Green Light Foods: An Easy Concept for Teaching Kids About Nutrition

By: Martianne Stanger

“Green light. Yellow light. Red light”

You might expect to hear these words when you and your kids are driving in the car or when a group of children are playing in a field. But would you expect to hear them at the dinner table? If you were at our house, you would.

Now, that is not because we talk traffic safety or play running games during dinner (well, at least not every day.) Rather, it’s because about a year ago, I heard a speaker on the Great Parenting Show who mentioned the idea of a stop light visual to teach children about nutrition. While I have forgotten that speaker’s name and cannot remember exactly how she applied the stop light analogy, I have found the general concept of green, yellow and red light foods to be an effective tool for teaching my children about food choices.

My husband, children, and I have defined “green,” “yellow,” and “red” light foods based on common sense nutrition principles, as well as our family food goals and the children’s special dietary needs. With these definitions in mind, we find it easy to promote healthy eating in our household.

When the kids help us with the grocery shopping, we challenge them to help us choose more green light foods than any others. At the table, if we see them piling their plates high with yellow light foods, we remind them to go for the green. My husband and I consciously model making green light choices and talk about why we are eating a meal of total green light choices to balance off our recent indulgences in red light foods.

Turkey Burger

The Kids’ Understanding of Green, Yellow and Red Light Foods

The green, red, and yellow light concept is working for our family. Everyone is making better food choices and the kids now have an easy way to think and talk about nutrition. In a conversation just this afternoon, my oldest said that he is supposed to take “lots of green light, medium yellow, light and little red light” foods, but that he’d prefer to “take lots of red light.” He says he doesn’t do this, because “it’s bad and I want to be healthy… I don’t want to get sick and I want to be a football player when I am 19… a good one….strong.”

My five year old chimed in to say her favorite green light foods are “strawberries, apples and grapes,” her favorite yellow light food is “chocolate (almond) milk,” and her favorite red light food is “sorbet.” I might add that she makes pretty good choices about how much of these to eat and is developing a diet that I hope will keep her healthy for life.

My two year old doesn’t have the concept down quite yet, but spoke up to add that sweet potato french fries are a yellow light food that he loves.

Teaching nutrition

Our Green, Yellow and Red Light Definitions

The way our family defines green, yellow, and red light foods might be a bit too strict for other families. However, I think the general concept can work for any family.

For those who are curious, in our home, “green light” foods are natural, non- or lightly-processed and are only one step (if any) away from the way that God made them. They include things like fresh fruit, raw vegetables, raw seeds, raw nuts, defrosted frozen fruit, steamed vegetables, and cooked eggs.

“Yellow light” foods are grass-fed, nitrate/nitrite-free meats and things that are processed, but not overly so. Like all foods we eat, they do not contain gluten or casein, and like most foods we eat, they don’t contain white sugar, artificial colors, artificial dyes and lots of preservatives. Homemade pancakes, natural apple sauce, organic corn chips, chocolate-almond milk, coconut milk, GFCF breads, homemade breakfast cookies, organic canned fruit, roasted nuts and similar foods fit into this category.

“Red light” foods are anything that we are neither allergic nor sensitive to, but that we try know is best to reserve for infrequent treats. Things such as homemade cake, chocolate-coconut ice cream, GFCF dark chocolate, all-fruit popsicles, chocolate chip cookies and the like.

In the new year, some of the specifics of these categories might change as we learn more about eating to stay cancer-free for me, food choices to help with eczema for the kids, and ways to reduce our food budget for us all. However, the general concept will surely help us continue to promote eating for life.

How do you encourage healthy eating habits in your home?


2 thoughts on “Green Light Foods: An Easy Concept for Teaching Kids About Nutrition

  1. One of the easiest things for me to encourage healthier eating habits is our “family dinner” habit. We almost always eat dinner together as a family, with everyone having the same menu. Now, not everyone eats everything on the menu everyday (my youngest just cannot eat mashed potatoes without vomiting, etc). Watching the adults eat gives the kids an example to follow and encourages them to try new things. We are proponents of having the kids at least taste everything. I like your idea about the foods and think it is a great way to start kids out on the concept of healthy foods being the mainstay and other foods being fine for occasional treats. I hate the idea of “bad” foods in general. Moderation in all things is good in life (of course, allergies etc factor differently)

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