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Nutrition education doesn’t have to be an endless stream of worksheets and handouts, full of facts and figures about macronutrients, calories and additives.
Yes, there are building blocks you’ll want to teach your child: knowing how to read a nutrition facts label is an essential part of adulting. But, to be meaningful, nutrition can’t just be about calories-per-gram and lists of vitamins and minerals. Kids will be so much more likely to absorb the information — and incorporate it into their lives — if it’s rooted in personal meaning.
Nutrition is multifaceted, highly individual and our understanding of it, ever-shifting. But that’s the good news. Unless your child is training to be a dietitian, there’s no pressure to master every scientific element. All you need is an on-ramp, and you’ll be able to help them learn about nutrition in a way that positively impacts their everyday food choices.
Eating a balanced diet is considered one of the pinnacles of wellness, but why should we care about nutrition? Your child needs to have an answer that motivates them.
What gets your child excited? Chances are there’s a connection back to food. Do they love cooking? Are they open to starting a veggie patch or herb garden? Do they (or a loved one) have some kind of dietary restriction? Are they passionate about giving their best on the athletic field? Are they intrigued by experimentation and research? Curious about different cultural norms around food or how to use food medicinally?
Once you figure out the most meaningful point of entry, start there. Whether it’s getting your child in the kitchen to bake their own delicious and healthy birthday cake, learning to eat to improve their sports performance, or understanding how different cultures prize different ingredients, they’ll be more committed — and more likely to make healthy food choices — if they know why they’re studying nutrition to begin with.
Shopping, cooking, eating: Nutrition is one of the most interactive parts of our life. Get your kids involved with as many of those elements as possible (and, for the green-thumbed out there, growing food as well).
Inviting kids to the grocery store is a great start — so you can have a real-time discussion about what you buy for the family and why. Take it a step further, and design a scavenger hunt where they need to locate foods that fit a certain nutritional profile (cookies with no saturated fat, chips with no trans fats, five different colored vegetables and fruits etc.). Added bonus: it might help you expand your family’s weekly menu.
Learning to understand food labels is important, but to make it meaningful, let them translate the data into something they can chew on. Since most kids will be eager to snack in the name of science, you could design a taste test: Pick comparable products, but with some key difference (more/less whole grains, different serving sizes). Have your kids rate the foods and then see how that corresponds to the nutritional values.
We always recommend creating scaffolding around any new challenges. If you’re introducing them to the world of cooking and meal planning, they’ll be incorporating multiple new skills at once, including grocery shopping, navigating the kitchen and food safety.
In our weekly Prisma High School Life Skills course, we teach nutrition through hands-on challenges of increasing complexity. In the introductory challenges, learners explore their kitchens and grocery stores, until, over the course of weeks / months, they’re able to meal plan on their own. This step-by-step approach allows learners to gain mastery and avoid that drinking-from-the-firehouse feeling.
To the extent possible, avoid demonizing any food group. With the popularity of certain diets, kids may very well absorb the message that either fats or carbohydrates or protein (especially animal-based) are “bad” without knowing why, when all three are essential for sustaining physical activity from our brawn to our brains.
One way to shift from the black-and-white labeling of foods is to be more qualitative. If you try the comparative taste-test activity mentioned above, add on an additional element to add nuance to the way we judge foods. Ask them to eat a certain snack, and then thirty minutes later reflect on how they feel: Are they immediately hungry again? Do they still feel satisfied? How energetic do they feel?
Have them write down their answers in a journal. Then, repeat the activity on successive days with different kinds of snacks or different quantities (low calorie, low fat, processed, fruits and veggies, carbohydrates versus protein, etc.), and see how their feelings change. Activities like these teach kids to reflect on the relationship between what they eat and how they feel.
Nutrition is not just about fuel. It is also deeply connected to our emotional well-being. All age groups can benefit from developing a more mindful relationship to what we put in our bodies. It could be as simple as observing: What feelings do I associate with certain food items? If that kind of exploration leads them to recognize an eating pattern that they want to change (for example “boredom equals chips”), use that as a starting point to brainstorm other ways to address the feeling, that may lead to a better outcome (call a friend when bored).
As a project-based school, we find that when learners can choose their own adventure and connect their exploration to real-world issues, they’re naturally willing to dive deep into complicated subjects — and nutrition is no exception. Our “Food Lab” cycle used kids’ love of baking and experimentation to reach a range of subjects that extended from nutrition to chemistry, data analysis and ethics.
Here are some of the many ways you can approach a nutrition project with your kids.
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