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Implementing Nutrition Basics: How to Teach Your Child to Eat Right

Written by Julia Tortorice
Photo by: Syvwich (Flickr)

Photo by: Syvwich (Flickr)

Learn how to read nutrition and ingredient labels and teach your kids the same!

Implementing Nutrition Basics: How to Teach Your Child to Eat Right

Children are notoriously fussy eaters, often preferring sweets to greens. I can't say that I blame them. At times, a candy bar sounds much better than a plate of spinach, but the truth is, obesity is an epidemic in the United States. It's not often the fault of children, either. Part of good parenting is teaching kids about nutrition; don't leave this job to schools. To set a good example, eat right yourself. Here's how to teach the importance of good nutrition to your children.

Children and Obesity

Chances are, the first thing you're going to hear when you begin the process of teaching nutrition to kids is some whining and moaning. I'm going to arm you with an arsenal of facts to help strengthen your resolve as to why good nutrition for kids is important. Here are some numbers about childhood obesity in the U.S.:

  • In 1980, 5% of U.S. children were obese; today 16% to 33% of U.S. children and teens are obese. These alarming numbers include children as young as 2 years old.

  • Nearly 300,000 children in the U.S. die each year from childhood obesity.

  • Obese children suffer from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, joint/bone disease, psychological and sociological issues, and sleep apnea just as obese adults do.

  • As obese children grow, they tend to remain obese as adults and suffer from additional health complications including cancer, osteoarthritis, and stroke.

These facts are enough to make anyone want to eat healthier and exercise, and they prove how critical it is to teach our children healthy eating habits at a young age. Despite how much your children may fight you over broccoli now, they'll thank you later. A healthy child has a far better chance of growing into a healthy adult, so let's talk about how you're going to teach your kids about good nutrition.

Do the Math

The first step to take is to determine the proper daily nutritional intake for each of your children. This is best done by consulting with your pediatrician. Either your pediatrician will break down each child's daily nutritional needs, or he or she will refer you to a child nutritionist. Either way, you'll need to know exactly how many calories per day each kid needs so you can incorporate an eating plan in line with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid.

A basic guideline to follow is the USDA's recommended daily caloric intake. The USDA suggests:



Daily Caloric Intake


2 to 3



4 to 8

1,200 to 1,400


9 to 13



9 to 13



14 to 18



14 to 18


These are great numbers to go by, but I would still discuss each child's daily nutritional intake requirements with your family doctor. Every child is different, and one of your kids might have extenuating circumstances requiring more or fewer calories than the average guidelines. Their level of activity must also be considered when calculating nutritional needs. Tailor the nutritional needs to each kid and read on to find out how your children should be getting this nutrition.

Food Pyramid

The food pyramid has been in the news recently. After years of eating one way, we've discovered that way was all wrong. A guideline heavy in meat and dairy has been given a healthy makeover to focus more on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Part of teaching nutrition to kids is showing them what they should eat every day and how much of it. This is why the food pyramid is such a nifty tool when you're teaching kids about nutrition. You can print it, hang it on your refrigerator, and use it in your meal and snack planning. According to the food pyramid good nutrition for kids includes:

  • 2 servings of meat, poultry, fish, or meat alternative a day.

  • 2 to 3 servings of dairy (i.e., milk, cheese, and yogurt)

  • 4 or more servings of fruits and vegetables

  • 6 or more servings of whole grains (i.e., breads, cereals, rice, etc.)

Again, these guidelines offer maximum nutrition to your children, but you should always discuss the guidelines with your child's pediatrician to determine his or her exact nutritional needs. One thing you definitely want to keep in mind is variety, not only because kids can get bored with food but also because the greater variety of foods often leads to the better nutrition. Also, fats and sugars such as chips, fries, and desserts, all the things we love, need to be kept to a minimum each day. In fact, these foods should become special treats only.

How to Implement Your Plan

You have the daily nutritional requirements for each of your children tucked in your back pocket, now it's time to implement your plan. Teaching nutrition to kids does not have to be a battle. There are many ways to teach your children how to eat right without fussing and arguments. Teaching kids about nutrition should include a ton of hands-on/family oriented activities; after all, good nutrition for kids is going to require a lot of healthy grocery shopping choices and cooking. Here are some ideas:

  • Sit down with each child and go over the food pyramid. Have your kids tell you what their favorites are from each category. Find healthy recipes for the kids' favorite foods and encourage your kids to go shopping with you to pick up the ingredients. If they are old enough, they can help you prepare foods once you get home.

  • Play online education games designed to teach your children about good nutrition. Some excellent resources are the USDA, ChooseMyPlate, and PBSKids websites.

  • Consider implementing a "food allowance" plan in your home. If you already give your children an allowance for chores they complete in the household or other reasons, consider giving your children an allowance to reward them each time they make a positive and nutritional food choice.

  • Turn "kid nutrition" into "entire family nutrition" and live by example. Implement healthy nutrition for the adults in your family too and stick to it. You cannot expect your children to learn about or stick to a nutritional diet if you're bringing home hamburgers and fries from your local fast-food restaurant. Reduce the amount of fatty, sugary foods in the house as a whole.

  • Include important lessons such as portion control, healthy snack choices, and exercise. Part of America's obesity epidemic is because we eat too much in one sitting and don't work it off. Teaching your children the appropriate portions and healthy snack choices ensures they'll make those healthy choices in the afternoon while you're at work.

My final suggestion is to stick to it. Your children are probably going to fight you on this, so stick to your guns and don't negotiate. No, it's not a good idea to force foods they can't stand down their throats, but you can come to a compromise by finding healthy alternatives to favorite unhealthy foods. The most important thing is to give your children the tools and knowledge they'll need for nutrition in their adult life. So, go get 'em and teach them how to eat right!