How do I talk to my children about the importance of good food in ways that they can understand?

  • Posted by Dr. Jay Gordon

You have to talk to children at the level they are on intellectually. When three-year-olds and four-year-olds come in for their checkup, we talk about how they can grow bigger and stronger muscles if they eat vegetables and spaghetti and fruit. I tell them that if they eat cookies and candies and greasy foods, they won’t be able to jump and play the way they’d like. At home, the parents can then build on “what the doctor told you.”

A couple of years later, I talk about specific activities that the child may like such as baseball, soccer, swimming, or whatever. Then I ask, “Do you think you’ll be able to run and kick better if you eat French fries and milkshakes or if you eat vegetable and fruit?” They have no trouble coming up with the right answer. We talk about which fruits and vegetables are their favorites, and I assure them that eating those vegetables is just the right thing to do if you want to be the best player on the team. I stress the fact that they’re “big kids now” and they know better than to eat sweets and meat. I say, “Only little kids think that’s good for you!” I also encourage them to eat backwards once in a while. Have cereal for dinner, and spaghetti for breakfast. It’s fun, and it makes the day’s meals more interesting.

It’s effective to put mental pictures in a child’s head. I call fast food hamburgers “greaseburgers” and refer to cheese as “chunks of fat.” We describe how butter looks if you leave it in the hot sun so it gets “all gushy.” Ask your six-year-old if he’d want to rub that greasy butter all over his face and hair. Of course, he wouldn’t. So explain that’s just what he’s doing when he eats a hamburger and fries, only he’s rubbing it on the inside. Yuck!

As the child gets older, we talk about “brain food” and the benefit to his grades if he eats the right way.

If you have teenagers, you can talk about how they look. Kids who eat lowfat, low-sugar vegetarian meals don’t have acne, sallow skin, or greasy hair. They look vibrant and alive. They are full of energy and can really enjoy school and extracurricular activities. No one wants a date who’s covered in makeup to hide bad skin and who’s too tired from an unhealthy diet to enjoy several hours of dancing.

Remember, use examples with immediate rewards. Young people don’t think in terms of tomorrow. They live and breathe for today. They’re more interested in the benefits at 15 than 50.