Your Grade-Schooler’s Development: What to Expect and How it Affects Nutrition

This is the third installment in our Your Child’s Development series. We’ve covered infancy and toddlerhood, and now we’re taking on the grade-schooler (5 years- 12 years).

This child development series takes a look at typical development and how it may influence your child’s eating and behavior around food and eating.

School-age children are at an interesting crossroads: they are learning at a fast pace, beginning to process more complex ideas, yet they still see the world in absolutes (black or white, and right or wrong). This cognitive stage can make teaching concepts about nutrition tricky.

Eleven-year old Grace told me that she had been taught that human stomachs were the size of a fist and that using the fist as a guide was a good reference for how much food to eat. Although given with good intention, this message turned out to be an unhealthy and dangerous one for her.

Erikson describes this time in life as the pursuit of “industry vs. inferiority”: a time when children are developing a sense of “capability”.

Self-esteem development is positively influenced by the success kids experience as they learn new skills. We know that kids feel good about themselves when they know that they are talented or good at something. When kids are recognized for their achievements and talents, their self-esteem builds.

The kitchen is the perfect environment for allowing your grade-schooler a chance to work on new skill development. Parents and kids can work on nutrition concepts together, such as cooking and kitchen skills.  And it’s a great time to teach about nutrition.

Kristen, now in her 40′s, has been in the kitchen for years. Would you let your seven year-old make lasagna? Her mom did (and here’s proof), and now Kristen extends these opportunities with her own children. Learning experiences in the kitchen can have a positive effect on self-esteem, but also on kitchen capabilities and food attitudes.

Look for ways to involve your grade-schooler in the kitchen and try to:

  • Acknowledge/compliment your child on their efforts: “This was a difficult recipe to follow!”, “Nice job on chopping those vegetables,” and “Delicious!”
  • Teach simple skills and advance the complexity as your child ages and shows they are ready.
  • Be factual about nutrition (look it up if you have to) and avoid the opinionated perspective (because it may be faddish or fictitious).
  • Provide support, yet allow independence.

Not only are skill and self-esteem development a cornerstone of this developmental stage, but the growing influence of “outsiders” are top of mind for families. Fortunately, family remains a strong influence on the grade-schooler, but the outside world is definitely creeping in. Parents worry about the media, school, and peers, and rightfully so. Kids are particularly swayed by advertising and media messages at this age, partly because they cannot separate fantasy from reality.

Friends and school become more of an influence, too. I think you may have heard this (or something like it) from your children, “Becky has ice cream everyday. And she doesn’t have to do her chores. She even gets to eat in front of the TV anytime she wants to! And her food is always good!”

How do you respond to that (?!), and keep it positive and neutral?

Grade-schoolers want to feel that they belong and that they are not different from their peers. Balancing this with family values can be tricky, but these tips may help:

  • Have a family nutrition mantra or philosophy–one that is easy to fall back on, and one that you can use throughout childhood.

“All families are different, and we do things our family way.” 

“We value health and good food–we are careful to choose foods that make your body strong and powerful.” 

“What goes into your body is important to your health–and that’s important to mom and dad.”

“Our job is to make sure everyone in this family is healthy.”

“There is a time and place for all sorts of foods, and school is a place for brain foods (healthy foods).”

  • Be interested in what your child’s friends are doing, how their families do things and be willing to branch out and adopt some new ways of handling nutrition in your home (but be judicious, choosing healthy and fun things).

These are just some responses that other families have found helpful–you will want to have an array of them. Be consistent with your family values/mantra, so your kids adopt and internalize your values.

How do you get your kids in the kitchen? And how do you respond to increasing outside influences?

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