If we want children to eat more healthily, it’s best to explain why

I read this week about concerns that, in the UK, conditions such as scurvy and rickets are on the way back as a result of dietary deficiencies. A shift in the diet away from nutritious fare towards ‘junk’ and fast foods is said to be to blame. My experience is that many parents are keen to ensure that their children eat well, but sometimes are concerned that despite their best efforts, their child will steadfastly refuse to ‘eat their greens’.

This week, I came across this report regarding research into an approach to healthier eating in pre-school children. In this study, children were allowed access to literature about nutrition during snack breaks. Other children just had normal snack breaks with no access to nutrition literature [1]. The study lasted about three months.

According to the report, the children who had read the nutrition literature had a better understanding of things like the fact that food contains nutrients, and that different kinds of nutrients were important for various bodily functions. They were also more knowledgeable about processes such as the digestion of food in the stomach and the transport of nutrients in the bloodstream. Interestingly, these children also more than doubled their intake of vegetables during snack time, whereas the amount that the other children ate stayed about the same.

I like this research, at least in part because it utterly confirms what I have found in practice regarding diet, children and health: Even quite young children generally have enormous capacity to grasp nutritional and health concepts. What is more, I find it overwhelmingly true that usually the best way to get these concepts over to a child is to present them to the child directly. That is why, as much as possible, I speak directly to any child I see in practice (though I usually make remarks directly to the parent or carer too). Once a child understands the importance of a concept, I find they often become quite committed to it and ‘self-policing’.

I don’t think children are fundamentally different to adults in their thinking and behaviour: they are generally more likely to make and persist with changes if they understand how and why those changes may benefit them. It takes two minutes to explain the importance of blood sugar control or the potential role of milk in their eczema to a 5-year-old, but I’ve found the impact can be lasting and profound.

I think the method of delivery can be important too, and I’m always wary of patronising children. I try to avoid the modified way of speaking sometimes used with children. I may modify my vocabulary a bit and be slightly more playful, but when I talk to children about health I essentially talk to them as I would an adult. My belief is that children have much more ability to grasp health concepts than we sometimes give them credit for and don’t appreciate being talked to like they’re idiots.

How may this educational approach be useful for parents and carers? Well, for one, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to seek to inform children about nutrition and health. We may need to go beyond the ‘eat this because it’s good for you’ approach, and actually explain why that is. The same goes for less healthy fare.

Children are usually naturally curious and generally have considerable capacity to soak up information. Meal times provide a good opportunity to impart some nutritional knowledge. While these interactions need not be ‘sermons from the mount’, I think we should not shy away from giving children information and guidance on how to eat and live healthily, including some detail on why this is important where appropriate. If we don’t do this, we risk having our children believe the nonsense and misinformation usually dispensed by the food industry and those in its pay.


1. Gripshover S J, et al. Teaching Young Children a Theory of Nutrition: Conceptual Change and the Potential for Increased Vegetable Consumption. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612474827

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16 Responses to If we want children to eat more healthily, it’s best to explain why

  1. PhilT 5 July 2013 at 6:46 am #

    Interesting – potentially more useful than sex education ! Teach them nutrition before the education system has knocked their inquiring minds for 6.

  2. Paul C 5 July 2013 at 7:42 am #

    What I’m worried about is who decides what nutritional information to give them.

    Currently, it would be those pushing a low-fat, “heart healthy”, whole grains with everything, red meat is bad diet… and therefore more young minds would be indoctrinated with that ridiculous dogma.

  3. Jean 5 July 2013 at 8:01 am #

    We do underestimate children and we feed them rubbish (in the literal and figurative sense).
    If you think how many children have grasped the ‘low fat’ message, through the media and listening to their parents, it is pretty obvious that they can understand these concepts. They just need to be told the truth.

  4. @lowcarb_zealot 5 July 2013 at 8:02 am #

    Unfortunately, we are often contradicting the latest fashionable “healthy” eating guidelines that the media are bombarding our children with on a daily basis, which can make the task more challenging. Low fat dietary advice still predominates, and such foods are being heavily marketed as healthy. Bran flakes are 22% sugar and when the recommended 30 g are taken with 125 ml skimmed milk the breakfast contains 13 g of sugars (the equivalent of about 3 teaspoons of table sugar).

    Our kids see us eating all wonders of fresh vegetables, meat and full-fat dairy, so hopefully, monkey see, monkey do…..

  5. Annabel Boys 5 July 2013 at 8:08 am #

    I absolutely agree!!! I have been encouraging my daughter to make good choices about food since we realised she is milk intolerant (about age 2). She very quickly learned what she could or couldn’t have. Although she has never liked much fruit she understands the importance of fresh veg and happily counts up the portions that she has (always something green). We rarely reach the five-a-day proper portions recommended – but the important thing is that she knows what the good choices are. Getting her to help read the labels in supermarkets (when I forget my glasses) has also had a huge affect on her awareness of additives and which biscuits etc are better.

  6. KeithE 5 July 2013 at 8:51 am #

    How do you easily explain this to children ” It takes two minutes to explain the importance of blood sugar control or the potential role of milk in their eczema to a 5-year-old, but I’ve found the impact can be lasting and profound” Any help to get through to 9 year old would be a big help.

  7. Muni 5 July 2013 at 11:09 am #

    My opinion is to set them the example. The reason so many kids eat badly is because their parents do. I believe in set mealtimes, at the table properly. I may be regarded as old fashioned but I am a firm believer in a family eating together, having good conversation and making meals a very pleasant time.

    Of course junk food should only have a very limited place in anyone’s diet. If parents choose to obtain good basic ingredients, cook meals and eat them with their kids then it goes a long long way to set up good habits for them. If parents are sitting snacking and eating ready meals and takeaways frequently, what do they think their kids will do too?

  8. Emma 5 July 2013 at 11:42 am #

    I particularly like the point about speaking to them in a similar way to adults. My son is 8 years old but one of our doctors (the other two are excellent) will ignore his presence entirely. He has been perfectly capable of speaking for himself for years!
    Incidently, he loves his vegetables but I’m not sure how much credit we can take for that other than liking them ourselves.
    After reading this article I think I’ll brush up on some facts – thanks.

  9. Jonathan Bagley 5 July 2013 at 11:58 am #

    In general, for example yesterday’s reports suggesting fast food is junk and children should be forced to walk a qurter of a mile a day: what do these experts have in mind when they talk about junk food? Footballers are given pizzas after games. The McDonalds in the 2012 Olympics athletes’ village was the busiest in the world. I looked up the nutritional information for a McDonalds quarter pounder and medium fries It is around 800 calories including 34 gms of protein and 89 gms of carbohydrate. That doesn’t seem too bad for a growing boy. Describing it as junk food suggests it has no nutritional value, which is nonsense. It even contributes 20% of daily vitamin C requirement. Like any other food, I wouldn’t suggest living on it alone, but surely once a week as part of a varied diet is okay? If that’s the case, it is not “junk”. Secondly, I’m a fan of exercise, and a child walking 400m a day will probably do him some good, but on its own, it won’t make much inroad into obesity. The calories burned are equal to 0.15 of a chocolate digestive.
    I’d like to know what these people define as junk food. Everyone appears to have their own definition in mind. I don’t think politicians have any definition in mind. Most of them haven’t given the matter any thought.

  10. mister worms 5 July 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    I completely agree with your approach and we talk a lot about the reasoning behind our food choices at home with our 4 year old. For the past year or more I’d say she has a good grasp of which foods are nutritious and which are junky and potentially harmful to our health. She also understands the difference between avoiding foods which she is allergic to (strict avoidance) vs. foods which may cause a delayed reaction like wheat and dairy.

    I’ve heard some interesting commentary on this approach. The grandparents claim that I will make her want junky food more by discouraging it and “just wait until she gets older and can buy her own food…” Others believe that labeling foods good and bad is a set-up for disordered eating.

    They may have good points if this was just about giving orders to kids. That’s why I think that explanations and reasoning are essential to kids becoming good decision makers and thoughtful critics of messaging they will encounter throughout life.

  11. Sheila 5 July 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    I love that you don’t use the patronizing or sing song voice with children, I hated it when people would talk down to my children,or any child. Children are always watching you,and will follow your example. We ate broccolli with a smile even though we didn’t care for it because I didn’t want picky eaters, well I have the only kids I know that eat liver, squash, spinach, and all sorts of weird things like kale. Whatever I eat, they like because we raised them around healthy food and concepts. We eat butter, whole grains (no wheat, allergic!) but quinoa, oats, etc, greens, root veg, fruit… everything in moderation. And they are healthy, glowing skin, lovely hair, slender rosy children…. 🙂 It’s our attitudes toward our bodies that help our children be healthy.

  12. Mark Struthers 6 July 2013 at 7:13 am #

    Sadly, the powerful forces of law, order and medicine … are woefully ignorant about how scurvy and rickets are on the way back …


    … and the way these diagnoses can be mistaken for Shaken Baby Syndrome … with utterly disastrous results.

  13. Simon 8 July 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more! We need to not only better educate our youth, but also set examples, especially as parents. We should show our kids that we’re not above eating healthy and try to stock the fridge with healthy fruits and veggies, preferably ones kids like, if you have a kid who’s a picky eater!

  14. Jill H 9 July 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    Yes – I agree but I also remember Jamie Oliver a few years ago holding up vegetables in a classroom for children to identify – many could not name which vegetable he was holding and that shocked me. I am so thankful that my two sons, when aged eight and eleven attended a school in The Netherlands where boys attended cookery classes as well as carpentry and girls attended carpentry as well as cookery classes. Both sons, married now, fully commit to helping my daughter-in-laws (one British, one American) to cook family meals. Why I think it is important for children to learn cookery skills in school, or at home, (my husband is an excellent cook – his mother taught him) , I believe, is really well put in Michael Pollen’s new book ‘Cooked’

    “We’ve had a hundred years of packaged foods” a food-marketing consultant told me, “and now we’re going to have a hundred years of packaged meals.”

    “This is a problem – for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land, but also how our eating connects us to the world. Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is.”

    The choice probably, for most of us, is to occupy a place somewhere between ‘home cooking from scratch’ versus ‘fast food prepared by corporations’. The package of vegetables in the freezer, the can of wild salmon, are useful. And this is anecdotal, of course, not in any way scientific – but I do believe that children getting a chance to pick fruits and vegetables from gardens (or a herb pot on a windowsill) and be included in the simple preparation of those raw ingredients of nature into a simple, and tasty meal – is the single most important thing my husband and I did to nourish and hopefully improve general health and well-being for our family and ensure these simple skills from my grandmother, and my husbands mother, get handed down to our grandchildren.

  15. Jolene @ Yummy Inspirations 14 July 2013 at 11:40 am #

    Exactly! Even my 3 year old understands the simple concept that too much orange irritates the eczema on his face and reminds his Daddy that he is only allowed “a little bit or it will make him sore.” Also, my 5 year old proudly shows off his muscles during meals because we explain to him that eating his meat will help him grow big muscles like his Daddy. Meat has always been his least favorite food group, so this concept has helped him willingly eat more meat.

  16. Tom Naughton 15 July 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    Not to honk my own horn (or my girls’ own horns), but that’s what their new video series is about: explaining the concepts to other kids.


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