Foods Kids Choose

Girl eating a healthy lunch

While it is important to teach children to make healthy choices at an early age, the language that adults use to refer to foods is critical. Using intentional language that children can understand is especially important when they have decision-making power, such as when choosing a snack.

Language Matters

While young children may know and use the term "healthy," they cannot explain reasons for choosing healthy snacks or from where they get their ideas about health1. They have a tough time understanding abstract words such as "healthy2." Simple phrases such as "this snack is good for you," can also be confusing for a young children because there is no context for the word "good." Adults understand terms based on the context in which they are used. For example, the term "good," can be about taste, health or even its perishable quality, depending on its context. Therefore, using the terms "good" and "bad" to describe a snack to a young child should focus only on taste, not nutritional value or health.

The use of terms "healthy" and "unhealthy" can be taught using concrete definitions that are simple for young children.

  1. Healthy foods are foods that "help keep my heart, 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 classification system.

Teachers and families can reinforce 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 such as "healthy" and "unhealthy." They are then more likely to use these terms and make food choices.


  • 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.
Buffington, A. and Lindsay, A. 2020, Teaching Children To Make Healthy Choices - Empowering Children Through Language, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, FS-21-85

Learn more about the author(s)


Also of Interest:

A boy holding radishes
A Balanced Diet
A balanced diet gives your body all of the essential nutrients it needs to stay active, healthy, and strong. Learn how you can balance your diet to get the energy you need throughout the day.
Buffington, A., Lindsay, A. 2021, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, FS-21-106
Healthy Kids Resource Center: Policies, Procedures & Partners Section
Find links to Federal and State policies and regulations
Lindsay, A. and Taylor, S. 2020, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno
A black dog catching a treat in the air.
Women in science: a Q&A with CABNR pet food mercury researchers
Professor Mae Gustin and fellow researchers Lindsay Chichester, Sarrah Dunham-Cheatam, Adriel Luippold and Margarita (Maggie) Vargas-Estrada talk about their work and answer related questions
Andrews, A. 2019, Nevada Today

Associated Programs

Kids and leader dancing with colored scarves in a classroom

Healthy Kids Resource Center

A one-stop shop for evidence-based research, resources, curricula, activities and materials that focus on obesity prevention for teachers and parents of young children. It is designed to educate parents and teachers as well as provide the tools needed to teach young children how to live a healthy lifestyle.