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6 ways to raise a healthy eater

Want to encourage your kids to make smart food choices? Check out these tips from registered dietitian Sue Mah

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kid cooking parents healthy

Making smarter food choices

As every mom knows, kids can do wonders with an old shoebox. When my son and daughter were just five and four years old respectively, they cut a hole in the top of one, filled it with different types of cereal and called it “Mama-O’s.” What impressed me most was that my kids even drew a Nutrition Facts table on the back of the “cereal box,” showing the calorie, fat, sugar and fibre content. I was happy to see them taking an interest in nutrition at such an early age. They knew healthy eating was important to me and they had seen me reading nutrition labels when we went grocery shopping. The homemade cereal box was given to me as a Mother’s Day gift, and it’s my favourite example of the influence we have in helping our kids to be healthy eaters.

So how can we encourage and inspire kids to make smart food choices, enjoy wholesome food and build healthy eating habits for life? To get you started, here are some ideas and “teachable moments” I’ve used with my own children.

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kid apple

Show and share while grocery shopping

The grocery store or farmers’ market make great natural nutrition classrooms. Teach toddlers and young children the colours and names of different fruit and vegetables. As they get older, ask them to help you pick out a few apples or a pound of mushrooms. For example, my daughter loves picking fresh pears at this time of year. She knows to choose a few soft ones to eat right away, and a few firmer ones, which we’ll leave on the counter to ripen.

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kids cooking

Give them a challenge

At home, you can encourage tweens and teens to read the ingredients list and information on nutrition labels. Show them how to compare food products to find healthier choices. For example, ask them to compare the fibre and sugar content of their favourite cereals. Tell them that everyone needs to eat more fibre to stay healthy, and that sugar should be limited. When it comes to soups or pasta sauces, my kids and I always check the sodium content before we buy, and choose the ones with the lowest amounts of sodium that still taste good to us.

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woman baking with child

Expand their taste buds

My kids love pasta, but when I cooked some orzo-a rice-shaped pasta-one night, they weren’t sure about it because they’d never seen or tasted it before. I explained that orzo is made from the same ingredients as spaghetti, and is simply another pasta shape just like macaroni, penne and fusilli. Together with your kids, learn more about how and where your food is grown. Encourage them to talk with their friends in the neighbourhood and at school to learn about special foods that are eaten during different cultural celebrations.

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kids eating healthy

Play a game

Young kids in particular may like this game. Talk about the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide (they’ll probably learn about it in school, too) and then, as you’re preparing lunch or dinner for your family, purposely leave out a food from one of the groups. For example, when making a chicken sandwich for lunch, you could leave out a glass of milk or a piece of fruit. Then ask your child to figure out which food group is missing. Ask them to add a food from the missing group to make it a more balanced meal.

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kids cooking

Let them be your sous chef

It’s a great feeling to watch kids develop their skills and confidence in the kitchen. Young children can help wash grapes, tear lettuce for a salad and measure out simple ingredients. Older children can slice bread, make salad dressing and scoop food into a serving bowl. At our home, each time our copy of Best Health arrives, my kids circle the recipes they’d like to try. We make the recipes together, rate them on taste and appearance, and then include them in our weekly meal rotation.

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kids gardening

Encourage culinary creativity

Cooking is very much an experiment with different foods and flavours. Provide a good supply of ingredients and then let the kids’ imaginations take over. For an after-school snack, my kids make their own trail mixes tailored to their favourite flavours. My son includes low-sodium pretzels, whereas my daughter likes to add a handful of mini chocolate chips. Nutritionally, it beats potato chips or ice cream. Instead of microwaveable or prepackaged popcorn, my son discovered how to microwave corn kernels in a paper bag, and he adds his own seasonings. He can’t believe it tastes better than store-bought!

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