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Should Parents or Food Companies Teach Kids About Nutrition?

Should Parents or Food Companies Teach Kids About Nutrition?

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Public health lawyer Michele Simon argues against child-directed food marketing

If you could — would you pick Ronald McDonald as a role model for your kids?

We wouldn’t. In response to a conference she recently attended on childhood obesity, Simon published an article on child-directed marketing tactics in the food industry. She addresses how effective and exploitative these methods can be, and not only proposes the above question, but highlights the inherent problem in answering it: Even if you don’t want Ronald McDonald to influence your children, he’s probably going to, anyway.

While advocacy groups have pushed companies to advertise healthier foods, Simon and Susan Linn in a collaborative Eat Drinks Politics piece argue that food companies shouldn’t market to kids — at all.

“Less sugar in Scooby-Doo cereal and more apple slices in Happy Meals will not make children healthier,” Simon and Linn insist. “Instead of settling for such crumbs, advocates should take stronger a stand to protect children and demand that such corporations stop engaging altogether in the unethical practice of marketing toward children.”

But with Ronald McDonald visiting elementary schools to supposedly teach children “the value of leadership and community involvement,” we have a long way to go. As notes, “He has become involved in every aspect of childhood, with appearances in some of the most unlikely places — from schools to hospitals.”

Like other youth-directed marketing methods, the McDonalds clown, behind his smiley makeup, is ultimately trying to make a clown of parents — who shouldn’t have to compete with major corporations to teach their kids proper nutrition.

10 Kids Books that Teach Nutrition

Kids learn in many ways. Children’s stories, poems, and fictional characters have the potential to teach lessons in a new and exciting way, rather than a lecture about what they should or shoudn’t be doing. We have 10 books that make it fun to reinforce healthy eating and healthy habits in a fun, new, and inspiring way!

    – This is a brand new book, and I couldn’t love it more! Every letter of the alphabet is followed by a food or nutrient that kids can include in their diet. This book is perfect for kids ages 4-8 years old. Here is an excerpt: O is for oranges- Oranges are a healthy snack, full of vitamin C, cut them up and peel them back, they’re great for you and me! – by Kristy Hammil- This book uses talking and rhyming food characters to teach healthy concepts. According to the description, “Your kids will start to recognize the difference between foods that are nourishing to their bodies and foods that aren’t. They will be telling YOU when a certain treat is going to make them feel yucky from their head to their feet! ” Great for kids 2-10 years old. There are so many gems for teaching kids in the Berenstain Series, including, Too Much TV, Manners, Kindness, and more. This story follows Papa, Brother, and Sister who are eating too much junk food. Mama and Dr. Grizzly attempt to help them understand the importance of nutritious foods and exercise. by Lois Ehlert- This is more of a picture book, but kids enjoy reading and seeing all the foods that are associated with each letter. There is a glossary at the end with foo facts about the different foods featured. Since it’s a picture book mostly, it’s great for kids ages 2-3 years old. by Gail Gibbons- I was drawn to this book for the simple connection I had with Gail who writes: Whether fresh, cooked, dried, canned, or frozen…fruits are delicious and nutritious! THIS is the message we try to share with everyone! Fruits and veggies in ALL it’s form helps kids to expand their palette. Gail talks about how different types of fruits are grown in different climates and places. She shares information about growing, processing, and preparing fruit in a clear, understandable way. by 24 Carrot Press. This is more of an activity book than a story book, but presented in such a fun way, I had to share. They claim it to be a “discovery approach to learning with a healthy dose of humor. Great for parents looking for a structured way to teach nutrition concepts to their kids. The main characters in this workbook are Brocc, Roll, and Hugh-Man Bean (who happens to be a kidney bean! LOL) – I’ve owned this book for as long as I’ve been teaching nutrition to children! (post here about teaching with it) I’ve read it in more pre-schools and elementary classes than I can count. Gregory has a horrible diet, eating garbage of course! Gregory is a goat that would not eat anything but fruits, vegetables, bread, and butter. This disappointed his parents because they wished he would eat tires, shoelaces, tin cans, and cardboard! The kids think it’s hilarious! by Kendra Parks – this is a new book that teaches healthy eating through a dragon named Flint! Flint learns to fly being powered by a Green smoothie! It’s a fun story for kids who are reluctant to drink green smoothies. by Gail Gibbons- Similar to her book, The Fruits We Eat, this book describes, explains, and features Veggies. Gail explores vegetables from the parts of the plant to veggies we see on the table and all the varieties available today. Gail explains: Leaf . . . root . . . stem . . . These are three of the eight groups of vegetables. From how they are planted to how they get to stores, here is a wealth of information about them, including how to plant and tend your own vegetable garden. by Lizzy Rockwell. This book might be a little out of date (giving nutrition advice that has been changed since 2009), but the general ideas can still be appreciated. From the back cover of the book, we read, “In this book you’ll learn all about the nutrient groups—carbohydrates, protein, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals, each nutrient’s function, which foods contain which nutrients, how much of each nutrient a kid needs each day, and how the body digests food. This book is good for ages 4-8 years.

Quick tips to make story time a success!

It’s important to remember that just reading to your kids is success itself! Don’t let technicalities or worrying about “doing it the right way”, get in the way of doing it at all. Kids love to hear stories from their peers, their siblings, their parents, their grandparents, and teachers.

Is Fast Food OK for Kids?

The billions of dollars spent on marketing and the proliferation of fast food restaurants over the last several decades have essentially programmed many of us to frequent fast food restaurants. Whether we&aposre short on time, traveling, have many mouths to feed or simply want to settle our stress, a burger and fries has come to epitomize the ultimate𠅊nd affordable𠅌omfort food fix for parents and children alike.

Although eating fast food is not the sole cause of current high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other diet-related diseases, it is likely a key contributor𠅎specially among children.  Studies suggest that children who eat more fast food tend to take in more calories and fewer nutrients than those who consume less or no fast food. Including more fast food in the diet may be a marker for less healthful habits overall. Perhaps families who eat a lot of fast food have fewer home-cooked, family meals and eat more often𠅊nd less nutritiously—when they&aposre on the go than those who eat less or no fast food.

Despite calls for smaller portions and more nutritious fare at fast food chains by health advocates—registered dietitians, physicians and organizations including the Washington, D.C.-based Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)—there&aposs evidence that fast food won&apost become health food anytime soon. A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at the menus of eight popular fast food chains over a 14-year period and found only modest improvements in the nutritional quality of menu offerings.

In the study&aposs press release, Margo G. Wootan, DSc, of the CSPI says, "This tiny increase is disappointing, and a bit surprising, given the many pronouncements by companies that they have added healthier menu options, switched to healthier cooking fats, are reducing sodium, and are touting other changes in company press releases and advertising."

Another recent study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health found that teens who ate from Subway𠅊 chain marketed as a "healthy" one—ordered meals with just as many calories (though they had more vegetables) as those from McDonald&aposs. Researchers concluded that meals from both restaurants are likely to contribute to overeating among teens.

As a registered dietitian and nutritionist who advocates an "all foods can fit" approach to eating, I have always allowed my sons, who are now 14 and 11 years-old, to have occasional fast food meals. They love cheeseburgers and French fries (admittedly, so do I, though I don&apost have either often). But in many ways, I regret having ever introduced my children to fast food in the first place.

Because we live in an environment that encourages overconsumption of nutrient-poor foods (including fast foods and desserts) in oversized portions, from the get-go, we parents have our work cut out for us. The chips (or should I say the fries) are stacked against us when it comes to raising healthy eaters. But instead of giving into temptation, we can take steps to help children at any age--but especially when they&aposre young and make few food decisions�velop more healthful eating habits and food preferences. Exposing them to a variety of nutritious foods that are minimally processed, serving foods in appropriate portions, and limiting nutrient-poor foods are small steps we can take to help our children learn to appreciate the tastes, textures and flavors of healthful foods. It may also reduce the likelihood they&aposll get hooked on less healthy options.

I&aposm not saying an occasional order of French fries, an ice cream cone or a slice of birthday cake can&apost fit into an otherwise healthful diet. But teaching children the difference between everyday foods and once-in-a-while foods is an important lesson. And when you think about it, eating fast food is not much different than eating out at any restaurant. I&aposd argue that most restaurants tend to overfeed and undernourish us. New studies suggest that we may consume even more calories when dining at sit-down restaurants than when grabbing fast food.  So whether we go for fast food, go out to eat or grab takeout, we need to ask for nutritious foods that are prepared in healthful ways and to make sure we eat them in portions that are appropriate for our age and stage of life--and not in the portions that are usually served. And we need to teach our children to do the same.

In a perfect world, fast food would be less pervasive and more healthful. It would provide us with the convenience and comfort many of us need and want with fewer calories, less saturated fat and less sodium. If you choose to give your children fast food, you shouldn&apost feel guilt. But proceed with caution, and make sure you include it as a once-in-a-while treat rather than a dietary staple. And if you just say no to fast food, bravo! Kids just don&apost need fast food calories to crowd out other options that support their overall nutrient intake and contribute to their overall health and sense of well being.

Although my children are fit, are at healthy body weights, and have relatively good eating habits, it&aposs too late for me to undo those first trips through the drive-thru. But perhaps you will reconsider the role fast food has—if any—in your family&aposs diet.

Be Aware of Food Allergy Symptoms

The type of symptoms and their severity may vary from one reaction to the next. Sometimes allergy symptoms are mild. Other times, symptoms can be severe and result in a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis (anna-fih-LACK-sis). Anaphylaxis is an allergic emergency that can cause serious, potentially life-threatening complications. An allergic reaction to a food can involve one or more symptoms of the skin, mouth, eyes, lungs, heart, gut, and brain. Some symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • Skin rashes and itching and hives
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
  • Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, wheezing (whistling
    sound during breathing)
  • Dizziness and/or fainting
  • Stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Feeling like something awful is about to happen

Your child's doctor will give you a complete list of possible symptoms. This list of symptoms is also on your written food allergy emergency care plan.

Reliable Resources Can Be a Big Help

If you’re a parent you are undoubtedly in the throes of feeding kids.

You’re shopping and cooking, gathering and planning, and probably negotiating food to some degree.

All in an effort to help your child be a healthy kid.

If you’re a grandparent, you may be seeing some undesirable eating habits developing in your grandchildren.

You don’t want to lecture, meddle or step on any toes. My child nutrition book list includes resources that can help you send a subtle message about good nutrition to your loved ones … without being a meddler.

I’ve reviewed these books myself, use them in my practice to help parents, and consider them the cream of the crop when it comes to nutrition for kids.

Never bring weight into healthy-eating conversations.

Weight-focused conversations with younger kids can manifest later as low self-esteem, unhealthy body image and disordered eating during adolescence, when children are most susceptible to these health conditions, said Jerica Berge, Ph.D., an associate professor and vice chair for research at the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.

A study Dr. Berge published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2013, for instance, found that teens whose parents had weight-related conversations with them were more likely to diet, embrace unhealthy weight-control behaviors and binge eat than those whose parents had conversations focused on healthy eating alone.

Getting the messaging right early on — so that it doesn’t cause harm later — is challenging, Dr. Berge said, since any discussion about eating vegetables or exercising can become harmful when it’s suggested in the service of losing weight.

Instead, talk about positive outcomes or behaviors that interest the child, like athletic ability, for example.

Kids in the Garden: Nutritious and Fun

Parents and caregivers know how challenging it can be to get kids to eat enough fruits and vegetables, and gardening may help. An expanding body of research shows that when kids help grow fruits and vegetables, they are more likely to eat more produce and try different kinds, too.

The benefits of gardening don't end there. Gardening helps kids engage their curiosity, learn to be resourceful and gain self-confidence. It also is a great way to get the entire family outside for fresh air and physical activity.

Make Kids Part of the Planting and Growing Process

Depending on their age, children take to gardening differently. For example, preschoolers tend to be fascinated with exploring dirt, digging holes, planting seeds and working the garden hose, while older children may be more interested in how a single seed turns into an edible plant. While older kids can read seed packets and start to understand growing regions, younger ones may not understand that it's probably not possible to grow oranges in northern Maine. Suggest fun, reliable plants such as purple carrots and striped beets, and make sure you plant a couple of sure bets for your region. Ask children which fruits and vegetables they would like to grow. Teach children responsibility by assigning each child a watering, harvesting or weeding task. Allowing children to be involved in every step of the process will get them excited to taste the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.

Encourage Taste Testing

Gardening exposes kids to a variety of fruits and vegetables so encourage taste testing straight from the ground (after a quick rinse to remove dirt) and at the dinner table. Show kids how a tomato can taste delicious from the vine or in dishes such as fresh salsa, marinara sauce or tomato soup to bring the experience full circle.

Go Herbal

Herbs are perhaps the easiest plants to grow and can be a good place to start to interest kids in gardening. Herbs usually grow easily, so you'll probably have more than enough. Choose a few herbs to start, such as parsley, basil or rosemary. Don't worry if you have too much by summer's end. An excess of basil can be made into pesto, frozen in ice cube trays and stored in the freezer to use during the fall and winter. And, all herbs can be dried.

Start Small

Begin small by creating a garden with a dinner salad in mind. Plant salad greens, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers &mdash all are kid-friendly and easy to grow. Kids like to see the result of their effort, so consider planting crops that grow quickly such as green beans or those that produce heavily such as grape tomatoes. Sunflowers are another fun addition to the garden. They grow quickly and can be dried for the seeds.

Dig What Grows Below Ground

Harvesting roots and tubers can be a treasure hunt. What's more fun for a kid than yanking a carrot out of the ground, washing it and taking a bite? Beets, another "underground" crop, are colorful and can be a great way to get a child to try a new vegetable. Potatoes also are easy to grow and are kid favorites.

Gardening in Small Spaces

No yard? No problem! Try using large pots placed on the patio or porch to grow foods such as tomatoes, salad greens and even cucumbers. Most herbs can grow in small pots on indoor windowsills.

Take Gardening to the Extreme

Children are fascinated by both very small and very large objects &mdash including vegetables. Whether in the ground or pot, cherry tomato plants grow to the perfect height for little hands to pick right off the vine. Small kids may find it exciting to watch how low-maintenance, easy-to-grow and brightly colored butternut squash and pumpkins grow and expand during the season.

Enjoy a Year-Round Harvest

The gardening experience doesn't have to end with the last outdoor harvest. Make growing edible fruits and vegetables a year-round activity. Look into seed catalogs during the cold winter months with your kids and decide what to plant next spring. Buy an indoor grow light and get started on those tomato, bean and squash plants in early spring. Kids will be fascinated by the growing process, whether it's indoors or out.

No matter what you plant and whether your carrots look like carrots or something different, have fun. Odds are kids and parents alike will enjoy the time they spend together and learn a little something along the way. And remember: kids are going to get dirty that's part of the fun!

Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, is an Atlanta-based registered dietitian nutritionist.

Parents Don’t Get Enough Nutrition Information

Yet, when it comes to educating and preparing parents for the job of nourishing and feeding their child, there’s a big gap.

Sure, parents get a little hand-holding early in their child’s life. They make routine trips to the pediatrician for check-ups. A lot during the first year, and annually for the years afterward.

But, this hand-holding doesn’t focus on nutrition or feeding. It might come up in conversation, but it isn’t the main topic.

Feeding and nourishing kids is something parents do daily.

In fact, several times a day. And when you tally that up through childhood, we’re looking at thousands of meals and snacks.

Yet, parents receive next to no formal education in nutrition and feeding kids.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Maya Angelou

USDA's food icon, MyPlate, serves as a quick visual reminder to all consumers to make healthy food choices when you choose your next meal, built off of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. MyPlate can help prioritize food choices by reminding us to make half of our plate fruits and vegetables and shows us the other important food groups for a well-balanced meal: whole grains, lean proteins, and low fat dairy.

Finding healthier recipes to serve your family is easier than ever, now that five of America&rsquos largest media companies have teamed up with Pinterest and the Partnership for a Healthier America on an effort to make it easier for their millions of online visitors to put nutritious meals on the table every day. Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines, Meredith, Food Network and Time, Inc. have identified thousands of nutritious recipes that that support USDA&rsquos MyPlate, and are labeling, compiling and promoting these recipes on their most popular cooking websites. Check out a Pinterest page for thousands of recipes, a site that provides a one-stop-shop where parents, beginner home cooks and even the most experienced chefs can find and share healthier recipes.


It shows us that most of their food intake should be made up from vegetables, fruits, wholegrain carbohydrates and smaller portions of meat, fish and dairy. Most children still consume far too much sugar – around 15% of their energy is coming from sugar rather than the recommended 5%, so this is one area we really need to tackle. The best way to do this is to avoid sugary drinks and limit treats like sweets, desserts, chocolate, flavoured milkshakes, ice cream etc to once or twice a week.

Most of us still don’t eat enough of the good stuff either, like fruits, vegetables and fibre, so finding ways to incorporate more of these is really important. Average intake of fruit and vegetables for children aged 11 to 18 years is only 3 portions per day for boys and 2.7 portions per day for girls, and only 10% of boys and 7% of girls in this age group meet the “5-a-day” recommendation. Aim to include fruits, veg or salad with every meal and if your kids don’t like brown rice or pasta, try doing a 50/50 mix as a compromise. This will still really help to improve their fibre intake.

Our national diet survey also shows us that many children and young people don’t get enough essential minerals in their diet such as iron, calcium and zinc so try to make sure that you offer regular servings of nutritious foods like fish, white meat, lean red meat (unprocessed), beans and pulses, nuts and seeds and green leafy veg.

It’s important to remember that children have higher energy requirements for their size compared to adults, and often benefit from eating more little and often. 3 small meals and 1-2 snacks often works well and allows a good variety of foods to be offered at different times.

Are there any good sources of information about healthy eating online? Anything parents should definitely avoid?

The internet is awash with information about healthy eating, but some of it is based on opinions rather than evidence and written by people without adequate nutrition training. Knowing where to get trusted information is really important. Try some of these:

British Dietetic Association Food Factsheets:

Try to avoid following trends or search terms like clean eating, gluten and dairy free (unless medically indicated due to allergy etc), low carb, high protein diets as these tend to be written by unregulated people online and may contain harmful nutritional advice for young people.

Have you got any advice on tackling picky eating in kids?

Fussy eating is really common in young children with one study finding that 50% of parents labelled their 19-24 month olds as ‘picky’. Most children grow and thrive without significant impact on their health and development despite short periods of fussy eating.

For others, however, the behaviour becomes persistent. Sometimes it’s made worse by parents getting stressed out at mealtimes and it can then affect eating later on in childhood. Since poor diets in childhood can often predict poor diets in adulthood, this is really important for us to tackle. Fussy eating is linked to a higher intake of saturated fats and fewer varieties of fruits and vegetables, which are both linked to obesity. Fussy eaters also have lower intakes of folate, fibre, vitamin E and vitamin C, probably due to reduced intake of fruits and vegetables. This can impact immunological and digestive health and influence cell damage.

In essence, the key to managing it is to ‘ignore the behaviour, not the problem!’ This means try to avoid stress and fuss at mealtimes and start working behind the scenes, without making the child too aware of it using the following techniques.

Two useful family interventions are outlined below.

Repeated exposure

Keep offering the same foods time and time again as it can take 10, 20 and even 30 exposure to the same food before a child will start to accept it. Most parents stop offering it after only 5 attempts so persistence is key.

Simply seeing, touching, learning about and handling food also increases the chances of it being accepted at mealtimes so you could try a grow-your-own vegetable patch through to getting them involved in shopping, prepping and cooking.

Eating as a family and using your children’s friends to influence eating habits can be really helpful (if their friends aren’t fussy eaters too). Children are much more likely to accept foods that they see others eating. Try to get together round a table whenever possible so you can model healthy eating behaviours on a regular basis.

My 10 Golden Rules of Healthy, Happy Mealtimes are below and these will help you to get your children into healthy habits which will set them up for their whole lives.

  1. Same time, same place! Establish a stable routine with known times and locations for meals and snacks. Familiar places and times can help the child feel relaxed and comfortable.
  2. You set the rules. Offer simple, healthy food and don’t ask them what they want. Offer a little, and then more if they finish it with lots of praise.
  3. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Refusal of new foods is entirely normal. Remove uneaten food without comment. Continue to offer the same food alongside more accepted foods at future mealtimes. It could take 15-25 exposures before acceptance.
  4. No pressure! Don’t force or pressurise your child to eat studies show this makes it worse.
  5. No choccy rewards! Don’t reward eating with liked foods – use a trip to the park / cinema / new magazine instead.
  6. Don’t restrict access to liked foods. It is only likely to reinforce their desirability.
  7. Be a role model. Don’t offer vegetables whilst you eat a takeaway. The best mealtimes are where the child has someone to copy such as parents, siblings and friends.
  8. Make mealtimes happy and fun. Avoid telling off or bad atmospheres.
  9. Look what I did! Involve your child: grow-your-own, pick-your-own, helping with food preparation. Handling foods helps towards acceptance, in the same way as repeated offerings at mealtimes.
  10. Don’t stress about the mess! Allow self-feeding from a very early age. Freedom increases their sense of control and helps them eat more.

Any tips on making healthy eating fun for families?

Absolutely. Make a weekly chart of evening meals by looking in recipe books and letting the kids pick out some of these. Then challenge them to get involved, be it with prepping, cooking or serving.

Meals which are great fun include homemade pizzas where everyone picks their toppings and decorates them themselves, or mezze type pick and mix affairs with salad sticks, tapas small bowls, dips, and lots of different things for them to try.

Try not to get in the habit of offering the same meals over and over again with no variety – do keep your family favourites but aim to try new things each week as a family too.

In the summer eating in the garden can be great fun, either as a picnic or a BBQ.


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