Going grocery shopping with young children can be challenging. The constant battle as they ask for every unhealthy item they see can be exhausting. For those of us who are avid label-readers trying to buy the most ecologically responsible, healthiest products I think it can be even harder as so many of the products in the grocery store are not options for us. But the children don’t know that. They see the colorful packaging, the TV characters and don’t understand why they can’t have it. It can be difficult to teach the very young child the reasons behind the “No.”
Here are 8 things we’ve tried to teach her so she understands our values and how we choose our food:
- Using words she understands – When my daughter was 2 we started talking about how things made her feel. When she had a tummy ache or wasn’t feeling good we would talk about how she’s feeling “yucky.” We talked about feeling big and strong. When we talk about food, we try to use these concepts that she understands. We tell her we only buy organic strawberries because the other ones have been sprayed with yucky stuff. We talk about the importance of drinking water because it helps her body grow big and strong (also helps reinforce the message that girls can be strong).
- Teaching about Organic – When we are shopping, like all kids, my daughter asks for everything she sees. When she asks for something that is organic, I try to say Yes whenever I can so she understands that when it’s healthy we can get it and that I’m not always going to say No to the thing she wants. By trying to say “yes” to the organic but no to everything else she is starting to learn. Since preschool kids are very visual we’ve also taught her what the USDA organic certification logo looks like. Now she gets really excited as she discovers all the organic products as we walk through the store. I love to see the expressions on people who over hear her saying “look mommy, this green circle means it’s organic.”
- Teaching moderation with sugar – Similarly with sugar we’ve tried to say yes to small portions so we can explain to her that too much sugar could make her sick. She’s learning portion control and how food affects her body. Also, that just because something is for sale doesn’t mean it’s good for you. With cereal she knows she can pick any cereal that has 5g or less of sugar. And, she is already looking for the organic logo so we haven’t even had to teach her about GMO corn & soy…yet.
- No TV character policy - We have a policy that we don’t buy anything with a TV character on it. We told her that companies put them on products that are really bad for you to try to get you to buy them anyway. It doesn’t matter if it’s organic. If it has a TV character on it, we don’t buy it.
- No HFCS – Like organic we are teaching her we don’t buy products that have high fructose corn syrup. When she asks for something instead of immediately saying no, I pick it up and read the label. If there’s HFCS, the answer is no. But, because I didn’t just say “no,” I listened to her request, considered it, and read the label first she accepts the “no” a bit more easily.
- No individual serving sizes – We try hard not to buy individual serving sizes of food, such as yogurt. Now that she has an understanding of how our actions affect the environment (see article on Earth Song video) I can explain to her that we can have the large yogurt, but we don’t want all the extra packaging that goes with individual servings. We also try to keep reusable water bottles in the car so we aren’t tempted to buy bottled drinks when we are out.
- Modeling the behavior I want her to have – Any time she asks for something at the store even if I know I’m going to say no, I try to pick it up and read the label first. My hope is that she will see I didn’t just say no for no reason. As she grows older, I hope it will be natural for her to pick something up and read the label before making a purchase rather than being taken in by slick marketing campaigns and greenwashing.
- Teach body awareness – We also do a few other things that aren’t related to food, but help her understand her own body and be in touch with how it’s feeling. We talk about how she gets cranky when she’s hungry and how she’s happy and sweet after she’s eaten. We stretch first thing when we wake up. We take 3 deep breathes when we are upset. We talk about outdoor play as exercise and how it makes our body feel good. My hope here is that she is learning the connection between the things she does and eats and how her body feels. She’ll learn that we don’t eat food just because it tastes good, but because it nourishes our bodies and allows us to do the activities we want to do.
My daughter is 4 and absorbing everything like a sponge. I hope that by starting early, teaching her our values in ways that are sensitive to her stage of development the lessons will stick into the years when she doesn’t want to listen to anything her mom has to say. I guess time will tell.