Lindsay, A 2020, Teaching Children To Make Healthy Choices - Empowering Children Through Language, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, IP

Foods Kids Choose

Girl eating a healthy lunch

If young children are taught early and practice healthy choices, they will make better food choices as they grow up. Preschoolers, however, have more decision-making power when requesting snacks than meals. Parents usually decide what is served at meals and children are sometimes served breakfast and/or lunch in preschool programs. Thus, snack times may be eating occasions where children can ask for specific foods.

Language Matters

While preschoolers may know and use the term "healthy", they cannot explain reasons for choosing healthy foods or where they get their ideas about health from 1.They have a tough time understanding complex ideas such as "healthy" or "good"2. Simple terms like "good for you" can also be confusing for a preschooler.

For example, to a preschooler, if a food tastes good, the child may consider it to be "good" despite its nutritional value. They do not yet understand the difference between "tastes good" and "good for you". Adults understand the difference based on the setting in which it is used. Therefore, using the terms 'good' and 'bad' to describe a food to a preschooler should focus on taste, not nutritional value or health.

The use of terms "healthy" and "unhealthy" can be taught using intentional language that is simple for young children.

  1. Healthy foods are foods that "help keep my muscles and bones strong".
  2. Unhealthy foods are foods that "do not help keep my heart, muscles and bones strong, even if they taste good".

To help children select healthy foods, those that "help keep my heart, muscles and bones strong," it is recommended that parents and teachers use the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's GO, SLOW and WHOA foods.

Teachers and families can strengthen the messages about "healthy" and "unhealthy" food by repeating these phrases at home and in the classroom. There is a sense of pride and ownership for children when they use words like "healthy" and "unhealthy" in which they have learned the difference. They are more likely to use these terms and make choices accordingly.


  • Lanigan J. D. (2011). The substance and sources of young children's healthy eating and physical activity knowledge: implications for obesity prevention efforts. Child: Care, Health and Development, 37, 368-376.
  • Charlesworth, R. (2004). Understanding child development. Clifton Park, NY, Delmar Learning.
  • Sigman-Grant, M., Byington, T.A., Lindsay, A.R., Lu, M., Mobley, A.R., Fitzgerald, N., & Hildebrand, D. (2014). Preschoolers Can Distinguish between Healthy and Unhealthy foods: The All 4 Kids study. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior,46 (2), 121-127.

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