February 11, 2013

Raising a Food-Smart Kid

When it comes to shaping kids' attitudes about food, Parents, we have the real power. It's us. It's not junk food commercials, or kids on the playground, or Happy Meal toys. At the end of the day (and the beginning, and the middle...) we're the ones who buy the food and serve it, and better yet, we get to be a gentle, consistent voice promoting what matters: a healthy body, a little patience, and an appreciation of the resources that sustain us.

When it comes to "marketing" these values to kids, we don't have to be half as flashy as commercial advertisers. Of course, every kid and every age is different (mine is 22 months as of this writing, and fairly agreeable, also as of this writing) but at our house, we do three simple things--read books, share kitchen tasks, and play with toy food--to normalize real food even before it's time to eat.

Reading Books
What's that?
A quick Amazon search unearths tons of beautiful children's books about real foods (Lois Ehlert wrote and illustrated two of our favorites: Eating the Alphabet and Growing Vegetable Soup.) Even books that are not specifically about food often have a page or two of good food vocabulary and pictures. The more we read and talk about vegetables and fruits, the more comforting and familiar those foods become. (If we don't exert this influence, junk food advertisers will!)

Soliciting Kitchen Help
"Up, see!" Darwin pleads, pulling at my legs as I peel and chop at the counter. Kids want to know what we're up to up there! Usually, even very young ones have a surprising ability to accomplish (safe) kitchen tasks. Darwin mastered clementine-peeling on his first try. He shelves the measuring cups, recycles the grocery bags, and applies brow-furrowing concentration to tossing a bay leaf into the bean pot. Parents who let their kids help in the kitchen know that it can take an extra five minutes to get a meal on the table, but that kids love eating what they've made.

Playing with Toy Food
wooden crate is and cloth veggies from Under the Nile
Melissa & Doug, Plan Toys, Under the Nile, and other companies sell cloth and wooden toy food sets that, frankly, obsess me. Our collection of toy edibles includes carrots, tomatoes, apples, grapes, chicken, lemons, broccoli, cucumbers, pears, radishes, cheese, bok choy(!) and many more. If you have never made a toy soup with your kids, you have to try it! Show them how to chop and stir the ingredients. Let them feed you a bite. Pretend it needs more garlic.

My favorite thing about these tools is that they're ordinary good fun. Parents don't have to worry, lecture, or prohibit TV to get involved in the way kids think about food.

How do you bring healthy food into family conversations? Does it make a difference at the table?

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