Q: My kids are 6 and 9. We eat fast food too often, so this summer, I want to help them eat better. My goal is to have fewer fights over food and good lunchbox ideas for school. How can we make this a fun learning experience?
A: This is a perfect summer project, says Emily Ziedman, a Seattle-based certified nutritionist who introduces children in area schools to nutritious foods and healthy choices through a Flagship Foundation program (a nonprofit that "inspires and empowers children to make smart, healthy eating choices").
"My teaching is influenced by nutritionist Ellyn Satter's pioneering work," she says. "It emphasizes competency, rather than deficiency, providing rather than depriving, and trust rather than control."
Ziedman helps children understand that parents are in charge of the "what, where and when" of the food we eat.
"It's a parent's job to prepare food, provide regular meals and snacks, and so on," she says. "Children control 'whether' and 'how much.' The best way to educate children is to involve and empower them in family food choices."
Ziedman offers several good ways to do that.
-- One, take them food shopping. At the farmers market or produce aisle, invite them to choose fruits and vegetables they want to try.
Or, ask them to select items for you, suggests Ziedman: "'Can you find me a good tomato?' Once chosen, there's a bit of pride of ownership."
-- Two, involve them in food preparation. "Even if too young to peel or slice, they can wash and dry fruits and vegetables, shred lettuce, stir ingredients and so on," says Ziedman.
-- Three, teach them about food labels. "The longer the list of ingredients, the more processed and less healthy the food," says Ziedman. "Children can count the ingredients, even if they can't read them.
"Examine two different packages of a similar food. For example, an occasional treat might be a bag of chips. Show them how to compare a bag with 10 to 20 ingredients with one with four or five ingredients and fewer fat calories. Discuss why they may choose the one with the shorter list."
-- Four, make simple recipes together. "Vegetarian chili is a great one -- it's easy, balanced and introduces children to a range of textures and tastes," says Ziedman. "Search for versatile recipes to make on Saturday and store for the week ahead. Create a family cookbook of favorites."
Meri Raffetto, a registered dietitian and co-author of the "Mediterranean Diet Cookbook For Dummies" (Wiley 2013), tells parents to keep newly discovered foods front and center.
"Have kids make a list of fruits and vegetables they like," she says. "Keep those on hand for snacking. Kids go for fresh fruit if available, so keep a bowl with assorted fruit choices on the kitchen counter. Serve a variety of raw veggies kids enjoy -- such as sliced bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes -- as a dinner side dish."
Last, make dinnertime family time. "Sure, everyone has a million activities," says Ziedman, "but sitting down together during the week and sharing a meal nourishes children with much more than food."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)