Help me think of awesome activities to teach healthy eating habits!
January 11, 2012 5:11 PM   Subscribe

What do preteen girls need to know about healthy foods (and eating, and health and body image more generally) and how do I explore these ideas with a bunch of them?

I'm a Guide leader for 21 girls aged 9-11 (the Canadian equivalent of American Girl Scouts). In a couple of weeks I'm scheduled to spend two, three-hour evenings with them doing activities on the theme of "healthy eating." The topic is one I'm excited to be talking about (I love food and am interested in health), but I'm not yet very experienced doing things with this demographic (it's my first year as a leader). The girls are very hyper, and don't have very long attention spans, so I want to work in some games and divide our time amongst a few activities each night.
I know that I'd like to spend a bit of time addressing body image and dieting, and countering the social pressure on the girls to focus on being thin -- I'd like to help them think instead about things like having lots of energy and being able to do fun things!
I'd also like to work "trying new things" into one of the evenings - physically and culinarily, I think this is an important habit to get into.
Facilities-wise, we have one large indoor room, and access to a kitchen -- but not all 21 of the girls should be in the kitchen at once, as it gets more than a little chaotic!
Help me metafilter, I think this is such an awesome opportunity to do something fun and important -- but how?
posted by Edna Million to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Operation Beautiful is a great movement for positive body images- putting up post-it notes with positive messages on them. Making Operation Beautiful notes to put up or talking about things they like about themselves or writing notes to each other would be a great quick activity for body image/acceptance.
posted by kro at 5:24 PM on January 11, 2012

As a former preteen girl, I would recommend against any "dangers of rapid weight loss/anorexia" discussions. I remember all my friends at that age talking about how we could just be "anorexic for a little while" to lose weight, after watching the usual scary videos about eating disorders. Ugh. I think the only thing that would have really gotten through to us is the idea that skipping meals or eating very few calories slows your metabolism and will actually make it harder to stay slim. All the more serious health risks seemed irrelevant, we just wanted to know how to be slender. So, um, to summarize: girls that age aren't always logical about their health.

One thing that did stick at that age was if someone showed us how to make delicious food. So if you can get them making something easy and healthy that still tastes good, that could definitely help. Being able to cook from scratch goes a long way toward healthier eating, so any cooking skills they pick up will also help them eat better even if they don't make the specific recipes you show them.
posted by vytae at 5:24 PM on January 11, 2012

Can you get them to fill out a survey in advance? That age range, it really depends - they may not have picked up all that many negative messages, or they may have a ton; they may be junk-food fanatics or already be obsessed with weight. They may already be somewhat advanced in terms of a superficial understanding of a healthy mindset - there have been a LOT of PSAs and Nickelodeon specials and such since today's adults were children.

You could also have them do a quiz - ten questions max - to see what they know. Things I should have known but didn't:

1. What is a healthy weight for an adult woman (say, 5'4")
2. What is a calorie, and why should you always get a certain amount each day
3. What is a carbohydrate, and why do so many people worry about them
4. What does frying do to a food
5. How "big" is 100 calories of, say, whole wheat bread, romaine lettuce, cream cheese, Coca-Cola, etc.
6. Why you shouldn't get all your nutrients from vitamin tablets, or eat the exact same foods every day

You could make that last question, in particular, rather fun. I might ask, if the moon were made of whole wheat bread, how many calories would it be?

I also think it would be nice to give them something to make which satisfies some fairly basic nutritional standards, but which actually tastes good and sounds like fun/normal food. Too many people seem to think that their only choices are corn chips and rice cakes, for instance. The middle way is a really valuable thing to get hold of - and it's a great argument against the king of thinking that fuels anorexia.

They're also just about old enough to be able to get involved in an activity where you choose various items (a drink, a side, an entree, a dessert) and "score" it. A competition to come up with the best (in terms of "enough vitamins" and "tastes good" and "won't be hungry in two hours" as well as "30% of calories from fat") meal could easily occupy five teams of two, or four teams of three, for close to half an hour.
posted by SMPA at 5:32 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Idea for a general theme:

Have them experience a variety of health, yummy food: both the tasting and the cooking. Different food groups, different cuisines, different cooking techniques. Use local ingredients, and consider a "one bite" rule: you don't have to finish the dish if you don't like it, but you do have to try at least one bite. (Exceptions made for religious reasons or something similarly prohibiting.)

Talk to them about how eating is a lost art, because it really is. More and more children are growing up in families that rarely eat sit-down dinners as a family. These children grow up and go to college, where they discover that being a student means being broke, meaning that spending more money on healthy ingredients vs. getting a 12-pack of Ramen is an easy decision. Graduate college, enter the workforce, and by the time they've finally worked the way up their various career ladders and actually have the money to eat well, it's no longer a priority because they've never experience "eating done right."

A lot of body image issues stem from seeing food as conspiring with the devil to make you fat, and you forget to enjoy it. Teach them the lost art of eating. Showing them that food can be a source of happiness could be life-changing.
posted by hypotheticole at 5:39 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with vytae - focussing on eating disorders or calorie counting or "ideals of beauty" could actually backfire. I'd be inclined to ignore all the body image stuff, and focus on engendering a love of food, as hyportheticole suggests. A love of trying new food, enjoying the cooking process and enjoying sharing that with family / friends.

It's an opportunity to focus on healthy eating patterns - if you've got a couple of sessions, you could choose a couple of "international diets" that are known to be healthy and that you feel confident with. eg: Japanese / Italian / Turkish / Vietnamese - and look at why they're healthy (slow release carbs, protein, fruit and veg, Omega3) and what else is going on in those communities (how they eat dinner as a family, for instance). Plan to cook a few things during the session, and also come up with a selection of recipes that are easy to source ingredients for locally, and easy to cook. Make that a challenge for the following session - to cook something from the menu list during the week, and take a photo of your family eating it together!

Discovering food was what got me out of my eating disorder in my early 20s. Discovering cooking, and as I grew more confident, cooking for others, cemented that. I still try and eat healthily but I've learnt that the best approach is everything in moderation, and I make a mean chocolate fudge cake! But being confident about cooking from scratch, and knowing what a balanced diet consists of (i.e. it's NOT about calorie counting!), has made all the difference to me. I'd have loved to have had someone set me on that path at an early age.

Good luck - hope you enjoy your sessions...
posted by finding.perdita at 6:22 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would have them taste different foods, and rate them as to how filling and satisfying they are, and their guess as to the nutritional content of each food. I think they will be quite surprised when they find out that a whole chicken breast and a salad has as many calories as a half an order of french fries.

I'd also give them a hard primer on metabolism. How food is digested at different speeds, why sugar and simple carbs make you gain weight and have mood swings, how fat is stored in the body (mediated by blood sugar), etc. That the timing of what you eat makes as big of a difference as how much of it. Eat to fuel up for what you are going to do, not to reward/replenish after activity.

Beat into their heads that the number on the scale has little to do with looking good or fitness. If they want to be healthy, the metrics should be eating healthy and maintaining muscle mass. And that healthy eating isn't so much of a daily struggle as a weekly or yearly one. It's OK to have some variety and eat "bad" foods on occasion, as long as it isn't a habit and you balance it out. Slab of cake last night at little brother's birthday party? That just means they have to get a few extra minutes of exercise the next few days.

If they exhibit any tendencies toward eating disorders, discuss vitamin deficiencies and show them pictures of goiters and stuff. As well as what the effects of eating disorders are once someone gets past 18. Teeth falling out and such.

You might even take them to a gym and see if a female personal trainer can give them a tutorial on what the different muscle groups are and how build strength, fitness and stamina without necessarily getting ripped. If they are going to get obsessed with their bodies, at least this way, they know of other alternatives than just not eating. But impress upon them that there is way more to fitness than just looking good- that being strong and fit makes life easier and more fun.
posted by gjc at 6:58 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I learned eating disorder tricks from anti-ED educational materials, FWIW.

Rather than focusing on calories and whatnot, maybe focus on fitness and athletic activities--encouraging participation in a wide variety of sports, looking up famous female athletes and talking about how different they look (see this post for a sampling of the many different body types a high-level female athlete takes and what it means to have a strong, beautiful, functional body. Perhaps find athletic women they admire, and compare pictures of them to pictures of say, models on a catwalk. Ask them which ones look like they can carry their own groceries. If you cover dieting/nutrition, discuss the difference between approaching food as a tool to achieve a look and as fuel to create a top-performing body.
posted by Anonymous at 7:19 PM on January 11, 2012

Response by poster: Hi - Thanks for the ideas so far! Something like Operation Beautiful sounds great, though I'd rather focus on *non-visual* things that they like about themselves and each other (e.g. "great dancer," "funny," or "good artist").

I'm not looking only for food-related ideas, I'd just like that to be a prominent part of our evenings.

Just to clarify, I wasn't planning on a preachy "this is what an eating disorder is and why you should avoid it" type discussion. No scare tactics, nothing too didactic -- but rather trying to get them to focus on the diversity of bodies that all fit into ideas of "healthy" (different sizes, features, abilities, aptitudes etc.); and how healthy can be about being happy and active, rather than an appearance. So, I'm looking for things like "This is how you make pita pizzas with lots of yummy vegetables," or maybe blindfolded food-tastings, rather than "How much should a healthy woman weigh?" Maybe something about vegetarianism or the importance of food banks?

Likewise, I don't want to focus on calories / digestion science etc. -- I'm interested in that stuff myself, but based on some of the talks we've had so far I think it would bore them to tears, and might not be very useful to them at this point in their lives, when they're not for the most part doing their own cooking etc.

I like the idea of doing some media critique, maybe comparing photos in terms of "what do you think this woman can do?" "What kinds of steps would you take if you wanted to be a mountain-climber / scuba diver / opera singer / professional chef / etc.?" (balanced diets & what that means, lots of sleep, no smoking, building up to skills etc.)

I'll butt back out now, but I'd love more comment or suggestions!
posted by Edna Million at 7:40 PM on January 11, 2012

Response by poster: Okay, I really will stop hovering -- but schroedinger, that link to different athlete bodies is awesome -- I'm going to think of a way to integrate it (and I'm glad to have seen it, myself!)
posted by Edna Million at 7:58 PM on January 11, 2012

Best answer: Potentially also useful is the Height/Weight Project--bodies charted by weight and height, with many user-submitted photos illustrating. I've use it with my daughter before, who's in that age range--"Oh, [person] said [weight] was fat? Well, this is what that looks like. Or this. Or this. It can look a lot of ways to weigh [x] pounds!" Etc.

Also, it may be worth devoting an hour to the effects of food on mental health--talking about comfort food, seeking comfort from foods, using food as a source of enjoyment. I think that a lot of healthy eating discussions neglect that aspect of things--that food isn't just sustenance, it's also pleasure, and that's ok.

It might be fun to do a storebought vs homemade test to show that you can make lots of delicious things at home, and they can be just as good (or better!) than storebought. (See also things like real maple syrup vs. Mrs. Butterworth, or real mashed potatoes vs instant potato flakes.)

Potentially also interesting--see if you can find some miracle berries, and let them each eat one, then go around eating lemons or whatever. It could provoke interesting discussions about complementary foods, and how sometimes something that tastes yick in one context (lemon by itself) can be delicious in another (lemon + miracle berry; lemon chicken, etc.) The miracle berry thing isn't *super* related, but could be a neat lead in.

Finally, responding to your comments about media critique, you might want to encourage them to be even more specific. Talk about what the media presents--and then ask how their mothers, sisters, troop leaders, etc maybe aren't size twos, or don't wear makeup every day, or whatever...and they're still really happy, cool people who the girls love. In my experience, kids have a hard time seeing the disconnect in what they're presented with on television, etc (only skinny, beautiful, stereotypically feminine women are worthy/loved) and what they experience in their own lives (which is that quite likely, they all adore at least one person who's none of those things).

This sounds really awesome--good luck!
posted by MeghanC at 8:22 PM on January 11, 2012

Best answer: What girls need to know is how to understand what it's like to be IN their bodies, not looking at their bodies from the OUTside. How does it feel to play your favorite sport? What's it like when you run really fast? What does it feel like to eat healthy, nourishing food? What does it feel like to eat too much junk food?

Have them do activities that involve movement or actually thinking about what it's like to be themselves, rather than just listening.

One thing I love is talking about the five senses in relation to food and eating. What does your favorite food look/sound/smell/feel/taste like? You can do activities like giving them a few different small pieces of fruit, and then having them describe the ways they observe differences in the sensory experience of the fruit (e.g., the apple is crunchy, the orange is sweet, the grape is smooth, etc.).
posted by so_gracefully at 9:52 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Food groups are all sort of messed up now. There's not four, there's a pyramid and teachers don't know what to do with it. I'm always shocked on how they no longer cover the basics -- not having two of the same color foods, having a protein on the plate, proportions, how to read a nutrition label and USRDA given that they won't be eating 2000 calories a day -- in school.

Things I've seen attract my preteen's interest and I think holds value: How to plan a meal, how to shop a grocery store (lowest cost per unit), the value of less processed food in cost and nutrition, the general seasons of food (fruit in summer, root vegetables in winter) and how food travels farther and is less tasty when its out of season, how you can get full and still not get the nutrition you need (vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber), the difference between boiling, roasting, baking, braising, frying and sauteeing, the importance of honey bees, and some basic ratios.
posted by Gucky at 10:43 PM on January 11, 2012

Maybe show them the Dove Evolution video so that they know the pictures all around them are not how people look like.

N-thing focus on good food and how to make it.
posted by gakiko at 12:03 AM on January 12, 2012

Teach cooking skills. Everything else, they'll figure out on their own, and either ignore it or not, no matter what some Guide leader told them when they were nine years old.

But if they know some basic cooking skills they can use when they're broke college kids, rather than living on double cheeseburgers, that will help. A lot.

Schools don't teach home economics any more and with fewer stay-at-home parents, a large portion of that extra income seems to go directly into the hands of restaurant owners and prepared food manufacturers.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:12 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding cooking skills and love of good food. most of them probably don't know how to boil water. For me that's tied to growing my own food so you might touch on that too.

I'd leave the body image stuff alone personally. I think you could do a lot more harm than good.
posted by fshgrl at 10:22 AM on January 12, 2012

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