‘Dear Ms. Turner, We gotta have a garden;’ how to grow healthy habits in kids

FEATURE — At the end of the school year, my 9-year-old son brought home his writing journal.  As I flipped through it, I fell in love with this letter:

Child’s letter to Ms. Turner | Photo by Emily Fonnesbeck, St. George Health and Wellness magazine, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge | See text in type at close of article

Apparently my kids do listen to me.  However, JC said it better than I ever could.

What I loved most about this letter is JC realizing eating plants is the best way to be compassionate to others and to the environment.  As we cultivate and utilize more fresh, plant-based foods, we can more adequately use our (dwindling) natural resources to feed all those that need it, given that half the global population is inadequately nourished.

The best place to start is to educate children and inspire them to grow, eat, and share plant-based foods.

Aside from using pots, planter boxes, or areas of land to grow your own food (a fantastic idea), here are some other tips to encourage healthy food habits in your children:

1.  Do not use food as a reward or bribe

I know, it is so hard not to do.  But promising dessert after dinner or as a reward for an accomplishment may create an emotional attachment to food, leading to health and weight problems later in life.  Some alternative ideas may be earning extra screen time, a new board game, family activity nights or expanding privileges.

2.  Take children grocery shopping and involve them in meal planning and meal preparation

Allow them to pick what fruits and vegetables look and sound appealing while discussing ways to use them for meals and snacks.  As they plan meals, it may help to choose fruit and vegetables, a complex carbohydrate (oats, brown rice, wheat, corn, potatoes, whole grain pasta) and a lean protein (beans, nuts and seeds, fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy) for each meal.  When they can take ownership, they are more likely to eat and enjoy the food.

3.  Do not make mealtime a struggle

Your only job as a parent is to provide a good example by creating a healthy environment.  From there, your children will decide how much and what they eat.  Don’t overstep your boundaries to manipulate food intake, which may lead to unhealthy relationships with food.  Remember that children (and even adults!) need at least ten neutral exposures to a food before deciding if they do or do not like it.

4.  Children will eat what’s available

If you have unhealthy choices around, they will eat them.  When you create a healthy environment where fruits and vegetables are convenient for them to grab, they are more likely to do so.  Also, never chastise for unhealthy choices (especially if you are the one bringing them home).  Keep the message positive by focusing on what to add, not subtract.  Praise healthy behaviors rather than berating it.

5.  Eat meals as a family

Research shows that children who eat with their parents eat healthier meals and are less likely to engage in problematic behaviors as teenagers.  Win, win!

In order to change our nutritional environment, we must start with our children.  Creating healthy habits at a young age allows them to avoid or break the cycle of disordered eating and be a voice for change.  What a gift we give a child when we teach them health is the greatest wealth.

Text of child’s letter presented in image above

Dear Ms. Turner,
We gotta have a garden.  The problem is that some people can’t buy their own good food.  They have to ask neighbors.  Some people can’t taste the freshness others can.  It is not fair to them.  That is the problem I want to fix.
This is my plan.  First, we can ask people in our school (including the grown-ups) to help us build our garden.  Next, we can plant your choice of seeds.  Then, we can tend our plants.  Finally, you can pluck them off, taste the goodness, be proud of what you did, and put them in our lunches.  That is my plan.
So, we should make a garden.  It can help us be a little more greener than we already are and my plan is to get everybody involved with this project. That is a rewrite of my plan.

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Emily Fonnesbeck
Emily Fonnesbeck

Written by Emily Fonnesbeck for St. George Health & Wellness magazine and St. George News.

Fonnesbeck is a registered dietitian who received her degree at BYU. She is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and belongs to the Vegetarian, Weight Management and Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. She holds a certificate in adult weight management and is a certified LEAP therapist.


St. George Health and Wellness website

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Copyright St. George News, StGeorgeUtah.com Inc., and St. George Health and Wellness magazine, 2014, all rights reserved.



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