The single most frequently asked question I get is … “How do you get your kids to eat THAT?!”
This is a loaded question and it brings up several topics. Usually, I offend someone with my answer. So, I decided to tackle this question in a series of blog posts, covering different topics. This is part one. Let me start by saying that yes, I am an extremist about a lot of things, and it’s ok if you don’t like my way, it won’t effect how I parent.
First, my kids have always been healthy eaters, willing to try new things, adventure & experiment with food. I’ll start by discussing why I think this begins in the womb and how to foster that mindset with kids.
Secondly, I don’t believe kids are the problem – it’s always the adults. Parents, Grandparents, Teachers, Coaches – the opinions of adults sway children and create problems. So, next, I’ll discuss THOSE people and how to handle them.
Thirdly, I’m going to talk about why I AM the paleo police in my house, and why for me and my family I believe that is my responsibility.
From this, I hope to spawn off multiple discussions later and delve further into life as a parent; because, after all, it is our most important role.
These are my kids… On the left, my oldest is a gymnast. On the right, my middle child and only son is a baseball player. In the center, our baby, is trying to figure out what she wants to be. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, into their activity level. All of them swim, the girls dance, my son plays basketball, the little one plays piano, and we CrossFit as a family.
For me, even before I knew what paleo was, it was important to me that my kids be healthy… healthier than I was. I was the oldest of 3. I had been a swimmer in high school and never “un-healthy” per se, but, I was also the heaviest of my siblings and struggled with my weight despite exercise and diet. I remember my little sister saying to me a few years ago…”Leanna, you are the healthiest one of all of us, you never eat junk food at all.” So, why was I fat?
Out of the gate with my first child I was going to do everything RIGHT!
I breast fed, I made my own baby food, I started her at finger foods with real foods like avocado, egg, banana, and yes… pasta. (in retrospect, I could smack myself). I never gave her a bottle and went right to the cup as soon as she could grab it. I never gave her juice, and started her drinking water (again, I cringe as I admit giving her “nursery water” with added Flouride). So, yes, I did the best I could with the information I had 8 years ago. Overall, I didn’t do too bad.
Despite all this, she was diagnosed as pre-asthmatic by 3 years old. Chronic ear infections from 6-18 months old, it seemed she was always sick.
This cycle continued with babies 2 and 3… I did everything I knew to do, yet my son had eczema severely, they all suffered from allergies, asthma and headaches like I did. My youngest needed tubes in her ears TWICE and her adenoids removed before she was 2 years old.
I scratched my head and wondered what I was doing wrong. Were my children just genetically doomed to inherit everything I had ever suffered from, and if so, was weight going to be an issue later? What about cancer, it seemed everyone around me, including me had some type of cancer or pre-cancer. Were my kids just destined to need chemotherapy? Could I stop that before I had to make the difficult decision between a disease and a poison?
Keep in mind I was lean and athletic right up until college, when the freshman 15 turned into 20… then 30… then 40 lbs. I went from 125 and muscular to 165 and flabby in 3.5 short years. After college, it just progressively got worse, until I was 200 lbs on a 5’6″ frame. Still, it never made sense.
So, back to the kids…
Before I got pregnant, I remember very consciously watching my friends children, how my friends parented them and making mental notes of what I thought each did correctly and incorrectly. I made my little lists and had a good idea of what kind of parent I wanted to be when finally my first was born.
There were several things that I felt like my parents had done correctly with me, despite not having a relationship with my mother as an adult; I can remember as a child very specific things that had a profound impact on me as a child… those went on my list too.
Now that I knew what to do, and what not to do, I thought I was ready for anything that the fates had to throw at me. LOL. Naive. Arrogant. Yep, all of it.
So, how do I get my kids to eat THAT…
One of those things on my parenting mental list prior to having kids was fostering an adventurous spirit. Saying no to fear and yes to trying everything. Food inclusive. Our house rule is that you just cannot form an opinion about anything if you haven’t experienced it at least once.
Since we did start at a young age with them actively instilling a willingness to try new things, going paleo in all honesty wasn’t hard. The kids already ate anything and everything. They love all fruits, all vegetables, all meats, seafood, nuts… that part wasn’t hard.
Taking away things like pasta, bread, fast food, juice boxes was a wakeup call though. We didn’t eat a lot of sweets, but it drew attention to how often they were having that crap outside of our home. Whether it was school, the grandparents’, friends homes, even snacks at sporting events. The cookies, juices, pizza, candy and endless supply of corn syrup, sugar, sugar substitutes, grains… all the things you took for granted are now staring at you and taunting you. That’s where the hard part came.
I consider my kids 100% paleo, although to be fair we are probably 95/5. I, personally, HATE the 80/20 versions of Paleo because to me it does need to be all or nothing. I understand that my way doesn’t need to be yours and that’s fine. I commend everyone that takes an interest, makes an effort, and changes ANY part of their diet. Remember, this is my blog and it’s just my opinion.
For me, it’s all or nothing. Life for me is, has been, and always will be – quite black and white. I am not a fan of the various shades of grey in between. So, when I decide to do something… it is with both feet jumping into the fire. That means that my family is on board too, like it or not.
Paleo has been no different, in that way. It was cold turkey.
Day one, I took all the options away. I threw out or donated everything in a bag, box or package. I eliminated anything that had sugar, corn syrup, soy, wheat, grains of any type, legumes, the dreaded canola, etc. 11 boxes of food from the fridge, pantry and freezer went to other families, the schools, and local shelters. Done. Nothing left. No.
That makes it easy – it just isn’t there. If they are hungry they will eat what you offer, period.
I am a firm believer that children won’t starve, exceptions shouldn’t be made, and spouses don’t get to eat their own way… this is a family affair – everyone on board or don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. This is SAVING YOUR LIFE!
That’s not saying that we don’t EVER make exceptions; but let’s face it. If you find yourself always making exceptions, is that not then no longer an exception, purely by definition?
The number one criticism of people who just don’t “get it” is that my kids must be missing out on just being a child. This, is such an invalid argument to me. Exactly what are they missing out on? When did poisoning our children become acceptable in the name of fun? Rest assured, my kids are missing nothing and will live long, healthy, empowered and full lives.
But, I get it, you worry about birthday parties, team banquets, family get togethers and the kids feeling left out. First, stop getting in your kids’ way – it’s you that is worried about them being left out, not them. Second, yes, there are times that my kids don’t get to participate in pizza parties, ice cream parties, etc. Yes, it infuriates me that the school system itself is hell bent on filling my kids with crap and exchanging junk food as bribery for good grades and good behavior. I think the school system and national government have a lot to be ashamed of. I, on the other hand, do not.
Do kids feelings get hurt? Inevitably yes, occasionally. To me, it’s preparation for adulthood. Learning to make good decisions in the face of peer pressure, understanding the results and direct consequences of every action and choice, and personal responsibility. Those lessons are huge, and frankly, are missing in most young adults today.
Does it break my heart when my kids are upset? Absolutely. You couldn’t call yourself a parent if you didn’t secretly suffer when your children were emotionally hurt. But, that doesn’t mean we need to intervene or change the rules to suit their mood.
Here is what we have done, and it’s worked for us:
1. GET KIDS INVOLVED
My children are part of the experience in many different ways. First, of all we speak honestly about the role of food and disease with the kids. I do not think that any topic is off limits for children. They are smart and they grasp complex ideas, often better than adults. They are open to learning and unencumbered by opinion nor are they jaded by experience. Secondly, they make regular trips to farms, farmers markets, grocers, butchers, etc. We discuss where food comes from, how it’s prepared, what fuel it provides for their little athletic physiques. They have input into what we purchase, what we prepare, and where we get it. In addition, they are my kitchen sous chefs. There is absolutely no reason for them not to be in the kitchen during meal prep. In other countries children as young as toddlers are taught to safely use knives under supervision, etc. I find child and age appropriate roles for them, so that they can safely assist. If there isn’t anything they can do, they can supervise!
One of our favorite things to do, is find something we’ve never had (an exotic fruit, a new cut of meat, or type); we purchase it, then go home and I let the kids google it and report back to me. They we type it in the search column on you tube and find a video of someone eating it or preparing it. Finally, we try it and discuss our findings. Some have been huge wins… others, like bread fruit (which tastes like sweaty feet), were horrific – but at least we tried it!
2. CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
Each time we start a new school year or sport’s team. I schedule a meeting with the teacher or coach and explain our lifestyle choices so that they are fully aware and can be on the look out for obstacles. You have to create a team of support around you and your child. Whether they understand or not, or agree or not, is irrelevant. You need to let them know that you expect that they will foster the same parenting style you do, while your child is with them. I also supply the teachers with a stockpile of “good snacks” like jerky, dark chocolate, my “lara bar look-alikes”, dried fruit, and paleo treats, so that if a fellow classmate brings crap in for the class, my child has a treat available and doesn’t have to sit empty handed. They also know to email me in advance if there is an event that will have a disallowed food item (like a pizza party), so that I can provide an alternative.
What’s funny is that more often than not, the other students, and even teachers, remark at how much better my child’s food looks, even tastes. I sent paleo pizzas to school for my kids when they went to Chuck E. Cheese for a field trip with daycare. That afternoon, 3 of their teachers asked how I made them because they were 1000x better than the pizza everyone else had.
3. DON’T PANIC OVER WHAT YOU CAN’T CONTROL: Talk about it.
Yes, occasionally I cannot police everything. Once in a while my children ask to be able to participate in an event. The way I handle these things is by being honest. I do not want them to eat, let’s just say Pizza at their class party. I would rather make them an alternative food of their choice. However, they have the power to make choices for themselves. Let’s give an example of the last two weeks of school and how my 7 year old handled them:
5/24 Ice cream party Friday,
5/27 Monday off for Memorial Day, 5/28 Tuesday Pizza Party, 5/31 Friday honor roll award ceremony with cookies and juice boxes, awards were little bundles of candies
The following Thursday 6/6 they had another ice cream party for the teacher’s birthday and Friday 6/7 the last day of school was a movie party with candy and popcorn.
I was livid, first of all, that a teacher whose son has nut allergies was so insensitive. There were other dairy intolerant and gluten intolerant children in this class. I really had to take a step back and breathe. I totally went nuts on Facebook; ranting and raving until I blew off as much steam as I could. Once I settled down, I had a talk with my daughter about what was going to go on. Which items I wouldn’t budge on and which she had the right to decide about.
As part of a joint discussion we determined that to her the most important day was the pizza party. Keep in mind that this is the same child that gets explosive diarrhea almost immediately after having gluten. We talked about the potential ramifications, it often takes her 4-5 days before she feels ok again. That means GI upset; gas, bloating, diarrhea but also headaches & fatigue. She said that she chose to accept that as a consequence and not to participate in any of the other events. So be it.
For both ice cream parties I sent in coconut cream ice cream for her, with Enjoy Life Chocolate Chips. For the honor roll award ceremony she just chose to not have her cookie and juice and came and sat with me while the other children lined up for their snacks. For the pizza party, she had one slice of pizza and she did feel like crap the next few days. She is the first to tell you, it wasn’t her best decision, but she owned it and went on with her other commitments despite feeling down. She didn’t miss a practice or class, didn’t whine or complain, she just took her consequence and owned her action. For Friday, we sent snacks and she actually brought the popcorn home to take to gymnastics and gave it to her other team members instead.
My other two children are 4 and 5 and are equally capable of making informed decisions with guidance from their father and I. Primarily because we treat them as capable members of society.
4. YOU ARE THE PARENT
Don’t forget this. YOU are the parent, you make the rules, you lay the groundwork. Your job is to mold responsible adults for the next generation. Food isn’t any different than discipline. You expect your child to clean up their rooms, care for their belongings, use reason to make decisions pertaining to their behavior, etc. You also need to set an expectation for them to make informed decisions about what enters their body.
If you are married then your spouse needs to be on your team. I have a zero tolerance policy for friends, family and spouses that don’t support your parenting decisions. If the grandparents don’t follow suit; ground them. Limit their exposure to the kids. Make boundaries. You are the parent, you set the rules. Your only responsibility is to your child(ren); to protect them at all costs.
So start by discussing your choices, presenting your reasoning logically and creating a plan that anyone can follow. A list of yeses and nos for anyone who your child may spend a significant amount of time with. If other adults cannot abide by your rules, you can control that, by removing their influence entirely.
Ultimately, you need to rely on good communication with your kids. In that way, food is no different than any other topic – drugs, sex, friends, bullying – the list goes on.
In short, be an involved, informed advocate for your child.