’ll be honest: I’m not a big believer in the food pyramid. I also don’t like these plates that show kids what they’re supposed to be eating at every sitting. Watch a toddler. What (and how much) they eat on any given day will change depending on how active they’ve been, how they’re feeling, and whether or not they’re in the middle of a growth spurt—and older kids are much the same way. My middle child can go for days eating next to nothing, and then out of nowhere out-eat my husband. My eldest (11) typically skips breakfast because she’s not awake for it, but she chows down at lunch to make up for it. Their nutritional needs are very different, not just from one child to the next, but from one day to the next—and there’s no pre-designed diet that is going to give them that (especially when you take into account picky eating habits).
On the other hand, it is important for kids to learn—and learn early—how to make healthy food choices. I’m not talking about a kid who worries over every calorie that goes into their mouths. Calorie counting shouldn’t start until they are much, much older. It is, however, important for kids to understand what kinds of foods they should be eating, and why—and as a homeschooling parent, you have the perfect opportunity to share that with them: lunchtime.
Many times, school lunches leave a great deal to be desired—and the fact that kids pick and choose what they want, often diving into the least healthy options first, makes them even worse. At home, on the other hand, you get to choose what your child eats every day—or if not what they eat, then at least what is prepared for them. Take advantage of that! It might not be appropriate every day; but at least one day a week, discuss why you’ve chosen the meals that you have, and why you expect them to choose a wide variety of foods for it.
Go over the food pyramid. Not as a strict guide that must be adhered to, but as a starting place. Explain that they should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day, and that they should choose from all of the different areas when they’re selecting what they should eat—and why.
Explain why whole grains are better. Sometimes, all kids know is that they prefer fluffy white bread to the whole wheat varieties. (Or, on the flip side, they may not notice the difference if you make the switch.) Explain to them why whole grains are better for them, and discuss the benefits of using bleached versus unbleached flour.
Talk about preservatives. I have one child who could eat anything she wanted at any time, and her behavior would be little different. Her brother, on the other hand, turns into a demon child when he consumes too many chemical-laden products—so pre-packaged snacks are all but banned from our house, and I do much of my cooking from scratch. In spite of the fact that most of the time, home-baked goods taste better (and I don’t always insist on whole wheat flour!), my kids are still tempted by bright packages promising the most delicious treat of all. They also, however, understand why we don’t have a lot of those kinds of snacks, which makes them much more likely to decide against them when they’re out on their own.
Discuss the whole foods concept. The closer a food is to its natural state, the better it is for you. Kids tend to like their food processed and far, far away from its natural state; but when you have this discussion with them, they might surprise you. It is possible that they would be just as happy to be handed an apple as they would be over a slice of apple pie.
Keep sweets in moderation. Eliminating tempting sweet foods entirely just makes them that much more enticing when kids are out and about, and makes them that much more likely to make bad choices when they’re given the opportunity. On the other hand, allowing them to choose a sweet each night after they complete their dinner, or on special occasions, without arguing or making a fuss about it, goes a long way toward teaching them how to make better choices. Small portions and occasional treats are not a bad thing. On the flip side, allowing children free access to as much candy as they care to eat is not a healthy choice and can lead to bad eating habits well into adulthood.
Being home with your kids gives you a great opportunity to discuss all these things and more with them—and to present them with healthy choices. You can’t always control what they put in their mouths, but you can definitely give them a leg up on making the best possible choices.