How To Talk To Kids About Real Food

I have the pleasure of working with some great moms at our elementary school on an upcoming school assembly (for the students) that is all about real food! This is something we’ve never done before at our school, and it supports the initiatives for our new Healthy Child and Earth Committee. When we first started planning out the assembly we were honestly not sure where to start – I mean I talk to adults all day long about real food (you guys!), but a couple hundred kids? Some of which are brand new to the topic? So thankfully another local food blogger, Adri Warrick with The Whole Tulip, shared with us that she uses the red light/green light concept from a kids book called Eat Healthy, Feel Great when she talks to the kids at her school. That bit of information was exactly what we needed to get started, and today I want to share a version of our presentation,  that was inspired by this concept, with you that you can easily share with the kids in your life. :)

Thanks to the team of moms I am working with on our school assembly, here is a kid-friendly transcript about eating “real food” that you can literally sit down and read together with your children:

How To Fuel Your Body

Race Car

Close your eyes and pretend that you are sitting in the coolest, fastest race car you can imagine. Maybe it’s a red race car or a green one or even a car with racing stripes or flames painted down the sides. Now start up that engine, push your foot down on the gas pedal, and start zooming around the race track. Be sure to watch out for other cars – Vroom Vroom!! Wait a second…you are low on gas, which means it is time for a pit stop. What do you think is the best way to fuel your new high-performance machine? Top quality gasoline of course! Only the best quality will give you the best performance. But what would happen if instead you decided to fill your new race car with gloppy, thick mud? Yuck! How do you think that would make your car perform? How fast would it go? I bet it would be slow and feel weighed down. And that’s because – just like with your own body – the fuel that you use is very important to doing your best. Getting exercise along with the food you eat impacts how you feel, think, and perform tasks. Without a balanced and healthy diet – tasks like reading, writing, and even thinking can be harder for your body.  So today we are going to learn how to make healthy food choices so you know how to “fuel” your body so you can feel and do your best.

Traffic Light Foods

To understand what foods are good for your body we are going to use this traffic signal. Green Light Foods are “go” foods that will fuel your body in the best way possible by giving you the energy and nutrients your body and brain need to feel top notch. We will also talk about Yellow Light Foods, which are “sometimes” foods – these are okay to eat sometimes. And lastly we will go over Red Light Foods, which are foods you should avoid and try to not put in your body.

Traffic Light Foods


Green Light FoodsGreen Light

Once again, Green Light Foods make your body feel and work the best. Many Green Light Foods come from plants. These foods can be picked out of a garden, out of a field, or off of trees. These are foods like bananas, carrots, oranges, avocados, apples, grapes, berries, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, cucumbers, artichokes, broccoli, green beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and more! There are so many healthy fruits and vegetables to choose from – which ones are your favorites?

Some other Green Light Foods that also come from plants are beans, nuts, seeds, and whole-grains. Beans like black beans, pinto beans, lima beans, and kidney beans are all great for fueling your body. There are also many types of nuts including cashews, pecans, peanuts, walnuts, pistachios, and many more. Seeds can come from plants like sunflowers or pumpkins. And when you think about breads and grains – whole grains are the most nutritious because they still have all the important parts intact – and you can see the difference in bread, pasta, and rice that is brown or tan in color. Not white or light yellow.

Lastly, some Green Light Foods can come from healthy animals as well. Think about foods like eggs, milk, and cheese that come from happy animals. And some meat products like fresh fish and also chicken and beef that come from animals that roam on wide open, grassy fields are good for you as well. The best and most nutritious animal products almost always come from small, local and/or organic farmers. So be sure to get those Green Light Foods from the farmers’ market – or look for the word “organic” on the label.

Remember…Green Light Foods are “go” foods that will give your body the fuel it needs. Just be sure to wash down all those healthy Green Light Foods with lots of water!

Green Light Foods
Green Light Foods

Yellow LightYellow Light Foods

Yellow Light Foods are foods that are okay to eat sometimes. Just like the yellow stop light means to slow down, you don’t want to eat too many of these foods. A lot of yellow light foods are made with white flour and sugar. Think about treats you make at home with sugar like cookies that you mix up in a bowl or homemade birthday cake. Also, packaged foods like pretzels, crackers, and white bread are Yellow Light Foods because they are oftentimes made with white flour instead of the healthier whole-wheat flour. Some other yellow light foods are lemonade, chocolate milk, and other sugary drinks. Treats like ice cream as well are yellow light foods, which again means these foods are okay to eat sometimes. But you do have to watch out because some of these foods can also have red light ingredients, which you will learn about next.

So just remember, yellow light means slow down and don’t eat too many of these because they are “sometimes” foods.

Yellow Light Foods
Yellow Light Foods

Red LightRed Light Foods

Red Light Foods are foods you want to avoid as much as possible. Most Red Light Foods are made in factories and come in packages. The best way to know if something is a Red Light Food is to read the ingredients on the back of the package. And that is because Red Light Foods contain Red Light Ingredients. Here are some examples…


Red Light Ingredients To Avoid

More About Red Light Ingredients…

–> Red Light Ingredient #1: Artificial Dyes

  • If a packaged food is bright in color it probably contains artificial dyes.
  • These are bad because they are fake additives made by food scientists from petroleum (the same substance used to make gasoline!) – so they are not good for your health. These chemicals make some kids so hyper they cannot sit still in class.
  • Look on the ingredient label for words like Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, and Artificial Color – and avoid them.

–> Red Light Ingredient #2: Hydrogenated Oils

  • If a food is made with Hydrogenated Oil that means it contains trans fat – some examples are store-bought frosting, sprinkles and margarine (fake butter).
  • This is bad because eating a lot of trans fat is not good for your organs including your heart, which is part of your body’s engine!
  • Look for the words Hydrogenated or Partially Hydrogenated Oil on the ingredient label – and avoid them.

–> Red Light Ingredient #3: High Fructose Corn Syrup

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup is a sugar made from corn – corn kernels are not bad, but High Fructose Corn Syrup is and it is in a lot of packaged sweet treats like soda, fake syrup, and also things that don’t even look like they are treats, like jelly.
  • Eating too much of any kind of sugar can make you overweight and unhealthy, which can really slow you down.
  • Look for the word High Fructose Corn Syrup on the label and avoid it.

–> Red Light Ingredient #4: Words You Cannot Pronounce or Would Not Cook With At Home

  • Avoid other ingredients that you have never heard of and would not cook with at home.
  • Here are some examples – can you even pronounce these words?
    • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG – a salty additive)
    • Maltodextrin (another highly processed food additive made from corn)
    • Aspartame (fake sugar)
    • Sodium Benzoate (a chemical to make food last longer – what’s also called a preservative)
    • Propylene Glycol (also used as antifreeze in cars and boats!)

Pictured are some foods that contain Red Light Ingredients and are not good for your health – instead focus on eating foods and ingredients that you are familiar with and would cook with at home…like the Green Light Foods we talked about earlier!

Red Light Foods
Red Light Foods – These Foods Contain Red Light Ingredients

One more Red Light Food to watch out for is all “fast food.” Think again of the Green Light Foods, like a pumpkin for example. What would happen if your Halloween pumpkin was still sitting on your front porch? It would be all rotted and nasty. Well believe it or not fast food meals that are even as old as you…6, 7, 8 years old or even older still practically look brand new! That is because the chemical additives that aren’t good for you can make processed food last for what seems like forever. That doesn’t sound like something that would do a good job fueling your body! So remember, red light means stop – so the next time you pick up a packaged food “stop” to see if it contains any red light ingredients.

Be A Label Detective

Now, it is your job to be a label detective so you can figure out if the food you are about to eat is a Green Light Food, Yellow Light Food, or Red Light Food. Even if a food package has a fun cartoon character on the front or you see a commercial about it on TV it or it says “fruit” on the box it can still contain Red Light Ingredients, which is why you have to turn the package over and read the ingredient label. Let’s start by reading a couple labels together.

At first these look like they could possibly be yellow light foods, but read the ingredient label next to it to find all the Red Light Ingredients (items that are hard to pronounce and that you would not cook with at home)!

Red Light Example

Red Light Example

Screen Shot 2013-04-19 at 10.55.44 AM

Remember if a Green Light Food has an ingredient label at all the list will be short (5 or less ingredients) and it will not contain any white flour, sugar, or Red Light Ingredients. But the best Green Light Foods for your body do not even come in a package or have an ingredient list at all!

The Best Green Light Foods Have No Labels
The Best Green Light Foods Have No Labels

It is really important to fuel your body with LOTS of Green Light Foods every single day – especially fruits and veggies – so you can feel good and be healthy! Plus don’t forget to wash down all those Green Light Foods with plenty of water and also be sure to get lots of exercise as well. When you feel your best…you do your best!

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Speaking of kids, one of the ways I make my children’s real food lunches fun is by adding little notes from Lunchbox Love. Yes, I could probably write my own notes on my own paper, but let’s face it – they wouldn’t be nearly as cute or creative or fun and chances are at some point I would probably forget to keep doing it. Having the Lunchbox Love cards with our school lunch supplies is a great reminder for me, and not only do they have a heartfelt message (or a blank spot where you can write your own!), but the other side also has fun facts, jokes or other tidbits. I started sending these cards in my 2nd grader’s lunch at the beginning of the school year and she was so excited about them she said to me, “Mom, can you please buy me a frame to keep all these notes in?” We settled on a little box and sure enough she has quite the collection now that the school year is mostly over. And now that my kindergartener is learning to read we’ve been sending them in her lunch as well…just like big sis. :) So anyway, yes Lunchbox Love is one of sponsors, but I am here to tell you even if they weren’t I’d still be buying and sending these little notes with my girls (who in turn share them with their friends) so you’ll have to take a look at what they offer. Also be sure to check out their “grown up” notes as well that would be great to give with teacher gifts at the end of the year or to moms on Mother’s Day. Just like the name – we love these cards

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139 thoughts on “How To Talk To Kids About Real Food”

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  1. Do you have any suggestions for books to read as a family as we are studying healthy eating habits? And not even just ones with information and facts but maybe stories that would relate to this topic?

  2. How would you classify something like home made pumpkins bread made with honey? I struggle with foods like that which seem not quite green because of the added honey but also not as bad as ice cream…

      1. Hi! I hope it’s okay to chime in here. I’m a Certified Health Coach through the Dr Sears Wellness Institute and traffic light eating is the foundation of what we are taught as coaches. I’m also by the way a HUGE fan of 100 days of real food! One way to look at traffic light eating is as a spectrum. Some foods, particularly in the yellow category, will be closer to the green end and some will fall closer to the red end (btw the curriculum in the coaching course now only includes fruits and veggies in the green light category). The idea is that we can strive to move foods closer to the green end of the spectrum by maybe changing the ingredients to include healthier choices (like swapping white flour for whole wheat flour, or including bigger portions of fruits and veggies) The 100 Days of Real Food website does an amazing job of that — taking “traditional” meals and moving them closer to the green end of the spectrum!

  3. I have been a long time follower of the website before it became so popular and I found it to be a really good resource for ME. Now that educating kids has come into play I see a lot of food shaming here. What is going to happen when one of these kids sits down next to someone who has a red light food in thier lunch? I have been struggling with these posts for some time now and I have to say I have had enough. Lisa, I feel your kids are going to grow up with food issues and judgments of others for the food they eat. Some of the comments you say they make almost rip my heart out. Please go back to educating grown ups about the food they are giving thier kids and let kids be kids. It is good to remind kids fresh fruit and vegetables are best but thier has to be limits.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Debbie. Part of it is, of course, teaching our kids to respect the choices of others and keep opinions to themselves-that’s just good manners, but should we not educate as many as possible to make the choices that will best benefit their long term health and the way their brains function? There are plenty of allowances for treats in any given week. As it turns out, our kids today are the unhealthiest generation of kids in terms of obesity and diabetes in our history. That’s not okay. Kids can be kids without pile of sugar and chemical ingredients that make them sick, don’t you think?

      1. I couldn’t agree more with your reply! I use this model to teach my kids, there is also room for treats when it deems ok like other kids birthday parties. We also live by 80-20 rule….20 being the percentage of crossing the line…let’s not be obsessive but aware and mindful of what we are putting into our bodies. A few weeks ago on a school outing the kids were given Beavertails smothered in maple butter and later given a cupcake with pure icing sugar..needless to say both my kids were so sick afterwards, my youngest vomitted everywhere and my oldest had diarrhea. I have nothing against eating treat but they can be made with different ingredients like honey, maple syrup, bananas or dates as a sweetener and whole grain flours. I think many people feel that it is it too expensive or too time consuming to eat healthy but I think some are intimidated and don’t know where to begin. There are some many sources online to guide and help out. It just takes a little organizing and realizing that the food we feed our kids will benefit them well into adulthood…not only that but eating foods located on the outer perimeters of the grocery stores with save you money in the long run. There is far too much information out there to not make the proper choices and it can be done economically. Feeding kids solely packaged, processed food is in my opinion a form of child abuse. And that’s m spiel!

      2. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

        Yep, education is key. When we know better, we should strive to do better…especially for our kids. :)

  4. The natural applesauce I eat says it has “ascorbic acid (vitamin c)” in it. Is this okay? I would never keep that to cook with in my pantry

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Katelyn. You can find applesauce with only apples on the ingredient list but most do contain vitamin c. I would go organic, if possible, since apples hold a high spot on the dirty dozen list. ~Amy

  5. Jennifer Laurinaitis

    I LOVED this article and I LOVE your site. I was wondering if you knew of any documentaries that would be good for kids to watch on this issue of eating healthy and where our food comes from?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Jennifer. It depends on the age of your kids and what you think they are ready for. There are a bunch of food documentaries that you can stream on Netflix, but I would screen them first to be certain they are appropriate for your kids. This Michael Pollan page is full of great resources: that you can refer to over and over. Also, Jamie Oliver’s Ted Talk is golden for opening eyes regarding standard school cafeteria fare: ~Amy

  6. How do you address students whose parents can only afford the “red and yellow” foods, and can’t afford to shop biweekly for “green light” foods that can go bad in a matter of days?

    This isn’t a jab, but an honest question. At my house, we try very hard to eat healthy and avoid eating too many carbs or too much sugar, but fruits and vegetables can be so expensive, especially if it means multiple trips to the grocery store, and throwing half of your purchases out. (not always, but sometimes.)

    I’m not saying we live off of lunchables, but PB&Js, mac&cheese, etc., are some pretty cheap staples…

    How do you suggest that parents with tight budgets and not very much time because of work address this issue?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Melissa. This post gives several solid suggestions for keeping costs down and your week running smoothly: For me, the best part of Lisa’s advice has been planning ahead and knowing what you have in your fridge and pantry. If you know something is about to go to waste, like a head of broccoli, either use it or throw it in the freezer. Even if it is something that doesn’t lend itself to freezing well (texture-wise), it could still be used in soups, sauces, etc. Cooking large batches and freezing has also really simplified meal times throughout the week as well as lunch packing. And, those cheap staples you mentioned, can all be made over into healthier, real versions by using real ingredients. Here are a couple examples: and You can find delicious 1 ingredient (the one I buy also has salt) peanut butters with whole fruit spread, too. :) If your kids are old enough, you can involve them in the entire process which can eventually take some pressure off of Mom (or Dad). :) ~Amy

  7. As a Mum who has been a primary school canteen supervisor (where kids are aged 5-12) and is about to start a new job as a high school supervisor (where kids are aged 12-18), I thank you for this post. Here in Australia we use the traffic light system too, and red light foods are not meant to be sold in our school canteens. We don’t have ingredients to determine if it’s a red light food, ours are determined by fat and sugar levels per portion size. Some of them I shake my head at, but to counter this I am pushing for the majority of our foods to be green light – they are fresh and colourful and instantly more appealing than reduced fat pies and sausage rolls that are currently the staple of Australian school canteens!

  8. Why is High Fructose Corn Syrup given such a strict “NEVER EVER EAT THIS EVER!!!” rating, whereas table sugar is only “Eat this in moderation”?

    If you replaced all the high-fructose corn syrup in packaged foods with sugar — like they do in Canada — it wouldn’t make it any better for you.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hello Roger. We focus on high fructose corn syrup here because it is what is most commonly found in highly processed packaged foods that often end up in children’s lunch boxes. But, we also advise against added sugar, in general. ~Amy

  9. I love love love this. As a mother of 3 littles and a first grade teacher I fully appreciate how useful this article is in teaching children about appropriate foods to eat and when. Just yesterday when grocery shopping my 6 year old daughter questioned why we weren’t going to buy the “strawberry” applesauce and why we chose the reduced sodium black beans over the regular black beans. When I explained to her that the regular has more salt and our body doesn’t need that much salt she said “well why did they put it in there in the first place?” I love that she’s thinking about our food and asking questions about it. We are all learning and educating ourselves. Thank you for the work you do!

  10. It’s actually ethylene glycol is what is in antifreeze. The “P” glycols are often used in liquid medicines and electronic cigarettes.

  11. Fabulous article for children! Love the idea of the traffic easy for kids to relate to! With the obesity rate skyrocketing, raising children’s awareness of healthy eating is absolutely crucial! Hats off to the author!