I have recently gotten a lot of questions about transitioning families and especially children to healthier eating habits and specifically Paleo/Primal based diets. People are more than willing to make changes to their nutrition, but often fear applying those changes to their little ones. Why is that? First I think there is a real fear from parents that they will be depriving their children of all the “fun” and “wonderful” foods of their own childhoods. Overtime these foods have been associated with special memories or loved ones, and parents project their own emotional attachment to “favorite foods” onto their children. The second consideration most parents have is whether the dietary choices they are making for themselves are safe and appropriate for their kids. I applaud parents for asking themselves this question. Many of the people I work with have tried countless fad diets; diets that were designed to lose a lot of weight very fast, and often using drastic and unhealthy means (not to mention unsustainable over time). I think we can safely say that limiting sugars and feeding children unprocessed meals composed of animal proteins, vegetables, healthy fats, some fruits and nuts is not only healthy, but also a safe and optimal to their growth and development.
Here is an often overlooked fact: children are naturally programmed (from birth) to make healthy choices. If given the option to eat healthier foods, children will not starve themselves waiting for sweet cereals, french fries and industrially processed meals. They will eat vegetables and meats, fish and fruit, and they will naturally regulate the types and amount of food they ingest to meet their growing body’s needs (i.e. meet growth and caloric needs appropriately).
Our status as omnivores has helped us evolve as the dominant species on the plant, but it may also be what sets-us up to go haywire when it comes to food choices. As omnivores we are presented with such a wide variety of foods to eat; more options means more opportunities to make both healthy and poor decisions. In a world ruled by convenience and pleasure seeking, we too often opt for the foods that satisfy us right away. Our pleasure centers take control and over-ride better instincts. Sugars in foods are activate pleasure centers in our brain. In the distant past fruits and naturally occurring sugars were rare. As quick sources of energy there was a strong biological (and neurological) incentive to consume as much of them as possible when available. Unfortunately, or fortunately, in our modern world all foods and especially carbohydrate and sugar-dense foods are readily available, but our brain didn’t get the memo, so we desire and consume them with the same haste as before.
Now consider this we and especially our children are actively targeted by the food industry, and that targeting is then reinforced at home. Foods marketed to kids are colorful, fun-shaped, have alluring mascots, and millions of dollars are poured into engineering meals that will trigger pleasure centers like no other legal and non-prescription drug can. If the corporate pressure to buys these foods is not enough there remains the fact that many parents, who face the difficult task of feeding their children day after day (and doing so in addition to meeting all other stressful chores/job obligations and responsibilities of daily living) reinforce the notion that these kinds of food are more palatable by making special meals for their kids and bribing them with sweet or processed treats.
The truth is that if you give your child no other option than to eat a healthy balanced meal, they will over time give in. Children will not starve themselves. They may go hungry for a while, but an emotionally/physically healthy child will not refuse food to the point of failing to thrive.
If you are making a transition to healthier foods what you will discover is that initially your child may be grumpy, uncooperative and difficult to deal with. They will argue, plead and try to bargain with you, but if the only option they have is the healthy foods you give them, they will eventually give in. With time and exposure they will even develop a liking for these foods (remember when you first introduced solids there was a whole period where you were simply teaching your child to acclimate to new textures and tastes, it is the same thing here). What this means for you is more frustrating meal times in the short run, but a better eater and a healthier child in the long run.
Here are a few tips for parents wanting to modify their children’s eating habits:
- Give them the option to eat what you have prepared rather than trying to force them to eat no matter what; the battle is a lot less draining and demanding on you. They may be hungry and whinny after awhile, but meal time won’t become a battle of wills.
- Sometimes it is all about presentation. Eating is as much about how food looks and feels (texture) as it is about taste. Present food in formats your kids and you enjoy
- When my son suddenly started refusing eggs I would cook them like flat omelet and call it a pancake – et voila eggs were back in.
- Sometimes textures can be unpleasant, a full mushroom cap may feel slimy to a little mouth, but chopped mushrooms in a dish are delicious.
- Make it look good, that ratatouille you made may be delicious, but if it looks gray and mushy it won’t be visually appealing. Remember restaurants and food corps spend a lot of time making food visually appealing because it is important to make it mentally appealing.
- If at first it doesn’t work, don’t give-up. Try everything at least a dozen times, and change how you serve it. There are many foods you love now that you probably didn’t like as a kid, they are acquired tastes, only repeated exposure will help with that.
- Don’t be a short order cook. You are a model for your kids, they will be much more likely to eat something if you are eating it too. Prepare one meal. You can be considerate, by making sure that there is at least one food they like on their plate for example, but don’t make special kid meals for them and adult meals for you.
- Remove temptation. They can’t have junk foods if they are not in the home.
- As best you can involve them in the cooking or decision making process: I might ask my children if they would rather green beans or Brussels sprouts providing them with a sense of control and choice in their meal options. I also am working on teaching them how to crack an egg and hopefully later will have them trained as efficient prep-cooks.
I understand this is difficult, and it has to be a personal choice each parent makes, not out of guilt, but out of a certitude that they are doing what is right for their child. My children like me eat mostly Paleo. They have days when their eating is amazing, and other days when we have meltdowns because they want to eat some food that is not on our healthy list. There are days and situations that call for flexibility in their eating habits: birthday parties, special occasions and holidays are among the most common. Overall, however, by feeding your children properly at home you can rest assured that their diet is well balanced, their health is protected, and their bodies are growing strong and healthy.
Here are a few great sites that have advice as we gear up for a new school year.
Paleo Parents has a great family friendly blog: here is a guest post about transitioning kids to Paleo
Paleo Diet LIfestyle: a cool article on raising Paleo kids
Everyday Paleo (Sara is one of the first resources I went to when transitioning my family to Paleo years ago)