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Helping kids make healthy food choices

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I grew up eating not the best diet. I remember some of my mom’s favorite snacks to serve me were Saltine crackers with mayonnaise and liverwurst. She was a single mom working two jobs, and when the going got tough it was better for me to eat something that was less than healthy than nothing at all. When I refused vegetables, and even most fruits, she didn’t force the issue. So it’s no surprise that when my own son was born, I had horrible eating habits and I was almost 100 pounds overweight.

As a mom, growing up the way I did, it’s important for me to help Evan make healthy choices. He’s still too young to cook for himself or do his own grocery shopping, but there are some great ways we can start to encourage him to choose healthy options when he’s ready for a snack or meal.

1. Cut the cord. One thing we don’t see a lot of in our house are commercials. Kids see around 5000 food advertisements per year (some kids see many more), but only around 2% of those promote fitness or good nutrition. In our house, we’ve opted out of cable programming. That means that, even relying on ad-supported streaming content when we watch television, we’re not bombarding Evan with confusing messages about food. We can use the food commercials we do see in the future as an opportunity to discuss realistic lifestyles and body image. We also take time to turn the TV off – time that can be spent active together as a family to promote an active lifestyle.

2. Let kids be in charge. Even with young kids, educating about healthy choices still involves the ability to make… choices! Instead of handing over a plate filled with whole grains, lean meats and veggies, provide some options for kids to choose from (all healthy, of course). Mom and dad are happy, and kids feel empowered and understand that “healthy” doesn’t mean “limited.” If you’re a planner, let your child help create the weekly meal plan or grocery list, and start to talk about nutrition labels and finding healthy items in the store. Allowing kids to be involved in food decisions – and avoiding lumping foods into “good” and “bad” groupings – can broaden their horizons and help avoid the negative impacts of “off-limits” foods that they might encounter down the road.

3. Shop local. There are benefits to shopping in your neighborhood or town beyond the economic impact. The sooner you eat freshly harvested food, the better it tastes. And you’re reducing the environmental impact of your food if it doesn’t have to travel as far to get to you. We like to take Evan for a weekly stroll to our local farmer’s market. He may be more interested in the bouncy house right now (hey, it’s exercise!), but we also bring him along as we pick out fresh greens, fruit, cheese, and other items that show up at lunch and dinner over the next few days.

4. Grow your own food. It doesn’t get much more local than your own backyard. In addition to being a fun science project and a household task that your child can take ownership of, you also save money on groceries. With the right plants, you could even have a themed garden. How about a “pizza toppings garden” filled with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and herbs, or a “salsa” garden with everything you need to spice up a fiesta?

5. Tie healthy foods to real-world benefits. Evan loves soccer. So he’d be more encouraged to eat some chicken if we let him know it will give him energy to keep playing, while donuts or potato chips would just make him tired. Down the road, we can bring up improved mental energy (because we’re pretty sure he’s going to be a nerd like his parents) and more attractive skin and hair (because he’ll probably want a girlfriend sometime, preferably after his 30th birthday).

6. Eat meals together. This is an area we could definitely improve on. Right now the only meal we each at home is dinner, and sometimes our evening is such a scramble that we take care of Evan on his own and then feed ourselves after he’s gone to bed. When they’re young, kids idolize their parents. It’s important for us to eat meals together so we can model our own healthy choices for him. Then eating right won’t be something he has to think about; it will just be something he’s always done.

The USDA has created MyPlate, a set of guidelines for how to fill up your meal plate with portions of the five important food groups – fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. MyPlate Kids’ Place is a section of their website devoted to fun games and activities for kids to learn about nutrition and being physically active. For a fun activity to get kids thinking about the foods their eating, download this printable set of food cards and work with your child to sort the cards into the five food groups.

The USDA also guides for healthy eating at every age – here’s the preschoolers guide that we’d use for Evan. And kids can get involved in making sure they get enough of the right foods each day; I’ve created a printable daily checklist where kids can color in each circle as they eat a serving of one of the five food groups.

For more information about nutrition and helping kids making healthy food choices, visit HorizonDairy.com.

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Horizon Organic. The opinions and text are all mine.