lips.
5. Giving them options at all hours of the day
When I talk to my little ones about their protein choices, I let them decide what they have and when. If we are having leftover baked chicken but one of my girls really wants breakfast for dinner, then so be it. Protein is protein, so if they want eggs for dinner instead of the typical breakfast choice, I’m fine with that. If they really aren’t too hungry but need a little one-two punch of nutrients, I will let them opt for a (low-sugar) yogurt with fresh berries (protein, fat, and carbs, check!). The more flexible I am with their healthy food choices, the easier it is for them to make healthy choices over and over again.
How Are My Kids’ Relationships With Food
Here’s why I debunk the idea of keeping all food neutral: because all foods are not neutral. There are absolutely foods that can make you really sick, overweight, and have a lifelong slew of health problems, and there are absolutely foods that promote sustainable health and wellness throughout a lifetime.
My twins are now 7 and a half years old and my son is 4 years old. From the time each of them were about 3 years old, they knew the difference between a healthy snack and junky snack. And on any given day in my house, you will hear each of them (yes, even my 4-year-old) ask me for a snack and when I say yes, they ask if it needs to be healthy or junky. Now let me be clear, I do keep (healthy versions of) crackers, fruit snacks, and ZBars as “junky” snack options and believe me, they get a few of those every day and in their school lunch. But they all know that after any junky snack comes a healthy snack. And if you asked even my 4-year-old to cite healthy snack options, he could give you several.
Last week at church, my twins were able to pick a prize for bringing their Bibles to Sunday School. When I came to pick them up after service was over, one of the teachers came up and told me the cutest thing that made my heart melt and made for a very proud mommy moment. She said that one of my twins was deciding whether to pick a candy prize or a toy prize. She looked and said, “I’m going to pick a toy prize today because my mommy says it’s not a good idea to have candy right after eating a nice, healthy breakfast.” I’m pretty sure I threw imaginary fist pumps into the air and wanted so badly to high-five my girl for choosing to make a healthy choice. It’s in these moments that I am reminded that these little humans we are raising are always listening, always paying attention (even when we don’t think they are), and will mirror what we teach. It’s these moments that remind me to always lead by example, use food as a positive lesson about health, continue introducing them to flavors and herbs, and to tirelessly sneak greens into their smoothies.