Teach children how foods grow and how they’re prepared to make a difference.
Story: Joy Stephenson-Laws
The incidence of childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Currently, about one in five school-age children (ages 6-19) is obese. In addition, the CDC reports nearly one-third of American youth are overweight, increasing children with Type 2 diabetes, some as young as age 10. Children who remain obese become obese adults. It’s time to change these statistics and start the change in the kitchen.
A study among thousands of elementary school-age children in Canada found those who helped prepare healthy meals at home made better food choices away from home. In addition, they are more likely to enjoy eating a larger variety of fruits and vegetables.
The children were asked how often they helped prepare meals at home. Answer options: “Never,” “Almost never,” “Several times a day,” and “On most days.”
Next, fruit and vegetable preferences were evaluated, with preferences for three fruits (apples, oranges, blueberries) and nine vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, green beans, broccoli, spinach, zucchini, cabbage, squash, green peas). Answers included: “Like a lot,” “Like a bit,” “Don’t like,” and “Don’t know.” The marked “don’t know” if they had never tried the fruit or vegetable.
Finally, their ability to make healthy food choices was tested with these six questions. Are you confident:
• You can eat healthy food at school?
• Eat a healthy snack between school and dinner?
• Eat healthy food or healthy snack with friends?
• Eat healthy food at dinner with the family?
• Choose a healthy snack alone at home?
• Choose a healthy snack when bored or sad?
Response options ranged from “Very confident” to “Not confident at all,” and demographic information, including annual household income, urban or rural residency, and educational level of parents, also were also reviewed. More than half those surveyed were girls, and there was a variety of incomes and educational backgrounds of parents. The survey found about 30 percent of children help with meals at home and 12.4 percent reported never helping.
Frequency with meal participation usually meant increased preference for fruits and vegetables. “This association appeared to be more pronounced in vegetable preference compared with fruits, where helping with home meal preparations several times daily led to approximately a 10 percent (or 1 point) increase in vegetable preference.”
Furthermore, children who ate more meals with families made healthier diet choices.
It is not enough to simply say, “Eat your broccoli because I said so.” Having you child help prepare the broccoli may create more motivation to enjoy eating the broccoli.
Healthy meal prepping principles go beyond the home. Research in the study also found “a hands-on approach…that exposes children to a variety of fruits and vegetables” in school gardens increased their food preferences.
What does all of this mean for our health? Clearly, we need to involve children in meal preparation. More involvements meant healthier food choices leading to healthier children.
Here are some useful tips to increase children’s participation in the kitchen:
• Instead of family movie night, do family cooking night. Safe kid-friendly knives are available. Use cool utensils, like a vegetable spiralizer to make “zoodles,” or noodles from zucchini.
• Read children’s books about healthy eating and nutrition at bedtime.
• Make it educational and interesting. Make it a game. Take your child to the grocery store to pick the veggie for the night.
• Plant a garden with them. Kids love to get dirty, and they may find it fascinating to watch beautiful, colorful, healthy foods grow.
• Tell them why it is important to eat healthy. “Because this will help prevent illness, help you run better, give you more energy, and make that cut or scrape heal faster. It will help when you have a family someday.”
• Watch what you say. They remember, “I’m sick of eating salad!” Get creative and find alternatives to salad. Maybe make a collard wrap instead. If you are happy with your eating, your children will likely be happy with theirs.
It worked for me. My mom taught me how to cook at an early age, and I had mandatory cooking classes in high school. I developed skills that helped me make healthier life choices and lead a healthy life.
When we are proactive about the health of our children, we are being proactive about our future health. Enjoy your healthy life!
About the writer
Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs (phlabs.org), a national nonprofit health information company that provides education and tools to achieve optimal health. Her most recent book is “Minerals—The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy,” available through Amazon, iTunes, and bookstores.