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Photo of a mother feeding her young childHealthy eating
Kids in the kitchen
How to plant the seeds for healthy eating
habits early in life
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Cheryl Ogaranko
May/June 2018

Everyone knows that the seeds for healthy eating habits are planted early in life.

No wonder then that many parents worry about whether they are doing enough to ensure their kids learn to love the nutritious foods that will help them to grow healthy and strong.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to set your child up for a lifetime of healthy eating, and it all begins with getting your kids involved in every aspect of meal preparation. Here are a few tips:

Plan your meals together: Children like to be part of the planning process for meals, especially if they can pick a dish or a recipe they are interested in. You and your child can plan meals for the whole week, and even include theme nights such as build-your-own-salad night or ethnic food night. Use tried-and-true recipes or create your own. Making a recipe with your child not only teaches him or her about cooking, it also helps build on the reading and math skills he or she has learned in school. (A good source for recipes can be found at www.cookspiration.com, a website created by Dietitians of Canada.)

Photo of a young girl smiling in front of a plat of salad

Pick up the groceries: With the meal plan set, it's time to shop for groceries. Taking children to the store allows them to learn more about the food they eat and how to select fruits and vegetables. Some stores will offer tastes of less-common produce such as tomatillos, pummelos, kumquats and star fruit. In warmer months, trips to the market gardener show children where food comes from. You might also consider growing a garden with your child.

Prep time: Once you have your groceries, it's time to prepare the food. When it comes to young children, look for safe and interesting tasks. For example, toddlers can wash vegetables and fruit, tear lettuce, sort beans, or experience measuring cups and spoons by standing on a stool at a sink of water. Three- to four-year-olds can mash potatoes, mix batters, break spaghetti in half, separate broccoli florets and peel bananas. Four- to six-year-olds can measure ingredients, cut soft fruits and vegetables with a plastic picnic knife, and begin to understand recipes that have lots of pictures.

Don't be too fussy about how the fruit is cut or salad is tossed, and be cool about the mess. Spills happen and it's important to remain calm. As children get older, they can help clean up, set the table, assemble salads, make a simple breakfast, and prepare their own school lunch. Teens can be responsible for planning and preparing one meal per week.

Cook it up: Kids are much more likely to eat what they help make, so cooking together is a great tip, especially if you have children who are cautious about trying new foods. Check out cooking classes geared for kids in the City of Winnipeg's Leisure Guide. Remember, the point of the class is to teach your child to cook with you, not for you. A kitchen can be like a science lab, a place where your older child or teen can learn cooking skills to carry him or her to adulthood. Before getting started, share some safety tips for using the stove.

Eat as a family: Studies show that children who have planned meals and eat regularly with caregivers have better eating habits than kids who don't. To encourage eating as a family, make mealtimes enjoyable.

Avoid the temptation to pressure your child into trying new foods or to eat more than they want. This has been proven not to work and almost always backfires. Mealtimes should be an opportunity for pleasant socializing and teaching kids how to behave at the table, how to have a conversation, how to pass and serve food, how to say please and thank-you, and how to enjoy a variety of nutritious food.

As caregivers, it's important to teach, support and model to children that we are responsible for making healthy choices for our bodies. This includes activity, sleep and food choices. Kids learn what they live. If you are enthusiastic about food, cooking and eating, they will be, too.

Cheryl Ogaranko is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

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