September 2012 Issue

Teaching Kids About Nutrition — Creative, Fun-Filled Education Captures This Crowd’s Attention
By Lori Zanteson
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 14 No. 9 P. 14

Information and quotes in the following article were taken from “How to Teach Nutrition to Kids: Secrets and Strategies for Success,” a FREE 1 CPE webinar with Connie Evers, offered by Skelly Publishing. Available here.

Within the last several decades, the message of children’s nutrition has gotten lost in the wave of convenience foods and supersize portions. Generations of kids have grown up dependent on what has become a normal diet of high-fat, high-sugar foods and beverages. Coupled with widespread physical inactivity, it’s no surprise that childhood obesity is more prevalent than ever.

Fortunately, the nation has turned its attention to this epidemic in hopes of turning the tide. Dietitians, leaders in this battle for change, are using innovative strategies to teach kids about nutrition when given the opportunity to promote healthful lifestyles.

Obesity in children aged 2 to 19 has almost tripled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Our environment has a lot to do with it,” says Connie Evers, MS, RD, author of How to Teach Nutrition to Kids. Not only are processed foods, solid fats, and added sugars consumed in excess, Evers explains, but portion sizes are larger. Families are eating out more than ever, and even the plates they eat on at home are bigger. Combine this with the reduction in physical activity in children aged 9 to 15, and the results aren’t very shocking.

Compounding the issue are societal factors such as homes with two working parents, the onslaught of video games, and fewer nutrition and physical education classes in schools. But despite these obstacles, Evers says, dietitians can help children find a balance and form healthful habits and attitudes even amid challenging lifestyles.

It’s all in how you deliver the message, according to Evers, who calls for an FIB approach—one that’s fun, integrated, and behavioral—to teach nutrition to children. Evers’ book discusses how to teach nutrition to kids of any age in any setting in as little as 10 minutes to an hour. Of course the educator, whether a schoolteacher, cafeteria worker, parent, or RD, has to be fun and engaging before behavioral change can begin. “If it’s another lecture,” she says, “it’s not going to be successful.”

Hands On
Teaching preschoolers often involves children and parents in a preschool setting, a WIC waiting room, or an RD’s office. Kids aged 5 and younger love to manipulate with their hands, Evers says, so drawing, cutting, and pasting are great ways to integrate nutrition education. Evers suggests asking children to draw a picture of themselves eating a meal with their family. Equipped with paper and crayons, dietitians can encourage children to pay special attention to the food on their plates. Dialogue should flow freely about what types of foods they’re drawing, which are their favorites, and what they like most about enjoying a meal with their family.

Alternatively, RDs can give the children magazines that have lots of food pictures in them to cut and paste onto their drawings. This exercise makes it easy to guide children toward healthful food options and for parents to see the better choices as well. RDs can bring parents into the discussion by asking how the family can make a particular meal healthier by including more nutritious foods.

When it comes to elementary school-aged kids, books and stories are the “spark to get me going,” says Evers, who borrows loads of children’s books from her local library to teach kids how to eat healthfully. Fairy tales, modern superhero stories, or whatever else the kids love is the place to start, she says. “That’s the fun. Kids love to read and share their favorite stories.”

To integrate nutrition messages, Evers asks kids to add a twist to their favorite fairy tale by drawing, retelling, or writing a new version of the story—depending on their age and skill level—with a nutrition component. For example, for Hansel and Gretel, Evers may ask the children to tell the story as if the witch were really a nice witch who wanted to feed her young guests healthful snacks and have the kids describe what her house would be made of instead of candy. Next, Evers may provide graham crackers or whole grain flatbread, vegetables, dried fruit, and various nut butters for the frosting and have the kids actually build and decorate a house with those ingredients. The best part for Evers—and no doubt the children—is when they ask to eat it.

Role Play
Weight management is an especially sensitive issue for tweens and teens—and it’s not just a touchy subject for girls anymore. Boys are increasingly experiencing angst about their weight, muscle mass, and issues surrounding steroid use to bulk up. Tweens are the perfect candidates for role playing because it allows them to act like someone else in a group setting. A teacher, counselor, or RD can have the kids act out a scenario involving nutrition issues, such as a girl responding to a friend who wants her to join her on a cleansing diet that she heard her favorite celebrity uses. As the girls get more comfortable, Evers suggests having them create their own real-life scenarios. Follow-up discussions can be helpful for this group to prevent them from feeling isolated in their experiences and equip them with tools to make healthful choices.

Tween and teen girls may respond well to a discussion built around popular teen, women’s, and celebrity gossip magazines. Teaching this age group how to deconstruct the media also is a valuable tool. A discussion of how models look and how society, the media, and these kids define beauty is a great beginning. With guidance, they start to see the disconnect in advertisements that show a very thin model promoting potato chips or other junk food. Alternatively, dietitians can have them look for athletic bodies and note, perhaps, how underrepresented they are and why that is. Lastly, dietitians can ask if these models represent the majority of students.

Market It
Kids, no matter the age, respond to marketing. So one of the best tools nutrition professionals can employ is creativity. This generation responds to the “wow factor,” so in the name of creating healthful habits, why not give it to them? School foodservice RDs are doing amazing healthful food marketing by educating youngsters about new foods and incorporating them in the cafeteria in fun, innovative ways, Evers says. They’re providing food tastings; serving on black plates to make food more attractive; offering make-your-own pizza, sandwiches, and salads; and even renaming foods with catchy, fun monikers, and the kids are responding. The great thing about these ideas, Evers says, is that they’ll work in any setting. Parents can do this at home, and RDs can host tastings in their office so young clients can learn to enjoy nutritious foods hands on. The bonus is that the kids learn to like coming to the RD’s office.

— Lori Zanteson is a southern California-based food and health writer whose work has appeared in various publications.


At-Home Activities for Clients
• Have kids choose a healthful food of the week.

• Learn about the food’s history, folklore, and culinary uses (online or at the library) in various cultures and how to choose the best quality.

• Plan a meal around the food and shop for it and other ingredients for the meal.

• Prepare the meal together.

• Carefully present it on plates to highlight attractiveness.

• Give it a fun, catchy name.

• Serve the meal to the family and enjoy it together.

• Ask the kids whether they liked the food, and discuss different ways to incorporate it into a future meal.