Classroom in the Kitchen: Nutrition Edition

Teaching children about nutrition can be a sensitive topic. Being too strict or having too many rules may disengage kids from the conversation, but just hoping it will catch on without positive reinforcement and direct teaching may not ensure healthy habits. Having a positive relationship with food starts with understanding it. We’ve gathered some tips on how to make teaching nutrition to your children fun, empowering, and effective. 

Focus on education, not dictation.

Rather than categorizing foods as “good” or “bad,” teach your child about the different types of food, nutrients, and how they build bodies. Explain similarities and differences between foods’ colors, textures, tastes, nutrients, and origins. What are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats? 

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the bodies’ preferred source of energy, so this macronutrient should make up a lot of our diet.

  • Bread, rice, pasta, oats, quinoa, and other grains
  • Starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas, pumpkin)
  • Beans and pulses (all kinds of beans, lentils, chickpeas, split peas)
  • Some dairy such as milk and yogurt
  • Fruit, sugar, and honey

Protein

Protein is mostly used in our body to build and repair muscle and tissue but has many other important functions as well.

  • Meat and meat products (beef, chicken, lamb, pork, turkey, sausage)
  • Fish and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Dairy such as milk and yogurt
  • Beans and pulses
  • Nuts 
  • Soy products (tofu, tempeh, yuba, edamame)

Fats

Fats have been given a bad reputation, but they are a very important part of our diet. The body needs fat to store energy and vitamins, to produce hormones, and to protect our organs. There are saturated and unsaturated fats:

Saturated fats should be eaten in moderation - too much can be unhealthy for the heart. Sources of saturated fats include:

  • Animal fat (lard, schmaltz, tallow, duck fat)
  • Butter and full-fat dairy products
  • Coconut oil and products
  • Peanut and palm oils
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Foods containing these fats, like fried foods, chips, cookies, and cakes

Unsaturated have the opposite effect as saturated fats and can be beneficial to the heart. These fats should be included more in the diet: 

  • Oily fish (salmon, sardines, cod, mackerel, tuna)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocados
  • Olive oil
  • Eggs
  • Edamame

At Meal Hero, we strive to suggest recipes that represent balanced meals. Nutritious recipes that are rich in vegetables and fiber, whole grains, and vegetarian and non-vegetarian proteins. Above all, we believe that the most important part of a balanced meal is a home cooked meal.  These are some of our most popular balanced recipes to try for dinner tonight:

5 Ingredient Skillet Pesto Chicken + Asparagus

Tilapia with Pineapple and Cucumber Relish

Pork Tenderloin with Honey Balsamic Vegetables

Veggie Chicken Kebobs

Black Bean and Rice Quesadillas

Peanut Sauce Tofu Stir-Fry

Chicken and Avocado Burritos

Normalize self care

Turn the abstract into common sense. It can be hard, even as adults, to sometimes see the direct results of eating certain foods. Practice reinforcing these lessons when talking about the benefits of different fruits and vegetables. Better understanding the benefits of the ingredients we eat helps fuel kids and set them up for success and a great day ahead. 

  • Falafel is made of beans, which is a protein that builds muscles, which helps us become faster runners. 
  • Carrots are a root vegetable that contains beta carotene, which is good for the eyes,  so you can see better in the dark. 
  • Spaghetti is a type of pasta, which are carbohydrates that contain energy, which helps us play for longer without needing a nap.
  • Avocados are a fruit that is full of unsaturated omega fats that helps the brain function so we can read books and focus at school. 
  • Spaghetti sauce is made from tomatoes that have lycopene, which is a  nutrient that protects your skin from the sun so you can play for longer outside.

Another approach is to observe which foods resemble body parts. Many times, these ingredients are an indication of what they benefit. 

  • Walnuts look like and are good for the brain. This ultimate brain food is full of healthy omega fats that keep the brain in peak functionality. 
  • Celery stalks resemble leg bones, which benefit greatly from the high silicon and sodium content of celery. 
  • Ginger root looks a lot like the stomach organ, which makes sense because it’s loaded with anti-nausea phytochemicals. This is why ginger ale is offered for motion sickness.
  • Sweet potatoes are akin to the pancreas, and like carrots, contain beta carotene which can prevent tissue damage that can lead to cancer. 
  • Clusters of grapes can look like lungs, and their seeds contain a chemical called proanthocyanidin which can help reduce asthma and other lung issues. 
  • Kidney beans and kidneys (that’s an easy one)! These beans are fiber superheroes that filter waste and keep the digestive tract moving.

Be a role model

Kids are great at mimicking. If they see their parents preparing, eating, enjoying, and benefiting from healthy food choices, they will want to do the same. Lead by example and have everyone in the family support one another. This is a particularly helpful tip for picky eaters. If all their options are healthy ones, which they can see family members enjoying, they just might buy in. 

Branch out

There are several directions to take when talking about nutrition with kids. While all of them are important, finding the avenue that resonates with your child’s personal interests helps to activate their engagement. Meet them where they are. 

Dig deep 

Understand where food comes from: Start a garden, visit a farm, or talk to a local farmer to discover how food is grown and harvested. Building connections with food in this way is the first step toward genuine food curiosity. 

Get gutsy

Introduce life science and physical education through kid-friendly anatomy and biology lessons. For sporty kids, this can be an effective approach to show how diet and nutrition fuels and empowers professional athletes.

Crack the case

Make the connection of mood and food. Oftentimes, our psychological state is a direct result of our physical well being.  Intuitive eating is a concept that is taking the world by storm, and for good reason. Really tuning in and listening to your body and its needs will teach you more about your optimal nutrition than any guide. Nutrition is not one-size fits all, but it starts with a general baseline, from which to start. For children, a meltdown may be an indication that they didn’t eat or drink enough. Use this opportunity to say, “Tomorrow we’ll try again and eat more (or healthier).” Get kids involved by giving them a journal with colorful markers and stickers to indicate what they ate and how they felt that day. 

Tell a story

Combine story time with educating kids about nutrition. Choose books that teach the principles of nutrition through affable characters and colorful visuals. These are some popular ones: N is for Nutrition, We Are What We Eat, The Fruits We Eat, Nutrition Fun with Brocc & Roll, Gregory, the Terrible Eater, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt 

Hands-on Activities

Learning about food and nutrition extends outside mealtimes, which can be a stressful time for kids. Interactive games, worksheets, quizzes, and videos can be a great tool for kids who want to learn more about developing a strong nutritional base. For younger children, start with food and nutrition-themed books and toys to start the conversation. 

Play with your food!

Sometimes it’s ok to play with your food because, let’s be honest, food is fun! Encourage children, especially young ones, to explore the full sensory experience of their plate. The snap of a carrot stick, the texture of a smashed banana, the vibrancy of a beet, the aroma of an orange are all tiny yet mighty discoveries that make food more interesting. 

Letter of the Day or Week Theme

Try incorporating the letter they’re learning at school as your theme at home. If the letter of the week is “Z,” find different ways you and your child can eat zucchini, such as zucchini bread, zucchini chips, zucchini dippers, zucchini lasagna, zucchini pancakes, or chocolate chip zucchini muffins.  

Taste Bud Test

Learn about taste buds. Try foods that fall into the sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory categories. Discuss all the different tastes and which other foods have these tastes.  This is a great way to encourage adventurous eaters, especially as you bring the conversation to the dinner table. For a science experiment to explore taste, try this project.

  • Sweet: candy, strawberries, cookies, fruit juice, carrots, honey
  • Sour: lemon juice, yogurt, cranberries, vinegar, pickles, kombucha
  • Salty: olives, lunch meat, french fries, soy sauce, potato chips
  • Bitter: dark chocolate, coffee, arugula, grapefruit peel, raw brussels sprouts
  • Savory/Umami:  parmesan cheese, sun dried tomatoes, seaweed, mushrooms

Edible Checkers

Cover a board game like checkers or tic-tac-toe with plastic wrap and use fruits, veggies, crackers or veggie chips as the game pieces. When a player jumps a piece they get to eat it the treat! 

Start a Garden

Whether you have a backyard full of vegetables, or just a pot of herbs in the windowsill, get the kids involved. Observe the gradual progression each day to see how much they have grown and to check their water. When it’s time to harvest, those tomatoes will feel much more exciting than the ones from the market.


For more tips on children’s nutrition, we recommend following @mamaknows_nutrition, @newwaysnutrition, and @littleeatsandthings

A special thanks to Julia Mohseni of Countryside Montessori!

If you liked this article, you'll LOVE the rest of our Classroom in the Kitchen Series! Check out other topics we've covered below: 

Classroom in the Kitchen: Math Edition

Classroom in the Kitchen: Science Edition

Classroom in the Kitchen: Literacy Edition

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