Connect Kids with Real Food and Teach Them How to Eat Healthy

Teaching kids about healthy eating can start from day one and you may find your picky eater will eat veggies even beyond a healthy pumpkin muffin. Making healthy eating fun is the key – ironically, learning food rules does just that. 

“Can we get a real drink now?” the little girl said the moment The Lorax movie ended.

I overheard a young girl bug her parents for a soda pop, or a juice, or “they even have Vitamin water!” as folks were stocking up on concessions before the showing of The Lorax in theaters. When the movie, which featured such ridiculous atrocities as bottled air and plastic grass, finally ended, she asked for that “real” drink…meaning something from the concession stand.

I restrained myself from directing her to the water fountain and reflected on the concept of “real food” in our culture.

As I sat there with our popcorn, a fun concession – that’s right, double meaning, as in a movie concession that was a small concession on eating real, wholesome food – I couldn’t help but be in awe of the irony around me. It seemed that every person in the theater had soda, candy, nachos, or at least bottled water, settling in with their overpriced, overprocessed, non-nutritive “food” to watch a movie that was about to emphatically declare them all idiots. (Without using that word – it’s marketed as a kids’ movie, after all. It’s not a kids’ movie.)

What is a “real” drink?

What is “real” food?

And how do we explain that to children, who are drawn to crinkly packaging, bright colors, and explosions of sugary sweetness on their tongues?

Michael Pollan has a lovely book of “Food Rules” to set the stage for adults deciphering real vs. fake food. His 64 rules, which I’ve written about here and here and highly recommend for adults and teenagers, are a bit much for children.

I’ve created some new food rules to teach your kids about what should be on the plate (and what should be off).

These rules are designed to be easily digestible, easy to remember, fit on one page, and BASIC. They don’t address various chemicals and additives I don’t want my kids (or yours) eating, like artificial sweeteners and food dyes (even though of course I think that’s important).

They DO cover the basic food groups and focus on whole foods. I hope it’s helpful as you teach your kids about healthy eating.

Now for some more food lessons outside the food groups — how do you recognize real food in a fast food processed world?

Teaching Kids About Food – a Daily Conversation

When children are very young, they’re still learning a lot about the whole world, including food. As you might imagine, we have many conversations in our household about food!

Simply by what we eat and don’t eat, what we say is the “best growing food” on their dinner plates that they should eat first, and what we don’t allow them to have outside the home, we begin to form their ideas about real food and nutrition at a very young age.

One morning when my oldest son was about six, I asked him some questions about real food. He accurately pegged blueberries as real food, said that bread would be sometimes, and sometimes not, and that a chocolate cupcake is real food but a blue frosted one is not. (We were working on identifying artificial colors at the time, so he explained that brown is not usually a fake color.)

Bread is real food if it’s homemade and “probably not” if it’s at a restaurant, and maybe from the store. He didn’t know what the processed bread might have that would be different from home, but that’s a great start! He also seemed to demonize sugar – if anything had sugar in the ingredients, he would say it was not real food. I’m okay with that.

I had dropped the conversation when he said, “Some cherries are real food and some aren’t.”

Huh?

“Like the cherries on top of our sundaes at a restaurant. Those aren’t real food.”

Why not? I couldn’t wait to find out.

“Just taste them, wow! There’s something else in there other than cherries!”

Yes, son, there sure is something else in there. I asked, “How about these dried cherries?” gesturing to the homemade granola we were eating (from Healthy Snacks to Go). He thought a moment, then decided they were probably real food. I pointed out that they’re pretty different than real cherries.

“Yeah, they’re probably just dehydrated though.”

Smart kid. Proud mama.

Boy holding a bunch of carrots and children chopping veggies.

How to Teach Kids About Healthy Eating

Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to take a step to connect kids with real food.

If you have kids, consider having a real food conversation to help them start differentiating between “real food” the way God made it and the fake food covering most of the shelves of the grocery store.

Here are my 5 top rules to help kids identify real food vs highly processed food:

1. If it doesn’t have a package or wrapper at all, it’s probably real food.

Reusable food bag filled with fresh veggies: cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and carrots.

Point out the lovely colors in the produce section and how you get to put your own food in a bag. Better yet, the Farmer’s Market is a great place to find real food without barcodes.

Other ways to state the same rule might include:

  • If you can pick it from a plant growing out of the ground, it’s probably real food.
  • If it has one ingredient, it’s almost always real food. For example: Carrots. Bananas. Blueberries. Lettuce.

2. If your great-great-grandmother would have recognized it and put it on the table, it’s probably real food.

Homemade rolls on a baking sheet.

There’s a scene in The Lorax movie where the main character is eating dinner with his mom and grandmother, and the three items on the plate are all brightly colored, reflecting light, and twanging around like Jell-O. “Don’t play with your food, Ted,” the mother says as Ted absent-mindedly bounces his green “broccoli” up and down.

“You either, Ma!” she says angrily as the grandma, one of my favorite characters in the film, bounces her fake food into the air and catches it in her mouth. Grandma knows how the world has changed, and I guarantee she’d tell anyone in a media interview that the food was not real food.

randma Lorax movie

I also turn to historical fiction, like the Little House series, to help unpack this rule. Those books open up many conversations about how food was prepared, the time it took to grow, harvest, and preserve food, and what people 100-200 years ago ate in general. Kids can understand real food after reading Little House in the Big Woods, and with very little prompting notice that Laura and her family don’t eat many sugary desserts and do eat a great deal of homemade, single ingredient foods.

What would great-great-grandma eat? Ask Laura Ingalls Wilder, or any child who has listened to or read her books.

3. If it looks more like a box of markers than a forest of trees or a field of flowers, it’s probably not real food.

Pile of colored sprinkles

In our house those artificial food colorings are an occasional compromise, while in others they are never to be consumed (they are neurotoxins, after all), but regardless of how you feel about them, fake food dyes are a clear indication that the food is processed. That’s not real food.

Teaching kids to look for the fake can help them separate that from the real.

4. If any of the ingredients are something you don’t recognize or don’t have in your kitchen, it’s probably not real food.

food nutrition label

When we talk to adults about real food, we usually say if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it’s likely a chemical made in a lab, and therefore not real food. (photo source)

Kids can’t pronounce a lot of things. But they can be taught to read ingredients as soon as they can read and ask for help on the big words. This will create food conversations about real food, fake food, and weird chemicals.

“What is partially hydrogenated soybean oil, Mom?” and “Dad? How do you say monosodium glutamate?” are the kinds of questions I want to hear. Hopefully when the parent realizes they don’t know what that is or how it’s made, they’ll consider strongly whether it should be in the food they’re serving their kids. (Or read up on trans fat or MSGs to learn more…)

5. If it has a cartoon character on the box or sugar/high fructose corn syrup in the first three ingredients, it’s not real food.

Brightly colored cereal boxes aimed at children and full of sugar.

Really, if it’s coming in a box, that’s a bad start, but this rule can again really open up some conversations. If the food industry needs help from a cartoon character to market their food, you can bet someone made it in a factory and probably made many of the ingredients in a lab.

Farmers can’t afford professional spokespeople, especially popularly branded animated ones.

Teaching kids to look for sugar near the front is another great skill to acquire. Ingredients are listed in the order of quantity, greatest to least. If sugar is near the front, there’s way too much involved.

My son is probably more accurate in saying that anything with sugar in the ingredients, period, is not real food, but I want to be realistic here too. A little sugar doesn’t automatically mean the food isn’t real – take our dried cherries. They do have added sugar, but they still pass (my) test.

High fructose corn syrup, on the other hand, should be branded “not real food.” It already breaks rule number 4, since people don’t have it in their kitchens. It’s also a signal, as Michael Pollan frequently points out, that the food is highly processed and best avoided.

An appropriate addendum to this rule is: If it contains high fructose corn syrup, do not eat it.

Another favorite foodie scene in The Lorax movie is at breakfast when Ted is eating “Empty O’s,” a cereal box emblazoned with things like “Fun fun fun!” and other non-nutritive, hilarious phrases, much like Maira Kalman’s illustrations in the newest version of Food Rules.

And am I the only one who noticed the irony of the Once-ler plying the animals and gaining their favor by corrupting them with marshmallows, truly the epitome of fake food?

Is Homemade Food Always Real Food?

My son is pretty sure that anything made at home is real food, and he should be confident in that because he has a mama who makes it a priority.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always true for some families because grocery store shelves are packed with convenience food that, even though you take it home and cook it, it’s still packed with processed food ingredients that aren’t beneficial for a growing body (or anybody, for that matter).

One last question to ask, if you’re brave enough, is this:

Can you make it at home?

If so, you probably should be. That’s where the bravery comes in. You might have to look up recipes for your packaged favorites, like

Of course, we teach kids to cook with our engaging online video cooking lessons, and we’re even seeing members in our VIP Facebook group share stories about their kids eating out and proclaiming, “I bet we can make this at home!” And then doing it with great success! I live for those success stories and it’s exactly the sort of mindset I’d like to build in all our children…but for many families, it’s not easy.

But it’s not your fault! A lot of adults are unsure of their own cooking skills, which is one reason I want to teach the young generation to cook now, so they don’t have that uncertainty when they’re out on their own.

For those of us in the, “Oh man, my mom never taught me to cook!” generation, the Traditional Cooking School eCourses are an amazing resource to learn to cook like your grandmother via video. They’re even offering a free video series to teach you how to “use traditional methods to prepare easy, delicious, and healing foods your family will LOVE.” You can sign up here. (Once inside, you’ll find courses on basic traditional cooking, pressure cooking, sourdough, einkorn, and so much more! You might even recognize a guest teacher in a few of the classes, ahem…) 😉

One of my most popular books will also help you out, if you can learn via the written word:

Better Than a Box: How to Transform Processed Food Recipes Into Whole Food FavoritesEvery real food cook needs some basic resources that everyone recognizes. If you have a desire to cook real food more fluently or gain confidence in remaking some of your own processed style recipes using only whole foods, you’ll love the bestselling eBook Better Than a Box.

With 60 ready-to-go recipes and 100 pages of kitchen tutorials, your family will be singing your real food praises in no time. Click HERE for more info on the premium package, including the Kindle version.

The Easy Way to Teach Kids to Eat Healthy

If you want your kids to eat real food, you can talk at them, give them rules, and explain real food…but if you want any lessons to “stick,” you’ll have to lead by example.

Surrounding your family with food that grows in the ground and eats things that grow in the ground needs to be a priority, or I fear many parts of the Lorax narrative, from the fake food to the deforestation to the over-materialism and consumerism, will come true. (Wait – that is already happening…)

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not. (Dr. Seuss, from The Lorax)

Other Ideas To Teach Your Kids About Real Food

  • Plan to make a recipe from scratch with your kids this week
  • Let them help with meal planning, weaving in conversation about how you choose to feed your family
  • Take a deliberate grocery shopping trip, with the goal of one of these:
    • Finding one new produce item your kids have never tried – let them pick it out for a taste test
    • Counting all the colors in the produce department
    • Reading some labels to look for a certain ingredient: MSGs, artificial sweeteners, or maybe just CORN – and discuss why you don’t buy those food products (for older kids)
    • Find out how many cereals have sugar in the first 3 ingredients
    • Do some math: compare the price of a processed box like cereal or pasta-roni with its parts to see how much you pay for the processing
  • Start a new family routine at the table – identifying the foods the kids think are probably in the meal, then telling them the recipe
  • If you don’t have rules already about trying new things, institute the “no thank you bite” rule (or “no thank you 3 bites”) where a child must try a new food before being allowed to say “no thank you.” Here are more tips to help picky eaters.
  • Pack a school lunch with your child, discussing balanced nutrition
  • Choose a new homemade snack and make it with your kids
  • If you have trouble sitting down to eat together, make that your goal at least once this week.
  • Make it a week with zero fast food stops
  • Commit as a family to avoiding some fake ingredient for a week (maybe artificial food colorings?)
  • Play “kitchen” with your little ones and talk about which of their play food would be “real food” if it was real, and what is just “fun food” to eat occasionally, or “junk food” – if you have never talked about categories like this with kids, it’s a great time to create the system. At our house, they’re “growing foods” and “fun foods” or “junk food.”

If You Don’t Have Kids of your own…

…you can still do something:

  • If you have kids in your life, like nieces and nephews, neighborhood friends, or grandchildren, choose an excellent real food recipe and make a date sometime in the future to make it with them.
  • Or just take those kids a real food treat to show how something without white sugar can taste awesome!
  • If you think/hope you might have kids someday read something this week on kids and nutrition, just to keep up with the information.
  • Read your school district’s lunch menu to see what you think.

And our video-based online kids cooking class makes an amazing gift!

What steps will you take this week to teach kids about eating healthy?

Movie images provided by Universal Pictures.

Curious what your kids can handle in the kitchen?

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Life Skills Goals in the Kitchen Printables
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