Written by Lydia Benedict.

This weekend I’m speaking at a small health and nutrition seminar; my topic is healthy eating habits for children. By and large, children will eat only as healthy as their parents. I’m reminded of the film Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner: “If you build it, they will come.” When it comes to children and food, a similar motto holds true: If you buy it, they will eat it.

Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams

One of my favorite books that I read to my children when they were toddlers is Do’s and Don’ts. The first page reads: “Do change your socks every day.” The next page: “Don’t make anyone smell them.” Each colorful page is accompanied by the kind of drawings you’d expect a three-year-old to make. It’s simple, yet children love it. And sometimes it’s the simple things that we remember most. Hopefully, author Todd Parr won’t mind my following his simple formula.

DO shop the perimeter of the store.

Think about the layout of your typical grocery store. The fruits, vegetables, and flowers greet us at the door. Beyond this display of plant life is often the meat. And on the opposite side of the store are the cheese, butter, milk and eggs. By mapping our shopping route along a store’s perimeter, consumers will spend less time on the cookie aisle. While there are varying degrees of nutrition even within whole foods, anytime we choose whole foods over processed, it’s a win for the home team.

DON’T shop in the middle.

Michael Pollan writes in Omnivore’s Dilemma that the majority of grocery store products are difficult to even identify as plant or animal: breakfast cereal, beverages, chips, and crackers. There are a few exceptions, but mostly the products in the middle of the store tempt us (and our children) with abundant sweetness, colorful packages, and promises of nutrition. If a product requires fancy packaging and words like “all-natural” and “100% juice” to convince consumers it’s healthy, it's probably not. Conversely, bananas, apples or oranges don’t require slick advertising to tell us they're nutritional.

DO cook your own food.

In our fast-paced life, we often don’t slow down long enough to cook our own meals. This loss of family meal time affects more than our familial relationships, it affects our health.

Ready-to-eat meals, snacks, and desserts have conveniently replaced the need to cook. Instead of making a pot of soup, we reach for Campbell’s. We let Stouffer’s make our lasagna. And if a cake is in order, there’s always Betty Crocker. But the minute we leave our cooking to the food industry, we’ve lost control of our bodies. Processed food is full of hydrogenated oils (Trans Fats), sodium, preservatives, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and corn syrup. Why? Because it’s cheap. Also, those industrial ingredients extend shelf life, saving the food industry even more money. A loaf of bread made from scratch has to be eaten within a week or it molds. Store-bought bread can (and often does) sit on the shelf for weeks with no apparent deterioration.

DON’T eat fast food! EVER!

Fast food is convenient and cheap—factors that attract busy Americans. Yet clearly there is link between our fast food culture and the rising epidemic of obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 78.6 million Americans are obese. That’s more than one-third of our population. And that’s just the obese. If we include the overweight, the number is even higher. The CDC estimates that the medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight. Maybe fast food isn’t so convenient and cheap. Fast food is—well—fast. And that’s all.

DO drink water.

Water is necessary to life. Yet many Americans reach for soda and juice over water. Our bodies are made up of about 70 percent water. And for those of us who are drinking water, we’re likely not drinking enough. Sadly, many people are chronically dehydrated. Whenever my children complain of a headache, I ask them how much water they drank that day. (Our brains are about 90 percent water.) And drinking water helps stave off cravings. Furthermore, water is free—unless you buy bottled water. Even then, it’s cheaper than sugary beverages.

DON’T drink soda.

Soda and juice are also problematic. The CDC reports that from 2005 to 2008 seventy percent of American boys under age 20 and sixty percent of American girls under age 20 consume sugary drinks daily. Even orange juice is not the healthy beverage many think it is. Commercial juice is pasteurized to kill potentially harmful bacteria. But pasteurization also wipes out all the nutrients. In the end, juice is often just flavored sugar water.

Soda, on the other hand, isn’t purchased for its believed health benefits. Nevertheless, selling soft drinks is a $75 billion industry. While soft drink sales have been dropping since 2005, Americans are still drinking about 450 cans a year. At about 27 grams of sugar per can, that’s 12,150 grams (or 27 lbs) of sugar per consumer. Except, it’s not even sugar; it’s high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). And considering that the majority of Americans are overweight, it’s time we give up soda.

Calories, in and of themselves, aren’t bad —unless they contain no nutrition. Many Americans are not only eating empty calories every day, but this junk food makes up a large amount of their daily caloric intake. When we replace nutritious food with junk food, our bodies go looking elsewhere for nutrition. In other words, the human body will take from storage the vitamins and nutrients it needs to carry out its bodily functions. Over time, as Americans continually eat and drink empty calories, the body’s storage of vitamins and nutrients becomes depleted leading to a host of problems.

Diet soda isn’t the answer either. For one thing, its nutrition content is zero. Moreover, artificial sweeteners are toxic; though there are studies (funded by the industry, of course) that say otherwise.

The do’s and don’ts go on and on. Yet adopting just these simple pointers would improve health. As far as our children go—it’s up to us. It doesn’t matter if we cut up fruit and vegetables in cute little shapes to entice our children to eat them. Serving vegetables with store-bought dips isn’t doing them any favors either. That teaches children that a carrot stick only tastes good if it is dunked in ranch dressing. Instead remember the “do cook” rule and make your own dip. Along the way, educate your children: they too can grasp these easy do’s and don’ts. Their understanding will better enable your family to make good food choices. But the bottom-line is this: if we want our children to eat healthy, then we must eat healthy. Period.