Teachable Moments: Healthy Eating Habits

Every meal and snack is now a Teachable Moment.

Learn healthy eating habits together as a family (Photo Credit: Picjumbo)

Learn healthy eating habits together as a family (Photo Credit: Picjumbo)

There are literally dozens of "healthy lifestyle" methods one can choose from, each one backed and promoted by passionate fans. Some diets are supported by research, others by anecdotal evidence, many are unsupported and unsupportable. They range in cost from frugal to outrageous - at least from my budget's point of view. 

Because of the flood of information and choices available, it's a challenge to make informed decisions about healthy eating for yourself and your family.

For the homeschooler, this is a great Teachable Moment - or moments, because eating, as well as exercising, resting, and personal hygiene are part of our every day lives. As adults, many things we do are ingrained habits, and even though these habits were formed while we were kids because of the influence of parents, family, and friends, we take for granted how we are influencing our kids in these seemingly mundane aspects of life.

Raising a family compels us to be more purposeful about we live, and it's a wonderful opportunity to learn together about how to have a healthy lifestyle.

Note: This post is not a replacement for a doctor's advice or a prescription for medical treatment.

Healthy Eating Habits

Remember the four food groups from your elementary Health class?

The United States Department of Agriculture initially grouped foods according to nutritional attributes in 1916. Between 1916 and 1992, the number of food groups varied from four to 12. The “Basic Four,” published in 1956, underwent several changes, which culminated in the current five food groups found in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Fruits and vegetables, previously categorized as one food group, are now two separate groups, which, along with grains, dairy foods and protein foods make up the five food groups.[healthyeating/sfgate.com]

Or better yet - Saturday morning PSAs from Timely the Timer, like "Hanker for a Hunk of Cheese" and "You Are What You Eat". 

I don't know if nutritionists and the general public know more or less than we did back then, because we are inundated with mixed messages about food.

Is salt healthy or deadly?

Does coffee improve brain function

Has chocolate become a health food instead of a sinful pleasure?

What can we do to figure out what is best for our family? And how can we fit it all into our homeschooling?

Here are some tools and ideas for how to incorporate healthy eating habits into your homeschooling lifestyle:

  • USDA Guidelines at ChooseMyPlate.gov. These are very basic guidelines to be used in accordance with your particular physical needs. Whatever you believe about the government's role in our nutritional choices, it is important to understand USDA recommendations because nutrition information labels on food and supplement packaging are based on the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To incorporate teaching about food groups and the USDA's nutrition guidelines into your homeschool, download the following .pdf document containing as explanation of and how to use the Food Pyramid: Using the Food Guide Pyramid: A Resource for Nutrition Educators.
  • Whole Foods: WebMD offers Six Reasons to Eat Whole Foods. This is not a diet, per se, but a focus on eating foods in their natural state whenever possible instead of eating processed and 'convenience' foods 

Many families struggle with food-related health issues, such as allergies, lactose intolerance, celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Others believe that a vegan or vegetarian diet is best, while diet trends come and go: Atkins, Raw Foods, Paleo, hCG, Master Cleanse,  ear stapling,  the Mediterranean diet . . .

It is imperative that a family do their own research about which diet and lifestyle choices best fit their family. Unless you've gone total Agent Mulder and believe that there is a vast conspiracy of governments and powerful businesses to kill us all off, you can find legitimate sources of information at the library and online.

What is a legitimate or reputable source? A legitimate source for nutritional or medical information is one that:

  • Provides the author's name and credentials
  • Is up-to-date
  • Has been published and peer reviewed
  • Reveals their methodology
  • Is unbiased and does not push an agenda
  • Cites their sources

Compare each source of information with this list and see if it is adequately supported and reliable before adopting or adapting any of its advice. 

For instance, US News and World Report evaluated thirty-two popular diets and published their findings here - http://health.usnews.com/best-diet. They provide explanations about their rating system and methodology, as well as a list of the experts who examined the diets, and their credentials. US News is considered an unbiased source, and on this topic they do not have a vested interest in the results. 

By the way - a link on your best friend's Facebook page does not make it a reliable source, no matter how smart and awesome your best friend is. There is an unbelievable amount of pressure at times to do what our friends and family are doing, especially if they have become disciples of a particular diet plan. DO NOT let yourself be swayed or intimidated - your family's health and well-being is at stake, so don't make someone else responsible for your lifestyle choices. Verify the information for yourself.

Now that you've saved the above links and printed a copy of Using the Food Guide Pyramid: A Resource for Nutrition Educators, you need to have a family meeting and make a list of the nutritional needs and health problems in your family, as well as each person's goals for their health. (Remember that the goal is to be healthy, not 'skinny' or 'cut'.) The reason to do this is for menu planning and shopping - it is stressful and expensive to try to cook separate meals for different health issues, and it is important that the whole family be supportive and involved - after all, this is a Teachable Moment. 

Plan meals and shopping lists according to your family's needs and schedule, stock up on healthy choices, and leave off all items that you've decided as a family to avoid. If you don't have potato chips and Captain Crunch in the pantry, no one will be able to eat it.

One of the things I did years ago for the kids was set aside a drawer in a kitchen cabinet and in the fridge for snacks. If someone was hungry or had the munchies, they could choose from granola bars, packets of nuts or whole grain crackers, raisins or dried cranberries, yogurt, applesauce, and fresh fruits and vegetables like cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, apples, strawberries, and oranges. We also followed an 80/20 rule - if we ate healthy 80% of the time, an occasional splurge was OK, such as on weekends at church fellowships, at a birthday party, or eating out at a restaurant.

This worked for our family, but what will work for yours? Maybe, maybe not.

Paella (Photo Credit: patryk dziejma at tookapic)

Paella (Photo Credit: patryk dziejma at tookapic)

Post your healthy eating goals, menus, and shopping lists where everyone can see them. They serve as a organizational tool for your nutritional choices; a reminder to encourage each other; and assist in keeping the pantry stocked. 

Think honestly and critically about your family's current behaviors, and break bad habits such as:

  • Rewarding good grades or good behavior with food. It is much healthier for the mind and body to reward responsible behavior with extended privileges, a special activity or event, rather than with candy or a cake. And I'm preaching to myself here, having potty-trained four kids with the assistance of M&Ms and Skittles!
  • Using large bowls and plates, or eating straight from a package. It helps to limit your intake when you eat from a smaller plate or bowl, and you can accurately measure what you've eaten if you can see the actual amount in front of you. For instance, instead of popping a huge bowl of popcorn for everyone to share, divide it up into small popcorn containers, which are cute and fun.
  • Mindless munching. One of the worst habits is eating when you're bored or just craving a flavor. Try distracting yourself or satisfying the craving by drinking a glass of water, making a cup of hot herbal tea, eating a piece of fresh fruit, string cheese, or a few small cubes of a nice sharp Cheddar. 
  • Emotional eating. There's something about being tired, stressed, or sad that makes you want to indulge in comfort food. Counteract the blues with a brisk walk, short dance session, bike ride - any physical activity that will release endorphins, which are your body's natural pain and stress fighters. 
  • Forgetting to break your fast. You know, breakfast? After 7-8 hours of sleep, it is important to give your body a nice big dose of hydration with a tall glass of water, and a few healthy carbs and proteins to get your metabolism motor running. 
  • Hungry like the wolf? Slow down - your food won't run away from you if you don't inhale it. Take your time and savor eat bite for a more satisfying meal and better digestion.
  • Living on the ragged edge. It's great to be flexible, but a lack of routine can lead to sleep deprivation and trouble tracking your food intake. Try to go to bed and wake up the same time each day/night, and eat at regular intervals. When life does go crazy, you'll be better equipped to handle it.
  • Going to extremes. Extremes of dieting and exercise often result in an unpleasant case of whiplash. Opt for moderation in everything - the way you eat, exercise, and spend your time. Many hours, much money, and a whole lotta' effort is wasted on jumping on bandwagons and going overboard on The Latest Thing. Even good things can become stumblingblocks without moderation. We often hear the phrase "Eat a balanced diet", and balance is the most important part of that phrase. 

Remember - healthy eating isn't just about losing weight or looking good, but about building a foundation for your family's future health and well-being.

Recap of what you need to do for your Teachable Moments in Healthy Eating:

  1. Gather reputable sources of nutrition information for easy access.
  2. Have a family meeting and assess your family's needs. 
  3. List nutrition and exercise goals, and choose a diet plan if that helps.
  4. Make menu plans and shopping lists based on your diet plans and goals.
  5. Post all of this information in the kitchen as a reminder and for easy reference.
  6. Work on breaking bad habits.

The start of a new year is a great time to create a Teachable Moment and a healthier lifestyle.

How do you include healthy lifestyle habits in your homeschool? Share in the comments below -