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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Why I love to teach nutrition to children

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

Barb Mayfield engages a group of preschoolers with a wonder box

What is your favorite food?

Why did you pick that food?

Does thinking about eating it conjure up good memories?

Was it one of your favorite foods when you were a child?

If not, are your favorite foods from your childhood still ones you love today?

Much of what drives our eating habits and the way we feel about food, stems from beliefs, preferences, and habits established long, long ago... back when we were young children.

Children are learning about food and nutrition every day, whether they know it or not. In fact, from a newborn's first feeding, a child's day-to-day experiences with food and eating affect the way they think and feel about nutrition for the rest of their lives. Therefore, the messages we give children about food – what we feed them, how we feed them, and what we teach them about nutrition – has a lifelong impact.

I believe children are one of our best audiences for nutrition education because lifelong beliefs and habits about food and health are established in childhood. Young children have tremendous potential for establishing lifelong healthy eating habits when provided with accurate, motivating, and age-appropriate learning experiences. We want to give kids positive messages that will impact what they eat today and for the rest of their lives.

You may wonder - are young children ready to learn nutrition? Yes! They can learn more than you might think, and most of what is really important.

The beauty of teaching young children is that they force us to keep our messages simple and focused on what is most important. With young children we want to instill in them a love for learning and a positive attitude about food and nutrition.

First, we want healthy, growing children who enjoy food and eating. This isn’t something that is taught formerly but happens as a result of the environment we provide and the attitude toward food and eating that we role model. This is learning that is “caught” rather than “taught.”

We want children to understand that food nourishes them and helps them grow. Eating gives us energy to run and play and helps us think and learn. We need to eat lots of different foods to be healthy. Food gives us strong, healthy bodies – strong bones, teeth, muscles. Children can learn to make smart food choices.

One of the most important things we can role model to children is a healthy opinion about our bodies. If we take good care of ourselves and don’t say derogatory statements about how we look, the children around us will feel better about themselves too. A child who feels good about themselves is more likely to feed themselves well and enjoy moving their body.

Nutrition education is really nothing more complicated than providing children with opportunities to enjoy eating and moving – two of life’s greatest pleasures. We nurture growing children in very profound ways when we create environments that promote these behaviors, when we help them learn about them, and when most of all, we DO them.

Now let's look at how young children learn. . . I like to use the phrase "Help children build bridges with concrete" to illustrate three principles of early childhood education. . .

"Help children" stands for self-learning. In other words, don't teach children what they can discover for themselves. Help kids learn by taking advantage of their natural curiosity.

“Build bridges” stands for meaningful learning. That is – connecting what they already know to what you want to teach them.

“With concrete” reminds us that kids don't learn abstractly, they need to be taught using concrete, active methods. Have them use a variety of their senses and their entire bodies if possible to understand a concept.

The free nutrition lessons for children on my resources page are filled with learning activities designed to “help children build bridges with concrete.” Children learn how to nourish their growing bodies with delicious food and move their bodies through physical activity:

"The best things you can give to children, next to good habits, are good memories."

Sydney Harris

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