A month ago I was sleeping eight hours, waking to a few hours of focused writing, working out, and then going through my day with little consideration other than what I wanted to do next. I am married, but life with Neely has always been fairly seamless. We have similar expectations and values. She’s competent and low maintenance. Our eccentricities and annoying quirks had long been internalized and life was lived on our terms.
Recently, my stable, predictable world changed, however, when I became a father of two children under two. We adopted two beautiful siblings—an 18-month-old baby boy and his 5-week-old sister. Now, in the ultimate act of hubris, I’ll use my brief parenting experience as justification to give you advice on shaping a healthy nutritional approach for raising children.
Full disclosure: my situation isn’t even fair. I was somehow matched with the world’s least picky eater. This little guy would pick bananas, grapes, and muesli over bacon, waffles, and syrup. He’d choose carrots, cauliflower, and chicken over cheese and crackers. Still, rather than celebrate this, most seem intent to “fix it.”
The prevailing attitude seems to be, “Look what your daddy did to you. We need to get you Goldfish, Lucky Charms, and cookies STAT!” “Get some of that good stuff and don’t tell your daddy.” I don’t understand. If my son is happy eating the vegetables, why give him cheese sticks and tater tots?
The Trouble with Imbalance
I’ve watched and worked with many people who were plagued by poor health and addiction to unhealthy foods. My experience led me to a personal health approach where I, usually, eat foods capable of existing on this earth 10,000+ years ago. This means no added sugars and very little packaged food—eating from the farm or field, not the factory.
Humans have walked the planet for over a million years eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs, and meats. Our species only very recently was introduced to the chemically engineered “Western diet” that is wreaking havoc on our minds and bodies. My diet (which is not a diet, but a way of looking at food) is enjoyable and leaves me feeling wonderful. Most weeks I make exceptions to eat ice cream, a slice of pumpkin pie, or to have Mexican food and margaritas.
In response to my “extreme approach” there is no shortage of people lining up to sneak my children bites of donuts and other sweets. “Look, he loves it,” they’ll justify. Well, duh! You’ve introduced an unnatural, addictive substance that is chemically engineered to be as pleasurable as possible. He’d also love cocaine. Why don’t you get him some of that?
While, admittedly, more immediately destructive, the cocaine would probably be less addictive. When rats who had been hooked on cocaine and morphine were exposed to extreme sweetness in the form of saccharin, over 94% chose the sweetness over rehab inducing hard narcotics.
Still, we can’t conceive of childhood without a revolving door of processed sweets. It’s as if we are trying to force poor health on them. “Relax, Shane. They’re kids,” I’m told. As if because they have time to correct bad habits we should allow them carte-blanche. So why not bring in the cigarettes, cocaine, and slot machines as well?
“It’s no sign of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.” – Krishnamurti
Our popular conception of kid’s foods is exceptionally bizarre. We have these empty palates. They have no exposure to food other than what we provide them. You’d think we’d want to go to great lengths to ensure they have as much exposure to healthy foods as possible and as great a chance as possible of liking these foods.
Obesity Is a Real Problem
Moms have never been more protective. I’m pretty sure kid’s have to sit in a booster until they are 16, nowadays. Yet, parents immerse their children in eating habits that will almost certainly lead to lethargy, pain, and unnecessary diseases or maladies.
We’ve bought the myth that kids can’t eat foods that existed on this planet through most of human history. We’ve been duped into thinking kids don’t eat chicken or fish unless mixed with god knows what and fried into a nugget or stick. Health conscious parents routinely make their kids a separate, less nutritious option.
They’ll make themselves pork chops, sweet potatoes, and asparagus, and feel the need to make Kraft mac and cheese or Hamburger Helper for their children. These parents start the day with oatmeal or an omelet while purchasing Pop Tarts or Trix for their kids. Your child can’t hate all whole foods, as many seem to believe unless saturated in other processed options.
A 2016 Harvard study predicted that over 57% of youth 19 and under will be obese by the time they are 35. This has been the trajectory for some time. Since 1970, childhood obesity has tripled in youth ages 6-19. Society is moving less, eating worse, and witnessing stark increases and the common diseases of affluence. Given these norms, I don’t think it is radical to want to promote a different nutritional model.
I’ve seen many people have sustainable success by taking a whole food nutritional approach similar to mine. In fact, contrary to the typical variants of counting calories prevalent in the diet culture, this is the only method of eating that people have long-term health success following.
Rather than beginning with deprivation, I recommend that people start by finding more nutritious foods that they enjoy and substituting those for their old foods. The people that struggle most to change eating habits are those most immersed in a lifestyle of poor nutrition. Making healthy substitutions and self-denials, however small, feels like too much deprivation.
For those struggling to make a sustainable health change, I’ve made my Foundations of a Healthy Lifestyle Course. But wouldn’t it be better not to have to struggle to learn a new approach to food in the first place?
Wouldn’t it be nice if to grow up immersed in sustainable, balanced nutrition habits that gave you a strong template for how to be in control of eating and confident in your ability to thrive? You’d never feel deprived if you never had out of control eating habits, to begin with.
My position could be made extreme. As most have experienced, the most sheltered often rebel most. It is a tough balance to strike, particularly within a society with such unhealthy norms. Raising kids without ever allowing an ice cream cone or slice of pizza is probably too great a departure from modern norms.
I love these treats too! If cravings don’t control you, what could possibly be wrong with an occasional pasta night or making homemade cookies? The idea is to enjoy eating in a way that helps you thrive and to feel in control of your own eating habits. I don’t know that there is a perfect way, but here are the best norms I can come up with for raising healthy children:
At home, eat almost exclusively from the farm and field, with one or two weekly treats.
If there are foods that are only mildly desirable to your new eater, try giving them these at the beginning of meals before working towards those other foods you know she likes better.
For example, I’ll often start meals with broccoli, cauliflower, and snap peas, because these are less desirable after grapes and bananas are spotted. Young children who don’t like vegetables raw will often like them much more when they are soft. Try roasting in coconut oil.
Don’t keep sweets in the home. Go out for treats or pick up a single serving to bring home. As best as possible, the home environment should promote delicious, yet nutritious habits. Want ice cream? It takes a trip. Kid’s lunches and any meals you control follow the same approach.
Set the Stage for Healthy Habits
As kids develop, make teaching them to prepare lunches and dinners a part of their upbringing. You’re giving them the tools to save money and eat well when they become independent. As they reach adolescence, talk to them about why you eat the way you do and help make healthy eating a point of pride, while avoiding too much demonization of other eating habits.
At this point, let go. When they are at school they may trade their mixed nuts for a Nutter Butter. They may buy a cookie from the PTA moms. Oh well. When they go to their friend’s house they may crush sodas and Gushers. At sleepovers, they’ll try Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Captain Crunch.
Their soccer team will stop as a group for Wendy’s. Oh well. The world around will do its best to normalize patterns that are destructive as daily habits. I don’t know that you can do much better than controlling the easily controllable and providing a balanced model in this unbalanced world.
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- 10 Pieces On Kids' Nutrition And Childhood Obesity
- 3 Steps To Improving Your Child's Eating Habits
- Good Early Life Nutrition Means Better Cognitive Function