How to constructively talk to kids about nutrition
This morning, I was excited to be at Hockey Life Camp talking to two groups of young athletes about nutrition! One group was kids ages ~11-15 and the other was ~5-10.
They had all just eaten lunch, so food was fresh in mind. As part of my introduction, the head coach of the camp, conveyed the importance of food in their athletic pursuits and reminded them how important it is to build these healthy habits early in life to help them get big and strong, and later crush people out on the ice/in whatever endeavors they choose. Totally agree!
With this being said, it is super important to be mindful of how we talk to kids about food, as those ideas we convey can be incredibly formative and we want to instill constructive and helpful information in kids, not super restrictive or fearful ideas.
So, how do we do that?
Today I started with a question: Who eats food?
They all laughed and raised their hands. While a potentially silly question, it’s important to address that eating is one of the ONLY things that ALL humans need to do to survive. That’s why it’s worth learning about and understanding how what we eat impacts us.
I went on to ask, “Who plays a sport or likes to be active?” All raised their hands. Then, “Who wants to try hard in school?” Some put their hands down ; )
We then talked about how eating healthy and nutritious food will support your activity, education, and daily life! And THAT’S really the crux of this… speaking to the benefits of eating certain things in ways that kids care about is hugely beneficial.
Yes, I mentioned the words Protein, Fat, and Carbs, but only as a way of conveying what foods help us build muscle and strength, which give us energy, and then had them jump around to display the benefits of eating fats to help keep our joints healthy. We made lists of these various food that they knew and ate regularly that fit these categories.
Instead of talking about any negatives around foods, we instead discussed prioritizing those that can help us get the results that we want. And the value of drinking water, of course!
We also spent time creating a sample, balanced meal using examples of food people had just eaten for lunch!
And, of course, we finished with a game! I gave each kid a color—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple. They grouped up with other kids who got the same color and they had to think of one healthy food that was that color for each kid in their group. So, they worked together to brainstorm and “assign” each kid a food. We then went around to each group and had their share their foods. It seemed like they enjoyed it, and, if nothing else, heard a whole bunch of healthy food suggestions of all kinds of colors! (Although, shame on me, the blue group was rather large and there aren’t too many evidently blue foods that 5 year olds are aware of! Whoops!)
All in all, fun times at hockey camp, and even if the kids only take away one or two pieces of information that help them build healthier habits or better relationships with food—great!
The hockey camp example I just gave was in a group setting of kids I didn’t know. How you talk to your kids, or kids you do know, might look a little different! While you can certainly use some of these strategies if they feel appropriate, I imagine you can get more specific with the actual foods you’re serving or are available at any given time.
However, I’d argue that speaking to benefits of foods, not demonizing any foods, and emphasizing eating to fullness are good places to start!
Here’s an example of that kind of conversation with my then 3-year old nephew:
My nephew used to ask me, “Yaya, what powers do my foods give me?!”
Yaya, that’s me, then goes on to ask him what he’s eating and then makes him display the impact of his “powers”!
For example, if he has a carb-heavy meal, of peppers, a muffin, or hummus on crackers, I tell him that his food gives him energy, and then make him jump around!
If he has a fat-filled meal, with avocados (or ad-o-pod-os, as he calls them), or 5% Greek yogurt, I tell him that his food gives him flexibility in his body (making him bend his elbows a whole bunch of times), and keeps his heart healthy (and tell him to point to where it is and tell me he loves me)!
If he has a protein-rich meal of chicken, tuna, or edamame, I tell him he is getting strength powers and make him flex, or do jumping jacks, or show me a yoga pose!
Although we don’t all need to communicate about our food in the language of powers (but it’s kinda fun if you do), the realities are there! We need all macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbs) in our food plans to get all of the vitamins, minerals, and powers our bodies need!
To this point, giving kids options and choices to reach these needs is also critical. It helps develop their skills in choosing what’s right for them based on what they need, their hunger levels, and also exposes them to a greater variety of foods as they grow up.
Allowing them to eat until their belly is full and not force feeding any foods, even if we know them to be super healthy, is key in developing that positive relationship.
Is teaching kids how to develop their relationship with food an easy task?! Certainly not. Will we all mess up at some point or another? Probably. But, hopefully some of these tips will be helpful. If you do try or integrate any of them, please let me know your feedback and how they go!
As always, thanks for reading! And if you know of any groups who could benefit from nutrition information, I’m your girl ; )