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Kids are smarter than we think.

We try tricking them into eating good foods by offering bargains and rewards, but those tactics can backfire. Too easily, the lesson becomes that dessert is the good thing and the nutritious meal is something bad they have deal with to get to that good thing!

We try hiding fruits and veggies in comfort food. But while hiding pureed vegetables may give kids the same nutritious content, it still doesn’t help them learn to love whole, unprocessed produce or whole grains. And once the children find out that you’re tricking them, they may not trust the food you give them in the future.

And as for smoothies? They may be delicious but are not exactly what you’d call “tooth-friendly.”

Instead, it’s best to teach that healthy food is good in its own right.

organic_deliveryParents and caregivers are aware how bright children are, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a recent Psychology Science study found when kids were taught about the benefits of healthy foods, they chose to eat those foods more often.

Its authors banked on preschoolers’ natural curiosity. When they taught the kids about the nutritional value of the food they ate, kids were more open to trying nutritional foods and “more than doubled their voluntary intake of vegetables during snack time.”

This makes perfect sense. When we tell children why brushing and flossing is important, they understand and, more often than not, will practice good dental hygiene. When we explain why they can’t cross the street without an adult or without looking both ways, they will understand and listen.

Why not apply these same methods to eating?

In the above study, the authors taught with children’s books “that emphasized key concepts about food and nutrition, including the importance of variety, how digestion works, the different food groups, characteristics of nutrients, and how nutrients help the body function.” But while you might not have access to those same books for your kids, there are plenty of great resources out there to help you teach them.

Here are a few to get you started:

  • A good place to begin is with “Principles of a Healthy Diet” from the Weston A. Price Foundation. Dr. Price was a pioneering dentist who discovered traditional diets found in the nonwestern world promote healthy teeth. This site offers clear guidelines you can consider for your own family’s diet.
  • The USDA offers guidelines for the American diet. You may remember the food pyramid the USDA encouraged, but that’s since been replaced with My Plate. It’s a good place for both kids and adults to learn about nutrition. Note the section specifically for preschoolers.
  • Dr. Sears’ “ABC’s of Teaching Nutrition to Your Kids” has advice on kids’ books about eating, taking children to see where their food comes from (grocery stores and farms, for instance), introducing new foods to toddlers and serving foods across the color spectrum.
  • If you don’t want to go through the entire alphabet, there’s a short but helpful article in the Los Altos Town Crier on teaching kids about nutrition.
  • Finally, there are books for kids about nutrition. Here, you’re encouraging both healthy eating and a love of reading! For titles, check out this list from the School Nutrition Association. Or visit Super Kids Nutrition for reviews of children’s books on food.

Don’t expect your child to become a healthy eater overnight after reading just one book. It’s consistently practicing good eating habits and teaching children about the food they eat that can create healthy eaters. As you know too, no study is needed to show that kids emulate the behaviors of the adults they love. We are their models. If we want them to eat well, we must do the same.

Image by sean dreilinger, via Flickr

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