Parents and teachers have the opportunity to positively influence our youth so that they are ready to tackle the world independently — and teaching nutrition to kids is no exception.
Teaching kids to cook, and teaching them about nutrition, sets them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.
But, when it comes to food, it’s a confusing world even for adults. So, how are we supposed to tackle nutrition education with the next generation?
We have more information than ever at our fingertips, and yet:
- The information is contradictory.
- We “don’t have time” to sort through it.
- And there are many individual factors to consider.
Have no fear. In this article we will look at why it’s important to teach real food nutrition to kids and some fun activities you can do at home or in the classroom to make the most impact.
You may also want to take a look at a course like Kids Cook Real Food, a favorite of mine. It’s a comprehensive cooking and nutrition ecourse that’s a great way to get your kids interested in real food.
Why teach nutrition to kids?
Food is our life force! It powers all the things we are able to do physically and mentally. So, a basic understanding of nutrition can guide children in a direction to get the most out of life.
While nutrition may seem confusing, we can bring it back to the basics and keep things simple — probably for everyone’s best.
Their health matters
I know you care about the health of the kids in your life. We all want to see our little ones grow up strong, smart, and vibrant.
The balance of nutrients that they put in their bodies is arguably one of the biggest factors in sustained health. When kids understand this and how to make food decisions accordingly, they become empowered…navigating daily decisions with the right tools in hand.
Ultimately, kids grow up and have to be able to make their own choices. They won’t always have parents or caregivers by their side to cook meals or guide decisions.
Learning about nutrition at a young age starts the conversation, keeps it fun, and builds a sense of independence — knowing how to choose healthy foods, put together a balanced meal, and find their way through the kitchen.
They come back to what they know
More often than not, kids come back to what they know. What they hear, and especially what they observe in their youth, makes a big impression down the road.
While the teenage and young adult years may be filled with some rebellion or exploration outside of what they’ve been taught, early influences hold strong and tend to bring us all back full circle.
5 Tips on teaching healthy eating
Teaching nutrition to kids can be a tricky business! They don’t always want to listen to what grown-ups (especially parents) have to say, and food can be a touchy subject — especially for picky eaters. (Fortunately there are recipes even fussy kids will eat, like these crockpot recipes for picky eaters.
Opinions vary over what’s “healthy” based on diet trends, ethics, environmental concerns, and how the media portrays current research.
It can all be part of good conversations when you kids are old enough to understand the complexities. But regardless, keeping a positive spin on food, and finding fun nutrition activities for kids, is usually best.
You can start getting even very young children involved in food preparation and cooking, using safe kitchen tools for kids.
1. Celebrate healthy food
Celebrating foods that are wholesome, nutrient-dense, and naturally colorful, is a good strategy over demonizing foods that are perceived to be “unhealthy.”
As parents and caregivers, the power is in our hands to show enthusiasm, model balanced plates, and work on our own healthy relationship with food.
2. Know what you want to teach
Too often, we (myself included) wait for the moments when our kids are making poor food choices to profess our wisdom. But, this usually results in hurt feelings, anger, or resentment.
Having an idea of the general nutrition concepts you want your children to understand is helpful to think about in advance. This allows you to work them into age-appropriate conversations and activities in a positive, creative, and fun way.
3. Focus on real foods
Focusing on a variety of real food for kids emphasizes positive choices. Get curious WITH your kids about what “real food” means and how your family can add more of it to your plates.
You may choose to discuss the different food groups, but I find it more beneficial to have a basic discussion of the different macronutrients.
These questions will be just as helpful for your kids in understanding how to put together balanced meals, and how that helps them feel their best.
Where do we find protein, and why do we need it?
Make a list of quality protein sources with your kids. Next to that list you can write down the benefits of protein, such as building and maintaining body tissues — including muscles to keep us strong.
Where do we find natural fats, and why do we need them?
Together, brainstorm natural fat sources and how you can add them to each meal. Talk about why we need fats in our food: slow-burning fuel, brain health, satiety, and more.
Where do we find healthy carbohydrates, and what are they important for?
Ask your kids, “do you know what foods are good sources of carbohydrate? Let’s put together a list.”
“Do you know what carbohydrates are important for?” Emphasize their rich source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and energy for muscles and organs.
4. Discuss how your bodies feel in response to food
Discussions around how your body and mind feel after eating certain foods can be an effective strategy for helping your kids tune into the natural consequences, both positive and negative, of food choices.
Talk to your kids in a light-hearted way about healthy food — there’s no need to be overly serious. They’ll start to recognize for themselves how they feel and, eventually, make decisions accordingly.
5. Keep it fun and build conversation
Food should be fun — never used in a punishing, bribing, manipulative way. Eating is a necessity of life, so teaching young minds about nutrition is a process we need to have patience with.
Working short and fun conversations into everyday moments results in vast knowledge over time. This is where activities around food find themselves super helpful!
Nutrition activities you can do at home
While pure conversation may not be at the top of any kid’s list, activities can increase engagement, smiles, and dialog indirectly.
Here are some of my favorite activities you can do at home.
1. Eat a Rainbow challenge
Vegetables and fruits are naturally colorful, and each of those colors represents different nutrients and antioxidants. A fun way to teach kids the importance of eating a variety of colorful foods is with an “Eat a Rainbow” challenge.
Together, make a list of all the red veggies and fruits you and your kids can think of, and repeat with orange and yellow, green, blue and purple, brown, and white.
Using a homemade chart, or this “Eat a Rainbow” printable, see if each family member can eat food from each color every day. Or, who can eat the most servings of different colors over the course of a week.
2. Sort food into categories
As your kids start to learn the difference between protein, carbohydrates, and fats, and recognize foods that contain each macronutrient, have them sort:
- The food on their plate
- Ingredients for a recipe
- Or the food you bring home from the store
This is a good opportunity to discuss how many foods are a mixture of macronutrients, but most have a dominant category they fit into.
You can also have your kids sort groceries into meats, dairy, veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds, and oils. For your youngest apprentices, they can group veggies and fruits by color, or line them up to build a rainbow.
2. Create winning plates together
Check out this article on Optimal Nutrition for Peak Performance to learn how to “Create a Winning Plate.” Kids will benefit from this simple concept whether they are interested in sports or not.
- Pick your protein
- Fill your plate with veggies (and fruit)
- Top with a natural fat
- Choose your starchy carbs
Together you can have fun building healthy meals and lunches with this strategy in mind. Give your kids some autonomy in this process, so it’s less about dictation and more about exploration.
3. Grocery store scavenger hunt
I know — the grocery store with kids can feel slightly short of torture. But if you turn your trip into a game it can be a fun and teachable activity.
Make up a series of scavenger hunt lists that stretch your kids to discover new whole foods, learn about ingredient lists, or become aware of the cost of food.
Include pictures and checkboxes for young kids, and riddles and calculations for older kids. The grocery store is an environment rich with opportunity to teach nutrition to kids.
4. Plant a garden
The benefits of planting and caring for a garden with your kids extend far beyond a fun food activity, and the connection around where real food comes from hits home and is worth every effort.
Garden activities can range from root viewer vegetable growing kids, like this one from Amazon, windowsill herb boxes, barrel pots on the back deck, all the way to a mini farmstead.
Start small, have your kids get their hands dirty, and celebrate the awe on your child’s face when they watch the edible growth that they’ve been a part of.
5. Get in the kitchen and cook!
No matter what else you do to teach your kids about nutrition, my number one activity suggestion is to get in the kitchen and cook with them! Cooking with toddlers to teens exposes them to single ingredients and opens the door to more adventurous eating.
Protein balls for kids are a great option for getting young kids involved with food prep.
It’s hands on! It’s a practical application! And it gives you and your kids a natural food environment to explore and learn in.
Nutrition activities you can do in the classroom
Nutrition activities can also be brought into the classroom, or a group setting. Learning amongst peers can help engage little minds. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Food-related storytime
Kids — especially younger ones — LOVE storytime. Fictional characters often say it best and reading about food through their lens can make a big impact. Here are some of our favorite food-related stories:
Eating the Alphabet available on Amazon here.
Tractor Mac Farmer’s Market (available here)
Lil’ Grok (get it here)
Paleo Pals: Jimmy and the Carrot Rocket Ship (Amazon purchase link here)
Right This Very Minute: A Table-to-Farm Book About Food and Farming (buy it here)
2. Veggie taste test
Taste tests can be especially effective for picky eaters! When you bring enthusiasm, fun facts, local farmers, and positive-peer-pressure to new foods, kids are much more likely to give them a try.
Celebration over “trying” a new food without the pressure to like it, or eat a lot of it, can be just enough to encourage a cautious eater. To their surprise, they may enjoy what their taste buds find.
3. Made on a farm, or in a factory?
This activity is one of my favorites and drives home the simplicity of real food. Print, or cut out, a variety of food photos that represent both real foods that are found in nature, and man-made processed foods that are produced in a factory.
Ask kids to determine where the foods come from. Can they be gathered, hunted, grown, or raised? Do they grow on trees, in the soil, sprout from seeds? Do they require processing, contain preservatives, artificial coloring, and machinery to be made?
You can do this without completely bashing processed foods because kids quickly understand whole foods are more natural. Ask THEM which foods should make up the majority of their meals and why.
4. Classroom tower garden
A classroom tower garden is a bigger investment, but I’ve witnessed the impact it can have on kids. They get to experience the growth cycle from start to finish — observing daily change in the produce that the class decides to plant.
Having a theme, like a “salsa garden” or “salad garden” will help determine what to plant, and gives kids a culinary experience to celebrate at harvest time. You may be surprised at how many kids clean their plate full of veggies!
5. Recipe share
For older kids, a classroom recipe share is an activity with multiple benefits. Have each student come up with, or share, a healthy recipe. Then compile them into a group cookbook.
You can set parameters, such as ingredients must be real whole foods and contain a vegetable or fruit. Request that this be a recipe that they have helped make at home.
Use printables to guide the kids on the necessary pieces of writing a clear recipe.
With a few reminders on why teaching nutrition to kids is important, some tips on how to approach healthy eating, and a handful of activities, you’re ready to go! Whether you’re at home or in the classroom, now you know how to make learning about food fun and engaging for kids.
Pick an idea or two to try this week with the kids in your life.