I’m often asked by parents, “what is the appropriate age to teach kids about nutrition?” I find it’s usually for 1 of 2 reasons; either their child is interested in the topic and parents want to nurture that, or the child is low or high weight and parents are concerned and want to use logic and education to help get their child to their desired weight.
Trying to make someone lose or gain weight is rarely feasible; and using logic will definitely not impact how much or little someone eats. But what about educating kids on the importance of eating vegetables, or including protein at every meal? Surely that’s a good thing to teach, right? And if kids are interested in learning this, even more so?!
Maybe not.

A lot of nutrition is very abstract and theoretical; like what is a calorie? What does it mean that eating chicken makes strong muscles? Children, especially young children, learn best about practical and concrete facts. They need to be able to see and touch something for them to understand fully about something. They also need to explore in order to learn and grow. Warnings about food get in the way of their exploration. (imagine if you were told something is “bad”, would you continue trying that?) When they’re given messages like “this is healthy, this is unhealthy, this will help you grow strong, eat a variety of food…” they seem arbitrary and confusing. To cope, kids can do a few things; 1. they become rigid and try to live by those rules that are to them illogical, 2. ignore them completely and do their own thing, 3. give up on trying to meet these rules and become rebellious.

Here’s the important thing to remember. Kids aren’t responsible for food preparation or their own nutrition. As Ellyn Satter says, it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide nourishing meals. Children’s jobs with regard to eating, are to learn to eat the foods their grown-ups eat, to eat the amount of food they need to be healthy and energetic, and to grow in accordance with their genetic endowment. So while it’s an important part of growing up to learn about food and food preparation, nutrition messages aren’t necessary for some time.

What can you teach your children to inspire better eating and increase their interest in food?

This varies depending on age and stages of development.

Ages 2-5:

This age is one of very concrete learning; kids need to see and experience things to learn. This is a good age to establish set eating times, and offer hands-on experiences helping in the kitchen. Talk about food’s colours, shape, texture, smell etc. and let them help with peeling, chopping etc. Reading about food, and pretend play are also fun while increasing their experiential learning. Ensure there’s no messaging about “good or bad” foods.

Ages 5-7:

Children this age are still concrete thinkers but are developing the ability to conceptualize and are advancing their reasoning skills and problem-solving ability. Try hands-on activities like gardening and cooking/baking along with food experiments (like making ice cream or discussing how salt changes food’s flavour). They can also understand about diversity, and respect that different people eat in different ways, and no way is better than others.

Ages 7-11:

Children’s thinking is becoming more logical but still remains concrete- they can’t grasp highly abstract ideas. Also, kids this age tend to be perfectionistic, (so you’ll often hear of kids who hear messages that say sugar is bad, and they cut out all sugar), so it’s very important to be neutral here. You can now teach about food groups (meat, milk, grains, veg/fruit), but it’s most important to introduce the idea of variety and stress against perfection. Just like previously, avoid any judgement about food.

Ages 11-18:

This age group is moving to abstract thinking and developing more cognitive skills. Now is when you can start teaching about nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat) and how they affect our body. Keep it practical with hands-on learning like how to make a balanced meal and eating a variety of food for snacks and meals. It’s also important to discuss media messages and how that impacts what we eat and how we feel about ourselves.

This post is based on slides from you Anna Lutz & Katherine Zavodni’s presentation at BEDA/NEDA conference 2017. You can access it here