As they grow, children take their cues from adults. Parents and guardians exercise particular power in shaping perceptions about food.
“Kids are a vulnerable population,” shares Dr. Vanita Rahman, a physician, nutritionist, and clinic director with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “They eat what adults offer them and…don’t have much control” over what lands on their plates.
It’s important to give youth the resources they need to grow and build a healthy relationship with food—which can help green the planet, too. Use the following tips as a starting point.
Serve more plant-based meals and snacks.
According to The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, ditching meat and dairy for “low-fat, plant-based” food is safe and beneficial for people of all ages—kids included. In fact, nourishing plant-based eats can lessen children’s “risk for heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other conditions.”
Plus, forgoing animal products can reduce your family’s climate impact. Discuss how eating more plants minimizes deforestation, wildlife loss, and greenhouse-gas emissions. University of Oxford research from 2018 indicates Americans could cut food-related emissions up to 73% with plant-based diets, depending on where you live. A study by Animal Charity Evaluators estimates each vegan saves an annual total of 105 vertebrates.
Plate new flavors and incorporate choice.
No one can enjoy foods they’ve never tried. “There are very few tastes…we just take to,” says Rahman. “Most of them are acquired.” Early Childhood Education Professor Jennifer Paris recommends inviting kids to experiment by offering a range of tasty, nourishing options.
Pushing unfamiliar foods, though, can be tricky. Rahman proposes remixing well-loved recipes by subtly folding in new flavors. Her example? Black beans. A skeptic might warm to them once they’re added to a classic meal, like tacos.
Cultivate a fascination with freshness.
Kids are curious, and gardening offers an excellent space for wonder to take root. The Harvard Graduate School of Education highlights the “emotional connections to food” youth can foster in this setting: “They feel proud of and connected to [their food]—which is key to trying new dishes with an open mind.” Try starting a family garden or, if that’s not feasible, potting some seedlings.
Licensed dietitian and integrative nutrition provider Debra Garzon suggests visiting farmers markets regularly, if you can. The experience gives “kids the chance to pick up produce, exploring its texture and fresh aroma,” and stubborn eaters may even enjoy meeting growers and snagging samples.
Emphasize collaboration and creativity in the kitchen.
Bring out the whisks and oven mitts: It’s time to get cooking as a family! Research from the University of Central Florida supports a positive correlation between engaging kids in the kitchen and “increased consumption of fruits and vegetables,” contributing to healthier diets. Cooking with kids can also strengthen their self-assurance and build skill for future use.
Playing with imaginative plating is another way to keep children engaged. Dress up plain celery sticks as “ants on a log” with nut butter and raisins. Or put a healthy twist on an indulgent favorite. Rahman recommends pizza—maybe replacing pepperoni with cherry tomatoes or broccoli. For an extra layer of fun, “ask the kids, ‘What do you want to decorate it with? Let’s make it into a rainbow.’”
According to the National Resources Defense Council, landfills are the third-biggest contributor of people-produced methane in the US. When organic-food scraps hit landfills, much of that waste decomposes anaerobically, generating greenhouse gases. But your family can help disrupt this harmful cycle. Share which foods—like produce peels—are compostable, start a system at home, and prep kids for lifelong impact.
Learn about labels.
Teach older kids how to read ingredients labels. For example, point out “good fats”—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Keep your eyes peeled for non-ecofriendly hidden ingredients like palm oil, whose industry infamously propels (illegal) deforestation.
Look into plant-based products, too. 2020 research out of the University of Paris homes in on ultra-processed foods (UPFs), including dairy substitutes and plant-based meats. “Not all vegetarian diets are necessarily healthy,” the conclusion reads, as “the consumption of UPFs [can] decrease both nutritional quality and healthiness of the diet.” To reap the health benefits of vegan eating, plate more natural foods than manmade ones.
Model green living.
A 2015 study from La Trobe University in Australia underscores the role parents’ behavior can have on kids’ eating habits and body-image development. In particular, children are more likely to consume nourishing foods when guardians themselves eat them. Positive reinforcement also has sway; recognizing when kids make healthy picks may encourage them to repeat the action.
Children lead with compassion and wonder. And when it comes to picking foods that benefit their bodies and the planet, Rahman thinks many kids are interested.
“They’re very conscious of the climate, they know plant food can help [curb] climate change, and kids just genuinely love animals,” Rahman says. She credits their curiosity. “If we can introduce [healthy and cruelty-free food] to them, they're likely to try it.”
Eating healthy, climate-friendly food with kids is an achievable feat, and the next generation’s open-mindedness can—and will—help green the world.