Food for the Journey: Teaching Children Discerning Eating Habits

June 2021

by Tracy Turi, WEforum Creative Director


Educating children about food hits on all cylinders: good nutrition, shopping on a budget, cultivating young palates, and the importance of making selective food purchasing decisions. But it can also be a daunting task because even adults have difficulty distinguishing between whole, processed and ultra-processed foods—particularly when it comes to the sexier, newfangled, and trendy plant-based varieties. Deciding what to buy and eat is also tricky in a culture geared toward excess and manipulating consumer behavior. And to complicate things, parents are often too strapped for time to compose well-balanced home-cooked meals from scratch three times a day. Out of necessity and convenience, and often on a budget, they frequently rely on processed foods to get them through a hectic week. Check out the resources below to help you better role-model good eating habits for your children and empower them to make more informed food choices as they grow up.


TIP: Even young children can learn that processed foods do not necessarily equal unhealthy foods.

Humans have been processing and modifying foods for thousands of years. So, it’s great when children learn that processing milk to make cheese and yogurt is a means of preserving it and preventing deadly pathogens from forming, likewise for meat to make bacon, grain to make bread (or beer!), grapes to make wine. And many of the processed foods we eat, like vitamin-D fortified milk and plant milks, have also been developed to amp up the nutrition. The examples are too numerous to list, but processed foods are sometimes a gift to civilization.


Plant-based products represent an increasingly large segment of supermarket aisles, and Big Food is quickly moving in to get a piece of the action. Most vegans already know that a vegan diet does not necessarily guarantee good health and that there is a big difference between whole plant-based and ultra-processed plant-based foods. vegan v. plant-based v. whole food plant-based For example, Oreos are a vegan-ish*, plant-based food that contains no vitamins and only small and trace amounts of proteins and minerals. Many plant-based products are ultra-processed foods in disguise and contain added sugars, hydrogenated fats, and additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers. Ultra-processed foods.

Even the Impossible Burger, which may now be included nationwide in American school lunches, deserves scrutiny. Impossible Foods recently Child Nutrition (CN) Label accreditation by the USDA, yet The Impossible Burger contains over twenty ingredients and additives, including non-certified, non-organic soy.


TIP: Children can learn to embrace innovative changes in food and distinguish between whole plant-based and ultra-processed plant-based foods.

Ultra-processed foods. There are excellent resources out there to help consumers think critically about the parallels between ultra-processed junk food and ultra-processed plant-based foods, understand truth in advertising, and engage in responsible eating habits.


*Strict vegans won’t eat sugar unless it has been certified vegan, since many brands, like Nabisco, use bone char to process and purify cane sugar.

According to the USDA, processed food products are frequently NOT required to include the country of origin for its listed ingredients, except under certain specific circumstances. For example, most of us have heard about adulterated olive oil and the wood shavings found in pre-grated Parmesan cheese. Still, food fraud, which includes food adulteration and substituting, mislabeling, and tampering with any food product, is a growing threat to our food system. A broad range of food categories is subject to food fraud, including honey and maple syrup, edible oils, fish and seafood, meat products, dairy products, spices, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. In other words, pretty much everything.

Food safety and food fraud also impact every part of the supply chain because supply chains today tend to be global, fragmented, intricately intertwined, and block-chain aside, frequently non-transparent. For instance, if you purchase a name brand processed in the United States, there is no guarantee that every ingredient listed has been safely or sustainably sourced, primarily when sourced abroad in countries whose inspection and certification processes are lacking. Not to pick on the Impossible Burger again because this applies to many packaged foods, but the Impossible Burger’s soy is non-organic, so where does it source its soy? Has it been safely sourced?


TIP: When children learn about food safety and food fraud when they are young, they can cultivate higher levels of discernment when selecting what foods to buy and eat.


America has a long history of seeing causality in every wacky fad diet based less on science and more on making its creators rich. Fad dieting loops and food-as-reward tactics that lead to poor body image have also long plagued many Americans. For example, Fletcherism, Horace Fletcher’s 100-chews mastication (and spit) method of the late 19th century, was designed to increase one’s digestion. Fletcher (with the help of a Yale-conducted research study) insisted that his diet made him stronger, more robust, and athletic at his age than the much younger college-age test subjects. It also made him fabulously wealthy. Remember “Body Love” McFadden’s all-milk diet for manly men? Probably not (unless you’re over 100 years old), but you probably do remember the cabbage soup and grapefruit diets. Those diets might seem outlandish today, but America has enjoyed a proliferation of wacky diets since then, claiming to make us feel better. But that does not necessarily prove causality.


TIP: History and historical patterns teach children greater perspective and context.

  • Foods That Changed History: How Foods Shaped Civilization from the Ancient World to the Present, by Christopher Cumo.
  • Food through the lens of history and science: Gastropod Podcast


Whole Foods Recipes

Vegan Meat Crumbles, recipe adapted from The Vegan Meat Cookbook: Meatless FavoritesMade with Plants, by Miyoko Schinner

Sweet Potatoes with Nondairy Yogurt & Maple Pumpkin Seeds, adapted from #EatMeatless: Good for Animals, the Earth & All, by the Jane Goodall Institute

Chickpea Omelets, adapted from Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun

Roasted Portobellos, adapted from Vegetable Simple by Eric Ripert

Vegan smoked salmon

DIY Oat milk

Healthy cooking and meals planning with children