A trip to the berry farm. Gardening. Saturday visits to the local farmers market. Cooking with your kids. All sorts of activities can help kids learn a valuable lesson -- that healthy food is a lifestyle, not just a diet. It's a great way to jump-start healthy weight loss in your family.
Take a cue from famed chef Alice Waters, who started the "Edible Schoolyard" program for kids in the Berkeley, Calif., school system. The concept: "Kids get to learn gardening, help vegetables grow from seeds, nurture and water them," says Kathleen Zelman, WebMD's director of nutrition. "It's fascinating for them, watching that metamorphosis -- and they buy into eating things simply because they grew them."
We asked WebMD readers: What activities do you use to spark enthusiasm for healthy foods? What's worked best for you -- for your family? Here are their ideas:
- Since DS was very small, we've gone to the local orchard almost weekly. Both kids pick their own fruit and veggies and eat half of it before we get home. Growing or picking their own fruits and veggies has taught them a lot about eating healthy, how things grow and the cycle of life. We all enjoy it very much!
- I try to let my daughter help prepare food as much as possible. When she washes the vegetables or helps me mix a marinade, she is more likely to eat the food.
- I always try to treat new foods as a special treat. I told my daughter we were having baked fish for lunch one day because it was a special "girl's lunch." She dove right in and she still loves it.
- Getting kids involved in food prep really gives them ownership and increases the chance they will try new foods. We like to let our 3-year-old help cook. Both girls help carry fresh fruits and veggies in from the garden. Neither of them has ever refused to eat anything we have grown. This year, we had strawberries, peaches, tomatoes, bell peppers, green beans, black beans, acorn squash, and sweet potatoes. They both ate everything.
- I am a big proponent of involving children in food preparation. I had a wonderful experience teaching special education preschoolers how to make whole-grain bread. It was magical for the children, the staff, and for me.
- My wife has encouraged school staff to feature one healthy food every week. During the school year, classes encourage children to try a new food and prepare it. They have tried various fruits, sweet potatoes, spaghetti squash, apples and oatmeal. When you get kids involved in the growing, picking and preparation of food, they become much more interested. Learning from an activity is great for children.
- Another idea is to have simple ingredients laid out on a table, so that diners can compile their own plates or bowls for a meal. This gives them some control over what goes into their food. It also lets them experiment as much as they feel comfortable. You can do this with salads, vegetables and various dips, and even with garnishes for soups and casseroles.
- I involve my son in grocery shopping and encourage him to make better choices when he is tempted by those sweet, white foods of childhood! We discuss food groups, ingredient lists, and choosing what he eats to complement what he has eaten already that particular day. I also enjoy observing what he chooses in the store, as I get a better picture of what his body is naturally craving.
- We are lucky to live on enough land to plant a vegetable garden and cultivate fruit trees and bushes. We have a plethora of foods to watch grow throughout the seasons. I think it is important for my son to plant the seeds, watch the blooms turn into fruit, and delight in the results of the harvesting.
- I believe that kids can make better food choices when given information. I strive to be a good role model but I don't try to hide my flaws either. I want my son to know that even as an adult, I am always trying to make better choices for my own health and well-being. Life is all about making choices, yes?
- I start off by asking my grandchildren questions, e.g., Do you like bananas? Do you like honey? Do you like brown bread? How about a little peanut butter? They answer yes.
- Then I tell them we're going to make some very special sandwiches with all the things they like. The children love them because they were part of the process of trying something new.
- Grandparents can sometimes introduce good old healthy recipes like they were brand new and exciting. With imagination you can make boring veggies look like an adventure or add their favorite cheese to a plain-looking dish. No, it doesn't always work...but just keep trying.
- My 4-year-old fortunately LOVES veggies and fruit, as well as meat and potatoes (and, of course, sweets).
- I let her fix her own salads, I set out the typical fixings, then include cherry or grape tomatoes, black beans, chunks of turkey or ham, cheese, red onions -- stuff that looks pretty to a kid.
- I also let her make her own kebabs - while making sure she doesn't skewer herself! We use chicken, grape/cherry tomatoes, pineapple, green and red bell peppers, onions and then grill them. Again, these are very pretty and she enjoys getting to choose her own pattern for them.
- My older girls loved "bug sandwiches" when they were small. I used a biscuit cutter to cut circles of bread, then made peanut butter & jelly or cheese sandwiches. Using small dabs of peanut butter, I stuck "bug stuff" on top of the sandwiches. Cheerios or fruit loops were eyes or spots. Pretzels or skinny slices of cheese were bug legs. You could also use raisins or other healthy stuff to decorate sandwiches.
- I let my kids help with prep. Green beans and sweet corn are coming out of the garden right now, so I let the kids pick them. My 2.5-year-old can already husk corn and loves to help snap beans. It's hard for her to snap the little ends, but she has fun. She likes to eat them because she knows she helped make them.
- We also can peaches. It's like an assembly line. First, the family picks them, always a lot of fun. The peaches have to be canned right away, so they don't get over-ripe. I par-boil them, and my oldest two kids skin and pit them. This year, the little one will help in some way -- maybe carrying them to and fro. All winter and into the spring, the kids have enjoyed eating "our" peaches.
Kids and Healthy Food: Good Work!
It's awesome that kids are getting into the kitchen, says Zelman. The benefit of cooking food with children? It's a great time for a nutrition lesson. "To inspire kids, you've got to make it fun. Cooking is a great way to do that. When kids get involved, they learn. They develop a vested interest in the food."
Family dinners tend to be healthier than those eaten out, studies show. After-school snack time is also healthier. Plus, kids reap all sorts of social benefits from family dinnertime. "Studies show that, when kids eat dinner with the family, they do better in school, are better adjusted socially, and don't do drugs," Zelman tells WebMD. "A lot of family connections are built across the dinner table."
Parents need to be role models, she adds. "It's hard to get kids to eat vegetables if dad's not eating them." She's glad to see a male voice on WebMD's message boards. "Many of the world's great chefs are men. A man's place is in the kitchen, too."
Here's another family activity: Pack the family picnic basket for softball games, soccer games, and other outings. It keeps kids away from high-fat junk at the games -- plus they can help with the fixings:
- Wrap it. Lean meat, veggies, salsa or light dressing -- that's all you need for wraps. They're easy to transport and super nutritious.
- Dump it. Easy Mexican salad: A can of drained and rinsed black beans; a can of drained corn; a can of chopped Mexican-style tomatoes in lime juice; a chopped red pepper; a pinch of cumin; a bit of cayenne. Easy pasta salad: Cherry tomatoes, green beans, whole-grain pasta, a little pesto.
- Keep it sweet. A colorful fruit platter or fruit salad can satisfy a sweet tooth. Kids can choose their favorite fruits -- then cut, fix, or mix them.
Taking the kids grocery shopping is a great idea, says Zelman. "It's an amazing way to teach young kids about healthy foods, and older kids, too. Before my son went to college, we went grocery shopping together, so he could learn how to pick out fruits, chicken, meat. We spent a couple of hours going through the aisles."
WebMD readers: Keep posting your great suggestions on our message boards. Here are some links: