Easy Ways to Help Kids Understand Food Labels

When I head to the local supermarket to do some grocery shopping I am rarely ever alone. I always have at least one supermarket helper... or two... or three. 

I know that getting grocery shopping done with children in tow can be challenging. For one, you split your energy between picking out the best foods and getting everything on your list and minding the kids. But somehow we manage that juggling act.

Usually.

(Honestly, I have abandoned a cart and lugged some misbehaving kids out of the supermarket on a day when it was just not working.... but in general, us moms do ok.)

The extra challenge is walking up and down aisles that are filled with food products that are brightly colored packages decorated with fun characters, promising "awesome" prizes, glittering stars and every marketing strategy short of handing out balloons and fuzzy puppies. We have to walk passed foods that are marketing to our children and marketing hard. 

For a while this used to really bother me. I mean, as a busy mom I am sometimes just trying to survive the supermarket experience. But food corporation' advertising and store displays stack the odds against me of leaving the store without giving into some indulgent food choices that I had no intention of buying. (Very sneaky, guys.) 

It was a few years ago though that I decided quite consciously to use the brightly colored packaging, all of the sugary snacks at eye-level and the 1,000's of "kid products" with sketchy ingredients throughout the supermarket as the perfect teaching tools they can be. Instead of walking around chanting, 

"No."

"No."

"Put that back."

"No."

"No."

"I said, 'Put that back!'"

I decided to give my kids the tools and knowledge to make their own healthy decisions. 

When we teach our kids to understand food labels and even some of the marketing of food like packaging and other things, they are empowered to make their own healthy choices. And when that happens, they become so much more invested in healthier living. They don't do it because "mommy makes me". They do it because "I know which is better for me." 

That is priceless.

 

There are 4 easy ways to support your children in becoming:

  • more knowledgeable about food

  • empowered to make their own healthier choices

  • invested in which healthy foods come home and end up on their plate

  • informed about marketing

  • a whole, healthy food warrior FOR LIFE!

 

Sound good?

 

Let's get started:

 

1. Teach kids to "read" labels.

Kids do not need to be able to actually read in order to use this strategy effectively. With a little guidance about where the list of ingredients begins and ends, they can use their fingers to find out if a product has a short or long list of ingredients. Although there are exceptions to every rule, typically the longer the list of ingredients, the more processed the food is and more likely it is to contain controversial ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, MSG, partially hydrogenated oils, food dyes, artificial flavors and many more. 

Healthier food choices tend to have much shorter ingredient lists. Young readers might even be able to read and recognize the short ingredient list on healthier foods.

As the grown up on duty, I make the final decision, but the children know that they are much more likely to get the thumbs up on a snack choice or any other food if it has a short ingredient list. If that short list includes, sugar, HFCS, pure cane syrup and natural sweetener, sure. You can guess it will still get nixed. But in general, this strategy works very well in hunting down healthier choices. When kids have done the work to hunt down and choose something healthy to add to the shopping cart, they have a great sense of accomplishment. 

 

2. Search for the USDA Certified Organic label.

Kids can recognize symbols, trademarks and logos of 100's of products and companies at a young age. There is no reason why we can't spin that idea to the other side of the spectrum and have kids recognize and look for the USDA Organic label, right? 

Why is it important to teach kids how to spot organic food? The USDA Organic seal means that at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. It also means that those ingredients were grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and are not genetically-modified organisms. Animal products should have had no exposure to antibiotics or hormone and that is just some of what the USDA Organic label should mean. In short, when you buy organic, you are getting a cleaner, less contaminated food. 

When I ask one of my kids to grab ketchup, a bag of rice, or frozen peas... they know that after they find the right section, their next step is to find that organic seal. When they return with their find, I add in an extra dose of high 5's and a ton of praise so my kids further associate choosing healthy foods with good, positive feelings. 

 

3. Search for the non-GMO butterfly

 

When you find the non-GMO butterfly it lets you know that you have a product that was made without the use of genetically engineered ingredients. Many moms feels that without sufficient proof that GMO's are safe to consume, choosing non-GMO as often as possible is a safer choice. 

Choosing organic products means that they are also non-GMO. However, while shopping in your supermarket, you may notice that although some products are not labelled as organic, they still are non-GMO certified. Becoming familiar with the non-GMO label is another helpful tool for our children to have when searching out the healthiest choices. 

This is an easily identified label for kids to search for. The tell-tale butterfly stands out on any bag, box or can. Letting kids know that finding this label on their food is a good thing further supports them in making good choices about food. 

 

4. Talk About Marketing

I can remember the first conversation I had with my son about marketing. We were walking through the supermarket and he spotted some "cool" juice boxes with a colorful surfer in the middle of a brightly decorated box. 

He had to have them. 

But I was never going to approve that choice.

I didn't want to just say, "No." and move on. He would have stomped through the rest of the aisle with a pouty face for the rest of the trip. (You have been there, right?)

Plus the only message he gets in that situation is : My mom doesn't let me get the cool juice boxes. 

So I asked him to check the label. 

The list of ingredients was not "mom-approved" and I pointed to a few and explained a couple of simple ways that they were not healthy. From there is was easy to transition into talking about how cool characters, bright colors and the promise of prizes at the bottom of the box were great ways to get you to forget to check the ingredients. They are kind of like  "tricks" that can distract you from making healthy choices. 

From then on, even when he saw his favorite characters, themes or anything else flashy and eye-catching, he would always say something like, "No way am I getting tricked! I am gonna check the ingredients!"

Eventually he stopped checking the ingredients on those kind of food choices. The consistency of always finding an ingredient list either too long or loaded with the ones we try to avoid helped him realize big marketing and healthy food rarely go together. 

He figured that out on his own. That was the coolest part.

Companies spend bucket loads of money on marketing and in marketing to children in particular. As parents, it doesn't cost us a dime to level that playing field by teaching kids that food companies will try very hard to get their attention but that we have to be able to remember what makes a food choice a healthy one and still make the right decisions.

These strategies are all very empowering for children who we are working hard to raise up as happy, healthy little humans. These 4 strategies make a deep impact that will make it more likely that our kids will truly understand more about food and healthy choices. Even more, these strategies put the power of healthy decisions in our children's hands. 

Thank you for reading. I hope that if you are able to use any of the strategies I mention in this post, that you will let me know how it goes. I love to hear from you. You can post an update to my Facebook page or email me directly! 


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