Nothing is more important than children’s health, and you can’t underestimate how important nutrition is to their health. Making sure kids eat well and have a positive relationship with food won’t just keep them healthy when they’re young, but it will instill the right habits for later in life.
Do breakfast right
Breakfast is an important meal for people of any age, but it’s even more vital for children because they need to get energy so they can concentrate at school and make it to lunchtime. The early years are the time to set good eating habits for your children so they see breakfast as a way of life rather than a chore. If you struggle to find time in the morning to prepare a full meal, a piece of fruit and a slice of 100% whole wheat toast with butter is better than sending kids off with nothing. You can top that toast with a simple, healthy topping: some sliced banana, a thin layer of peanut butter and honey, mashed avocado, or cheese. You can also boil a few eggs the night before for a great high-protein morning boost for kids.
If your kids aren't hungry first thing in the morning, pack a breakfast that they can eat later on the way to school or between classes. Fresh fruit, an energy bar (check the label to make sure each serving has at least 5-7 grams of protein, 2 or more grams of fiber, and less than 10 grams of sugar), a handful of nuts and dried fruits, or half a peanut butter and banana sandwich is nutritious, easy to prepare, and easy for kids to carry.
Oatmeal makes a great weekend breakfast when you have more time on your hands to really enjoy and embrace this meal with the whole family around the table. Encourage kids to add their own toppings to the oatmeal; suggest a generous pinch of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of maple syrup, unsalted nuts, unsweetened dried fruits, or even fresh berries.
Get kids involved with some simple cooking
You don't need to teach your children how to create gastronomic masterpieces, but you can show them basic, fun recipes that will arm them for life, such as veggie and hummus spreads, home-made pizza, or whole wheat pancakes.
Learning to cook will not only make your children familiar with ingredients and basic kitchen equipment, but also help them understand serving sizes. Teaching them how to cook when they are young could also encourage them to do their own home-cooking and engage in healthy eating as adults.
Here are some simple, easy, filling, healthy snack/meal ideas to get kids interested in simple cooking:
1. A tangy, minty yogurt dip (combine 6 oz plain greek yogurt, with 2 tbsp lemon juice, 4-5 leaves of finely chopped fresh mint, and a pinch of sugar) or home-made hummus or black bean spread (in a food processor combine 1 can of chickpeas or black beans rinsed and drained, with 3 tbsp lemon juice, ½ cup water or veggie stock, 2 tbsp olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste; add 1 tbsp tahini paste if you have it for a more authentic flavor; grind to a paste; add more water if too thick; if desired, for some extra heat, add half a de-seeded jalapeno to the black beans before grinding). These spreads can be enjoyed with healthy whole wheat crackers or bread or even with your children's favorite veggies.
2. Black or pinto beans heated in a pot with a pinch of salt, pepper, cumin powder, and paprika. These can be placed in a whole wheat wrap (check the nutrition label to make sure the wrap has more than 2 grams of fiber per serving). Kids can add some chopped baby kale/spinach, frozen corn, or other chopped frozen veggie, such as broccoli or carrots, to the beans when heating them. Older teenagers can even learn to make basic salsa (1 cup chopped tomatoes, 1/4 cup red onion, salt & pepper to taste, 1 clove crushed garlic, 1 tbsp lemon juice, and a handful of chopped cilantro) and guacamole (one avocado mashed, pinch of salt, and 1-2 tbsp lime juice).
Take kids food shopping
Next time you’re food shopping and you’re not in a hurry, spend some time in the grocery store teaching your children about the items going into your cart so they can better understand where foods come from and how they can be used in cooking. The fruit and vegetable aisle is a good place to start because we now have access so many different types and varieties.
And when you buy packaged foods, show kids how to read the nutrition label and ingredient list so they become increasingly aware of what is in their food and what to avoid in packaged foods, such as artificial colors, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, sweeteners like aspartame, preservatives like sodium benzoate or sodium nitrite which is found in cured meats, and something called “natural” flavors.
Get them active
This tip for helping kids lead healthy lifestyles isn’t food related, but it's absolutely essential for good health. The CDC recommends at least 1 hour of moderate to intense exercise that combines aerobic and muscle- and bone-strengthening exercises every day for people under 18 years of age. In fact, studies have shown that continuously sitting for even an hour or two at a time without getting up for a 2-5 minute stroll or stretch is not the best thing for your health.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of establishing the good habits of a balanced diet and an active lifestyle early in life. Both are vital to good health and well-being, in the present as well as the future.
1. Estimated calorie requirements. Zelman, 2008.
2. Truth about food additives. Zelman et al. 2008.
3. Synthetic ingredients in natural flavors and natural flavors in artificial flavors. Andrews. Environmental Working Group.
5. Even with exercise, long periods spent sedentary are deemed a health risk. Bernstein. July 12, 2011.