How to Teach Kids to Eat Healthy? Traffic Light Eating!
Healthy eating, clean living, and similar phrases are becoming more and more common with each passing year. By now, most of us know the importance of eating as well as possible. Many of us can discern a good food choice from a poor one. The problem, however, lies in the execution of these choices for many of us. How do we stick to healthy food choices as a lifestyle?
Do we go Paleo? Perhaps we bite the bullet and go all in as a vegan. These days it feels almost as though you have to pick a diet and align yourself. Then you add kids into the mix, and things get even hairier. Many parents will choose a diet for themselves, and let kids be kids because kids eat kid food. Right?! Or parents will have the children adopt the new fad diet as well. But what is that teaching our youngsters about nutrition and making healthy choices when it comes to food? Luckily, I have a simple solution.
Let's begin by quickly going over why learning health tips that are easy enough to teach to your kids is essential. It's not enough, anymore, to assume that the average kid will grow up and figure out how to live healthfully.
Today, they are bombarded with choices, serving sizes, and media messages that are intentionally designed to deceive them, and get them addicted (that's a different post entirely) to big food industry products. It's big business, and big money is being made at our kids' expense.
Did you know that 15-20 % of kids are overweight? That is TRIPLE the rate it was 30 years ago! And, on average, kids are eating about 1 lbs of sugar a day! Numbers like these are a problem, guys, and we have an environment that is setting an entire generation up for a lifetime of health-related issues.
The studies on this specific way of teaching nutrition found that the percentage of kids whose parents who used this method who ate 3 or more servings of fruits and veggies increased from 19-23%. Most importantly, it's easy to understand to implement (and stick to!) in the home - with parents who learned this method reporting a 4.43 out of a 5-confidence level about maintaining the behaviors. Those are huge successes!
One of the best ways to think about your child's body and nutrition is to liken the body to a machine such as a car. Cars run their best when they are cared for properly.
Just like a car needs gas, your child's growing body needs healthy food to use a fuel to run it's best. Your child needs food with nutrients such as protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water is your child's fuel to grow, think, play, and live. Without the right fuel, your child can become tired and not feel well. Poor nutrition can lead to childhood obesity and even diabetes. However, with the right fuel, your child's body will run it's best and allow your child a happy and healthy life.
So let's stick with the car analogy. Just like a car needs gas, the traffic lights tell us what to do. One of the easiest ways to help your child eat healthily is to teach them Traffic Light Eating. In the traffic light eating system, we categorize food into three different groups. Green Light Foods, Yellow Light Foods, and Red Light Foods.
Green Light Foods are "GO" Foods. These are foods you should encourage your child to eat plenty of throughout the day. Green light foods are:
1. High in Nutrients
3. Grown and not manufactured, and
4. Can also be called "grow foods," "Be Strong Foods," or "Keep you from getting sick foods."
5. These foods can be eaten as much during the day as you want.
Yellow Foods are "slow down" foods. They are OK to eat every day, but not too much. The Yellow Light group contains some foods that might be surprising to you such as lean red meats, eggs, shrimp, and cheese. Yellow light foods are foods that offer us vital nutrients such as fat and protein, however, can be harmful when eaten to excess. The great thing about traffic light eating is that no matter what your food philosophy is in your home - traffic light eating can still be applied. For example, if your home is a vegetarian home than this is the category you would place your beans, non-diary milk, soy products, nuts, etc.
Grains, brown rice/pasta, whole grain cereal, nuts & seeds, olive oil, and butter fall into the yellow light category. I like to advise clients to think of traffic light eating as a continuum, of sorts. You can have a food item such as nuts, that is a yellow light food, but closer to a green light food, than say, soy foods/products which is a yellow light food also but can be closer to a red light food depending on how it's processed.
Of all three of the categories, identifying yellow light foods can sometimes be the trickiest, but with practice, your child will get it. In my home, it's become an ongoing game, that get's particularly fun at the Grandma's houses. Where we will debate and go back in forth about where food, usually a treat, belongs. In the end, the kids will end up getting the treat, but we have turned it into a memorable, and silly teaching moment.
Red Light Foods are "stop and think" foods. These are foods that you are encouraged to think about so that you can make a better choice. Red Light Foods are little more natural to identify - most of the time. All of our classic junk foods belong here, including almost all fast food out there. Although, there are exceptions. Processed foods are often red light foods, but you can be sure by reading the label. Again, we'll save that for an entirely different post - Where we'll discuss what you'll be looking for on the label to help you decide whether it's a yellow light food or red light food.
If it comes from a box, can, or package - buyer beware. Chips, cookies & cakes, candy, ice-cream, frozen yogurt, pastries & donuts, and fatty meats are all examples of red light foods are might seem obvious - Some red light foods that might surprise you. Believe it or not, white rice & bread, sugar beverages like soda and juice, and processed meats including deli meats, hot dogs, and of course bacon are all red light foods, also.
If you walk away from this post remembering anything I want it to be this, don't over think it and have fun. The more you can discuss traffic light eating at home, the more ingrained it will be in your kids. More so, kids get into this, guys! In our house, it's a game. It's not uncommon to hear: "Quick: is this a green light food?!" at our dinner table. It's super easy to turn this into something fun, and as an added benefit, us grown-ups end up making better choices as well.