Before I started my journey towards a healthy life, reading a label on a packaged food item meant glancing at the expiry date to ensure it is fit for consumption. I had no clue about nutritional content or value. Once I embarked on my journey reading nutrition labels was probably the first step towards mindful purchasing and conscious consumption. Soon it became a habit, almost like a reflex action, and this little habit has changed a lot of things for me, for good.
Children learn through observation. One day while at the superstore I saw my son turn back a bottle of ketchup and read the little text. I was surprised because we never had had the conversation about nutrition labels and I wondered what was he looking at. So, I asked him. He promptly answered that he had seen me do it so many times and he was doing the same. Basically, he was aping me! His innocent answer got me thinking. That evening we had our first of the many discussions about nutrition labels and nutrients.
Home is the first school and parents are the best teachers a child can have. The habits and learnings they pick from parents stay with them forever. Hence, it is important for parents to inculcate not only good values and morals but also healthy eating habits and practices in children from a young age. Reading food labels is one of them.
By 8-10 years of age children have a fair understanding of their bodies and the food they eat. All we need to do is help them establish a healthy relationship between the two. It is just the right time to introduce them to food labels and explain how nutrients and micro-nutrient’s function and their impact on the body.
How to start?
Guide your child to find the label on a packaged food item and understand its primary components. The Nutrition facts table is usually located on the back or side of a packaged food item and comprises of four primary nutritional components:
- Serving size: This is really the starting point. It refers to how many servings there are in the food package. This is the amount of food that is or should be typically eaten at one time. It is usually measured in a basic measurement, such as pieces, cups, ounces, grams, or ml. A big bag of chips may contain 10 servings. You must encourage your child to measure the serving using the sizing given on the label and consume the bag of chips in the given serving size. Tip: As a practice I encourage my children to measure one or two serving sizes and pour it out in a bowl instead of eating from the packet directly.
- Calories per serving: The nutrition calculation is usually given for one serving size. Help your child understand how many calories one would really be consuming if one ate the whole package. Most often the child would be surprised to know that he/she consumes over 300 calories when he eats a whole pack of chips which has maybe 4 servings! This really sets the context. Tip: As a practice I encourage my children to calculate the total calories they consume in one session. It is good if they do not exceed calories in two servings of the higher side. Usually, they don’t.
- Key nutrients: The key or primary nutrients that you must look for on the nutrition table include the three macro nutrients, Fat – Saturated and Trans Fats, Carbohydrate and Protein. You must choose food with less of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars as they are associated with health risks such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Similarly, you must focus on selecting food that are low on added sugars and high on fiber and other micro nutrients such as calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamin D. Carbohydrate and Protein are the building blocks for muscles and cells, and must be consumed in accordance to specific needs. When selecting focus on Net Carbohydrate, which does not include fiber and sugars. Tip: As a practice my children select food that have moderate (8-12 gm) carb, low sodium (140 mg or less) and high protein (10-20 gm) per serving.
- % daily value (%DV): It is the percentage of each nutrient in a serving of the food. For example, if the label says 15% for Calcium, it means that one serving of that food provides 15% of the calcium you need each day. The %DV helps determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. Generally, 5% or less DV is considered less and a DV over 20% is considered to be on the higher side. Tip: As a practice, I encourage my children to choos+e foods that have higher %DV for Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium, and lower %DV for Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars.
Teaching kids to recognize the difference between nutritious foods and those that are unhealthy will help set the foundation for making healthy food choices throughout life. A vital part of this is helping them understand nutrition labels on packaged foods to equip your children with the ability to make informed food choices.
Once they learn to read food labels they will never be swayed and fooled by smart marketing gimmicks that lead us to believe that packaged baked snacks are good over regular snacks, fat free yogurt scores over the regular curd, sugar free breakfast cereals are the healthy options and more.
Gift your child the ability to develop a positive and strong relationship with food!