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Recent emphasis on the unhealthy dangers lurking in school cafeterias has prompted revisions to school standards. Next year, more changes will be rolled out as part of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, including limiting fatty, salty and high-calorie snacks in vending machines and making drinking water more easily accessible.
The role parents play in teaching kids about nutrition, though, is key in kids’ developing healthy habits, especially at a younger age. “If you can establish good eating habits early on, they will carry through,” Gee said. “The younger the child, the more important the parent.”
Make it a habit
The Fitzgeralds have stressed healthy eating since their kids were old enough to eat solid foods. By the time Keenan and Samantha were old enough to make decisions about food on their own, they had already established eating healthy as a habit.
The kids sometimes help with grocery shopping, as well as tending to the family’s chickens and small vegetable garden, involving them in the production of their own food. Cooking or gardening with kids, according to research, often increases their propensity for healthy eating. A carrot is all the more interesting when you’ve watched it grow.
The family is careful to eat grass-fed meats, whole grains and foods without tons of preservatives, chemicals or food coloring. The point, though, is not to be overly restrictive. On special occasions, even the junkiest of junk food is permissible.
Seche said forbidding certain foods isn’t the answer. The whole point is to launch the child into being a healthy eater on his or her own, she said, so that when faced with the temptations of, say, a vending machine, the child can still make good choices.
Explaining to kids why healthy food is good for you is also important.
“I try to explain the difference between something that’s good for them and something that’s not healthy but OK as a treat,” Fitzgerald said.
A recent Stanford University study found that taking the nutrition lesson even further is effective. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, capitalized on young children’s natural curiosity, using storybooks to emphasize important concepts of food and nutrition.
Preschoolers were introduced to conceptual details of the food-body relationship generally dismissed as too complex for kids, such as what nutrients are and how blood moves them through the body.
“From their point of view, digestion is a mystery,” said Ellen Markman, a study co-author and Stanford psychologist. She said the children in the study were fascinated by their own biology.
“When we’re teaching them about blood, you see them inspecting veins,” she said.
Explaining the science of why vegetables are important proved persuasive. Co-author Sarah Gripshover said that after the study she even noticed some children “evangelizing” other children on the values of a diverse diet.
Seche said the concept makes sense. “I’ve seen 4-year-olds talking about protein,” she said.