Moms – Let’s take back control of what our children put in their bodies – and save our sanity a bit in the meantime!
As I promised in this post I explain my top 11 guidelines to fueling my family with real food that have saved me time, energy and spared some grey hairs! I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be hard to be healthy! [Please note: I’ve started this with my kids from the beginning and it has certainly gotten harder as my oldest is now of school age, but we are consistent with what happens in our home – and that’s the best we can do!
You can do it, too!
Just like any habit, consistency is key. It takes at least 21 (consistent) days to break a bad habit. It’s often more effective – especially with kids – to introduce a new good habit before removing a bad one. This is an area that I can help you navigate your unique circumstances!
While every family, person, child, situation is unique, here are some of the things that work for my family! Hopefully, you find something that inspires you!
- Offer Real Food – Ask yourself if the food you are about to offer is actually food. Will it decompose if left on a shelf for a month? (Try that with an apple!) If the answer is “no” then it is not food. It is a food-like product. Your body will not recognize these products the same way it recognizes food – it will not nourish and therefore will leave you hungrier for more! This includes most processed foods, candy, breads, crackers, etc… (conventional bread today is processed to be shelf stable for months so it can sit on grocery store shelves without waste. 50 years ago it lasted a couple weeks, max!)
- Important side note: talk to your kids about WHERE their food comes from, how it grows in the ground, who picks it/catches it, etc…, have them chop or rip veggies, or crack eggs or stir a batter or whisk the eggs. Get them involved in the process. Have them name an ingredient based on how they would describe it (a friend called pork rinds, “bacon chips” – perfect!)
- Meal Prep – [cue: eye roll] I know Pinterest and Instagram abound with “meal prep” ideas and it all seems so great and highly organized and we all screenshot and pin away tucking these great ideas away never to be seen or heard from again. My Pinterest account was where good ideas go to die. We all have a lot going on. Planning has been a game changers. Even having a rough idea of what I’m making has helped (and saved money!). I’ve created some posts here and on my Instagram that lay out a week’s worth of dinner with basic ingredients. Before you go to the grocery store, screen shot these and follow along! To prep easy lunches and dinners: buy a few pounds of good quality meat, find a meatball recipe you like (I love mine!) and make 50 meatballs in 30 minutes. Or make some fish or salmon cakes if meat’s not your thing! Pre-chop veggies (bell peppers for hummus and for sheet pan fajitas). Rip apart a head of cauliflower – or better yet, have one of your children do it! Roast a bag of baby carrots/butternut squash/cauliflower/potatoes. It’s all about batch cooking/prepping. Anything to uncomplicate the weeknights and keep healthy food convenient!
- Stick to the outside of the grocery store – You’ve heard this before, but actually try it. Don’t give in to the temptation to go down the snack aisle because that’s where the goldfish are and your kid LOVES goldfish or graham crackers and won’t snack on anything else. He/She will – eventually… If those items are not in the house, and they are hungry, they will eat what is actually there (bonus: you won’t be tempted to eat it either). Stock up accordingly. YOU are in control – not food product manufacturers who have conned us into thinking kids need food that’s been specially formulated for maximum addictiveness and over-eatability!
The middle aisles CAN be great for the following: marinara sauce (sugar free, basic ingredient brands include Mezzetta, Rao’s, and Simply Enjoy Giant Brand – great price at $3.99/jar!), nut butter (just nuts and maybe salt – no added sugars or syrups!), maple syrup (the real stuff – not the dyed corn syrup), low sugar jam, canned wild caught fish, oils, vinegars and spices.
Grab those things and get the hell out of there!
- No mindless snacking – As with most kids, my son will not eat a decent meal if he snacks too much. As a result, we do not offer snacks willy-nilly just because we are in the car or at the park. This takes resilience by the parents!! If he asks for a snack, we try some water – kids are often thirsty, not hungry, but cannot differentiate between the sensations. I’m working on a great reference for healthy, fueling swaps – stayed tuned! Ultimately, the goal is to tide them over with some protein and fat– not fill them up. NOTE: at school, my son eats the snack that is provided (thankfully, with water!) as he does not have any allergies or dietary restrictions.
- Try not to “hide” vegetables or healthy foods/reward with food. I know my children are young, but I think it’s important to expose my little people to as much food as possible and allow them to understand what they are eating so that they can make informed choices as they get older. There’s no “eat your vegetables or you won’t get dessert” at mealtime. Framing foods in this way elevates dessert over vegetables and makes vegetables less desirable. If my son doesn’t eat his vegetables, he will still get fruit or chocolate (or chocolate covered fruit!) at the end of the meal. Similarly, we try not to reward good behavior with treats or punish bad behavior by withholding treats – this also elevates “treat food” in their mind making it even more desirable than foods that should be staples. My goal is to expose them to as much as possible so nothing ends up being “weird” or “gross” when they are older.
- Try to put fruit at the end of the meal – Make dessert a piece of fruit in some form. It’s sweet and will satisfy that “craving” without loading them up on addictive, chemical-laden processed foods like cookies, cupcakes, or candy. Again, this is an ingrained habit – but it can be broken! Trader Joe’s and Dole make chocolate-covered frozen bananas and strawberries (made with just chocolate and fruit), or strawberries and coconut cream (can of coconut milk whipped with some stevia or honey/syrup – this will keep in the fridge for a few days), Good Pop makes great frozen fruit pops. There are such good options available now!
- Always pair fat with vegetables – Fat is not the enemy. Let me rephrase that: high quality fat is not the enemy. Trans fat (partially hydrogenated fat) and too much polyunsaturated fat are the enemy and cause inflammation in your body (inflammation = disease). Your fat shouldn’t be partially this or hydrogenated that. That’s not how mother-nature makes it, and she’s one mama who usually gets it right! Fat is vital for the absorption of minerals and nutrients found in vegetables (i.e. they are fat-soluble). If you’re gonna eat veggies, you better be getting the most out of them, right? BONUS: it makes them taste better! Roast (or microwave) veggies with olive oil, avocado oil, ghee or butter and a sprinkle of sea salt. BONUS for trying new herbs or flavoring (carrots taste great with butter and cinnamon or curry)
Another great way to get good fat into your veggies is Tessemae’s dressings and dips!
- Focus on Nutrient-Density – I try to focus on the nutrient-density of my family’s food, not necessarily the quantity of food that is eaten. To me: 5 bites of wild-caught fish is better than a whole slice of bread. A whole bag of booty isn’t the same as half an apple with some full fat cheese or nut butter. Sure, they will both fill him up initially, but former is merely empty calories and the latter is chock-full of nutrients and are complementary foods (the fat of the cheese/nut butter increases the bio-availability of the vitamins and minerals in the apple). You probably won’t hear me say eat more of that grilled cheese or finish your chips. These hyperpalatable foods, so-called because they light up addiction centers in the brain, fill up the stomach (volume/calories) but do not nourish the body (no nutrients). As a result, your brain sends signals that your body needs more (because it wasn’t nourished) so you end up hungry again – most likely for the same hyperpalatable food again! This is the hangry-processed foods-sugar addiction cycle that is so hard to break. Simply put, the same process is not replicated with protein and veggies/fruit.
- No juice at home or at restaurants. Juice is sugar. Yes, it’s fruit juice and it’s a natural sugar, but it is devoid of all the things that make a whole fruit great – fiber, the sensation of chewing which signals the body to be satisfied and full, etc…. It’s also generally loaded with fructose – a sugar that can only be processed by the liver. And, because the liver can only handle so much fructose at a time, the extra gets converted into fat and, over time, the liver starts to accumulate fat – not good. It’s best to avoid it completely and offer water or naturally flavored mineral or soda water like LaCroix, Spindrift or any generic brand of naturally flavored seltzer.
More and more kids these days are being diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – a major cause of which is excess sodas and juice.
One cup of orange juice is the equivalent of about 4-5 oranges.
No one eats that much in a sitting – so why drink it?
- When they are finished, they are finished. It doesn’t matter if he has had two bites. Kids are much better at tailoring their eating to their level of hunger. For example, I personally eat lunch simply because it’s the middle of the day. Not true for little people. When they are fueled properly, they have an amazing sense of what their body actually needs and when it needs it. Listen. Food is meant to fuel them and give them energy – not to just fill them with empty calories so I don’t have mom-guilt that they didn’t eat something. We don’t push it.
- I am not a short order cook. Generally, my kids will eat when we eat and what we eat (with some variations on a theme) – if they don’t like it or want “else eat” – I will only oblige them to an extent (ie. – they will get some cheese, a yogurt or strawberries – not a whole new meal). We expose them to new foods and if they are total flops, I wipe away my tears and try again some other day. Sometimes this works – our son has come back around to wild smoked salmon for breakfast (update: he is off it again). Sometimes it doesn’t – he still won’t touch an avocado after it was a mainstay the first year of his life – and first food – but damnit, they are so packed with goodness that I will keep offering (as nonchalantly as I can)!
At the end of the day, your kids will eat what they are offered . . . eventually. These are the basic guidelines we stick to so everyone knows the drill. These are not changes that will happen overnight, so don’t be discouraged. The idea is to keep it simple and focused on real food as fuel. When this is the mantra that is consistently repeated, the battles will lessen, the hangriness and tantrums over food will subside and you can take back control!!
Final note: I have made a lot of mistakes and have gone to extremes that were eventually unworkable for my family. But I kept going and tweaking because I truly believe that what we put in our bodies has a significant impact on our physical, mental and emotional well-being and no time is more important to establish the building blocks for a healthy life than when we are kids. And we have the power to set them up for health in the future.
How cool is that?
What ways have you found to make mealtime uncomplicated but healthy? I would love to learn from you! Comment below!