Kids in the Kitchen: Planning a Meal

Children and meal planning at

Before your children can effectively plan a meal, they need to understand more than just your family’s favorite foods, what’s in the cupboards, and what can be fixed quick. You need to give them a foundation of what good nutrition means.

Before you haul out an old Food Pyramid from your high school health class, there’s a new way of looking at our food needs that also addresses the idea of portion control—and children are never too young to start learning healthy food habits like portion control.

Kelly Kincaid, a blogger at The ¢entsible Life and a mother, came up with three steps to help parents teach their children how to plan meals. I’ve adapted her steps a little for this blog, but check out her original post here. logoStep 1: The food pyramid

I love the simple visual of the logo you see here. Not only does it show what your body needs (fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, dairy), but it also shows, visually, how much of each of the five areas you need. It’s an easy visual for kids—and their parents—to grasp.

For instance, just by glancing at the logo kids can see that they should eat more fruits and vegetables that they do meat (protein). The exact percentages aren’t so important (for kids) as is understanding that simple fact. (There is an entire website brought to you by USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. It’s full of good information:

Help your kids learn the food groups

One easy way to do this is to explore food sites on the Web with your kids and have them create folders (boards) for each food group in a photograph sharing site like Pinterest. Then, as the kids find photos of foods they like they can pin those photos onto the appropriate board.

Step 2: How much food?

Like anything worth learning, it’s not enough to have the knowledge. You also have to teach your kids to apply what they learn. That’s why Kincaid’s second step is so important. In her blog she wrote, “Like with adults at various ages, kids at various ages have different dietary requirements. To teach healthy meal planning properly the meal planner needs to understand these requirements.” (See a great chart on this at the American Heart Association.)

Remember, many children are visual learners. If you can compare the amount of food to a visual the child is familiar with, it will be far easier for them to grasp. For instance, after many decades I still recall being taught that the “right” about of meat (protein) to eat was the size of the palm of my hand or a deck of cards. And, yes, I used to wish my hands were bigger! (No, these don’t count either. The McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a great handout full of terms like this.

Make a Grocery List for Healthy Meals at CHEFScatalog.comStep 3: Build a grocery list

With an understanding of nutrition and of how much to eat of what, it’s time to help them start to think about how to build a meal around that knowledge, Kincaid suggests. If you’re a couponer, as she is, you can have your kids go on a “treasure hunt” through your local grocery sale fliers or on your favorite online discount sites.

But even if seeking out coupons and deals seems not worth the extra hours it takes, the fliers can still be helpful as your kids see their favorite foods and can then think about mixing and matching them together to build a menu. Consider having them cut out photos of foods (or go to their online boards and put things together) that they think would make a great meal. At this point, you may need to remind them about the percentages of the different food groups so they don’t make a meal out of pizza and marshmallows.

Build a healthy meal

The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion created a tip sheet on how to build a healthy meal based on the information. Download it here.

  1. Make half your plate veggies and fruits. Vegetables and fruits are full of nutrients and help promote good health. Choose red, orange, and dark green vegetables such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and broccoli.
  2. Add lean protein. Choose protein foods, such as lean beef and pork, or chicken, turkey, beans, or tofu. Twice a week, make seafood the protein on your plate.
  3. Include whole grains. Aim to make at least half your grains whole grains. Look for the words “100 percent whole grain” or “100 percent whole wheat” on the food label. Whole grains provide more nutrients, like fiber, than refined grains.
  4. Don’t forget the dairy. Pair your meal with a cup of fat-free or low-fat milk. They provide the same amount of calcium and other essential nutrients as whole milk, but less fat and calories. Don’t drink milk? Try alternative milks (soy, almond, coconut) as your beverage or include fat-free or low-fat yogurt in your meal.
  5. Avoid extra fat. Using heavy gravies or sauces add fat and calories to otherwise healthy choices. For example, steamed broccoli is great, but avoid topping it with cheese sauce. Try other options, like a sprinkling of low-fat parmesan cheese or a squeeze of lemon.
  6. Take your time. Savor your food. Eat slowly, enjoy the taste, and textures, and pay attention to how you feel. Be mindful. Eating very quickly may cause you to eat too>
  7. Use a smaller plate. This will help with portion control. That way you can finish your entire plate and feel satisfied without overeating.
  8. Take control of your food. Eat at home more often so you know exactly what you are eating. If you eat out, check and compare the nutrition information. Choose healthier options such as baked instead of fried.
  9. Try new foods. Keep it interesting by picking out new foods you’ve never tried before, like mango, lentils, or kale. You may find a new favorite! Trade fun and tasty recipes with friends or find them online.
  10. Satisfy your sweet tooth in a healthy way. Indulge in a naturally sweet dessert dish—fruit! Serve a fresh fruit cocktail or a fruit parfait made with yogurt. For a hot dessert, bake apples and top with cinnamon.

Julie Negrin, M.S., a certified nutritionist and the author of Easy Meals to Cook with Kids and the forthcoming How to Teach Cooking to Kids, suggests practical tips by age to entice your child to learn about meal planning. For younger kids, Negrin suggests looking “through cookbooks with photos and have smaller kids choose something they want to make. If they can read, then they can start looking on the Internet for recipes that would work well for family meals.”

But even if your kids are older, it’s not too late to guide them into meal planning, she says. “Teens often enjoy creating theme ideas for dinner parties and large family gatherings. Or, work backwards and have kids pick out an interesting ingredient at the farmer’s market and then find a recipe that includes it. This can be a lot of fun for kids who need encouragement to try new recipes and ingredients. They feel very empowered when getting to choose a new vegetable or fresh herb!”

You want your kids to love the kitchen as much as you, but you’re not sure how to foster that love? Check out these blogs from CHEFS Mix:

Your turn: What is the silliest meal you remember making as a kid? What makes it memorable?

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