Photo by Chris Bohnhoff
Photo by Chris Bohnhoff

Talking to Your Kids About Food

"That's lazy exercise, Sally!" the dad yelled as she raced for the swings. "We didn't come here for lazy exercise, get off the swings and run around!" Sally's grin faded as she walked away from the swings. I imagine Sally's dad had good intentions. Perhaps he read CDC recommendations or got a handout from the pediatrician recommending "60 minutes of vigorous supervised exercise" for children. In an era of increasing childhood obesity rates, eating disorders, and dieting teens, teaching about health and nutrition is often sabotaged by messages that are inappropriate or harmful.

Parents are confused and anxious about the right things to do and say when it comes to feeding and raising their children. So-called experts send out conflicting messages. Whether the latest demon is fruit juice, soda, high-fructose corn syrup, portions, fat or carbs, we are encouraged to feed primarily to prevent disease or weight gain. We are told to get our kids to exercise, not for the joy of moving their bodies, but for cardiovascular health and weight control.

On the school front, most nutrition education has children reading labels for fat and sugar content and teachers holding back dessert until "good food" is consumed. This summer at the farmer's market, kids were encouraged to color in a picture and chose the "healthiest" food option-defined as "fewest calories!" (Choices were fruit salad either plain, with orange juice or with low-fat yogurt.) Parents, teachers, even cartoon characters use phrases like "junk food," "bad," "make you sick," and "red-light foods" to teach nutrition. Children are taught to fear calories, salt, fat and sugar.

Increasingly, eating disorder and obesity prevention groups stress that the current model of nutrition education promotes guilt and shame, encouraging disordered thinking around eating. Before age 11, children are pre-rational and unable to comprehend complex food messages; they equate eating "bad" foods with being bad. When foods are controlled too tightly, children feel shame and a mix of desire and avoidance.

Learning about eating should be positive and joyful. Kids should be taught that variety is key, and words used to describe foods should be factual and descriptive rather than judgmental and clinical. For example, telling a child that yogurt is "healthy and has calcium in it" may be less interesting than "This yogurt is yummy, it tastes a little like the vanilla pudding you like. I used to eat it when I was a little girl."

Photos by Ginger Pearson

Uli Koester, Executive Director of The Midwest Food Connection (sponsored by local food coops), is part of a new approach to food education in schools. The lessons are positive, experiential, fun, and honor variety. At a Minneapolis elementary school recently, children drew fields with various crops, matching colors to the beautiful carrots, lettuces, beets and peppers. Twenty-two third-graders listened carefully and shared the things they had tried on their salads at home after last week's lesson in veggie prep and tasting. One girl grinned at the prospect of touching processed manure compost declaring, "Ew, but cool!" Ask your kids some of the same questions they worked on in class. Are these foods crunchy or soft? Are they sweet or sour? Marvel at their colors and shiny skins.

We teach nutrition best by serving and eating the foods we want our children to eat. Model eating a variety of foods that taste good. Make meals pleasant and about connecting. Turn off the TV and cell-phones. Check out library cookbooks with your child and experiment or go online to find different ways to prepare foods together. For older children and adolescents, convenience seems to be key. Cut up fresh fruit, have cold water in the fridge, and offer hummus and pita bread for snack time.

Make the time to eat with your child and avoid conflict or power struggles over food. Talk about how candy doesn't give you much energy, or that your tummy feels bad if you eat too much, or how that stew was delicious, how great you feel after exercise, or how pretty the leaves are on your before-dinner walk.

Limiting screen time is more likely to get your kids moving than following them around like a personal trainer. Provide cushions and masking tape to make an indoor obstacle course, or go to local rec center open gym or an indoor playground. Go to family night at a local gymnastics center and bounce on the trampoline with your kids. Go swimming, ride a bike, grab a sled, dance.

Maybe Sally could have learned a different lesson at the park that day. Maybe she would have thrilled as she soared on the swings, to go on to play tag with her friends. She would have learned that being outside is fun and that moving her body is fun - something she'll want to do over and over again.

Enjoyment, not avoidance and negativity, is the key to eating and living well. When kids grow up and leave home, they take the food and health habits they grew up with. Make activity and meals a regular and enjoyable part of your lives, and relax. If you can do that, chances are your children will, too.


  • Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family, Ellyn Satter
  • How to Get Your Kids to Eat, But Not Too Much: Ellyn Satter

Ideas for local activities

More from Katja Rowell, MD, about food and children