March is National Nutrition Month, a good time to take a look at your overall nutritional habits that can carry you through the rest of the year. Here at Meatless Monday, we’re marking the occasion by focusing on one group in particular: kids. Getting kids interested in eating nutritious food, teaching families about the importance of the kitchen, and encouraging everyone to spend more time at the table are just some of the ways kids can develop a lifetime of healthy habits.
“Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right” is the theme of National Nutrition Month, and as any parent knows, getting kids to enjoy the taste of good food can be challenging. Diana Rice, Meatless Monday’s Registered Dietitian, and Brian Wheeler, Creative Director at The Monday Campaigns and dad of a four year old, offer a few ways to get kids to eat more nutritious food.
Brian: Diana, it’s a Meatless Monday during National Nutrition Month. What’s the first thing parents and kids can do to start making healthier food choices?
Diana: Healthy choices start in the grocery store, and at a young age. Next time you’re at the store with your kids, make a beeline for the produce section. Give each kid free range to pick out one produce item, then spend some time together when you get home researching how to cook it. Kids are much more likely to get excited about eating healthy foods when they’re involved in the choice as compared to simply having a plate of vegetables plopped in front of them come dinnertime.
Brian: Totally agree. One additional benefit of shopping with kids is you can start a hundred conversations based on what you find in the produce aisle. You can talk about all the colors (“we have three green things in our basket, let’s look for some things that are red or purple or orange”), you can talk about geography (“these bananas come from Ecuador, let’s find that on the globe when we go home”), food can even lead to a conversation about history. You can talk about tomatoes coming from Mexico or pomegranates originating in Iran or that most mushrooms in the U.S. come from Pennsylvania. Building a story around the food you eat elevates it to a level of importance. Even something as humble as farro becomes ‘a dish that has been enjoyed since ancient Rome.’ Talk about food in those terms, and now you have their interest.
Diana: Exactly. Make it interesting and they’ll want to learn more. Which brings me to my second tip: another way to generate interest in nutrition is by teaching cooking skills. Children need to learn cooking skills at home so that once they’re out on their own they’ll have the skills to prepare simple, healthy foods instead of relying on packaged and processed items. There’s no such thing as too young to be in the kitchen! A two year old can tear spinach leaves or herbs. Even if half the bunch ends up in her mouth, it’s still a win! Kids can use a plastic knife to cut soft items like tomatoes and avocados as soon as they have the dexterity to use a crayon, and older kids can be involved in almost every step of a recipe save for the ones requiring sharp blades or high heat.
Brian: Good time to plug The Kids Cook Monday! Yes, there is no meal that kids and parents can’t cook together. From the time my daughter could sit up, she was on the counter with me watching me cut fruit in the morning. At two years old, we would keep a plastic container of water on a low table so she could pour her own water into a plastic cup. On a practical level, cooking helps develop coordination, focus, independence, all those good traits. But cooking also takes the mystery out of these sometimes strange looking foods. I’ll open an avocado with a sharp knife, but then I’ll pass it off and let my daughter get a spoon and scoop out the good stuff. So she gets the satisfaction of finishing a task, and she’s interacting with food that doesn’t come from a box. Those OXO salad spinners are a lot of fun and easy to use; let kids give kale a whirl and slosh water all over the place. By a certain age, kids can pour their own cereal, set the table, and even help clean up. When I do the dishes after dinner, I’ll hand my daughter a dishtowel and give her something unbreakable to dry, like a pot lid or a wooden spoon, and she spend five minutes drying it and drying it, and then she’ll put it away.
Diana: What you’re doing–from cutting fruit in the morning to drying dishes at night–is introducing a routine. And routine is essential to healthy eating. When you’re a kid, there’s school in the morning, homework in the afternoon, soccer on Saturdays, etc. Family rituals are especially important when kids are young. Whether it’s weeknight family dinners or a special tradition for holidays and birthdays, they give kids something to look forward to and help define their lives. Making healthy eating part of that framework helps set kids up for a lifetime of healthy choices. Introduce regular family dinners, family cooking nights, and weekly observances like Meatless Monday to demonstrate to your kids that your family is committed to health.
Brian: Routine is definitely the key. When my daughter was born, someone reminded me: ‘they’ll do nothing you say and everything you do.’ So if you want kids to read, you fill your house with books. And if you want them to enjoy healthy foods, you build these routines into your day. We wake up early enough so we have an hour together in the morning, which is more than enough time make oatmeal and eat together. Some mornings we’ll put a bunch of food on the counter and make a game out of choosing 3 or 4 things to put in a smoothie. Then I cut fruit for her school snack and I always cut fruit for myself for work. Just last week, my daughter said, “Dad, you bring a snack to work just like I bring a snack to school.” They definitely notice these things. And one morning at a time, hopefully, you’re showing your child how make better choices.
And if I can add one tip here for parents who participate in Meatless Monday, when it comes to fruits and vegetables, let them try everything. If you shop together and talk about food together and then cook and sit down together, kids will eat it. So buy whatever is in season, from winter root vegetables to the spring beans that will soon be in the markets, cook it all, and kids will eat it. And if they don’t like it the first or second time, they will on the third time.