Healthy eating from the start: Nutrition education for young children
Early experiences with food have a strong impact on the future eating habits and health of young children, and the best time to teach good dietary habits is during the early years.
Poor diet has been associated with the development of many of the chronic diseases in the United States, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The food "pyramid" released by the Department of Agriculture in 1992, suggests that a healthy diet is one that includes multiple servings of various grains, fruits, and vegetables per day, and limiting the intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar.
To learn about nutrition, children should be involved with actual food—not simply answer questions in workbooks or sing songs about vegetables. Hands-on nutrition activities help children develop healthy eating habits and can complement other learning, for example math, science, language, social development, cooperation, and respect for culture.
Following are some suggestions for promoting healthy eating in young children:
More than graham crackers
Help build self-esteem and teach good eating habits by allowing children to plan, prepare, and serve simple nutritional snacks. For example, create smiling faces using rice cakes and cheese, or make frozen banana sticks or applesauce. Introduce new foods in small portions to encourage children to taste their creations.
Integrate learning activities
Use seed catalogs and real vegetables to examine the edible parts of various plants, or conduct a taste-test on a variety of raw and cooked vegetables. Children can then discuss the nutritional value of each vegetable. Children can also work together to make vegetable soup and create labels for their own soup cans.
Learn about different cultures
Choose the cultural heritage of one or more children as a theme for a day’s meals and snacks. Discuss at mealtimes how factors such as climate help shape food habits.
Under adult supervision, young children can bake their own whole grain breads. Make it fun by shaping the dough into different animal shapes.
Visit a local farm or farmers’ market
This type of outing will put children in touch with local surroundings and create an awareness of how food is grown and sold in places other than a supermarket.
Seeing is believing
Replace some of the unhealthier plastic foods in toy kitchens with replicas of fruits and vegetables, loaves of bread, and wedges of cheese. Better yet, replace the unhealthy foods in your real refrigerator with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Lessons about healthy foods will "stick" more when you eat healthy too!
Parents, caregivers, and teachers should work together to establish a mutual understanding of how best to meet each child’s individual nutritional needs. Teaching children to eat wisely and moderately is an investment in the future, and establishing healthy eating habits in the early years is not only important, but can also be fun.
Fuhr, J.E. and Barclay, K.H. 1998. The Importance of Appropriate Nutrition and Nutrition Education, Young Children, 53(1):74-80.
Kendrick, A.S., Kaufmann, R., and Messenger, K.P., Eds. 1995. Healthy Young Children: A Manual for Programs, Washington, DC.
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