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Raising Healthy Eaters – Part I

Raising Healthy Eaters – Part I

As a father of two, I have had my share of parenting trials and tribulations.  Raising children is the hardest yet most rewarding job I have had. What I have come to realize as a parent is that there is a great deal of letting go and going with the flow.

Flexibility is the secret ingredient to raising healthy children and eating well is the most important act we can do to ensure health.  So how did I raise my children to eat and live well and what guidelines did I follow?

In this blog, I will share my UltraKid tips and hope the wisdom I have gained from my experience as a doctor and dad inspires you to raise the healthiest family.

Change is often nerve wracking for new parents and actually for kids too.  What thrills me the most about eating healthy is that change actually makes sense and is completely normal.  Just as infants grow and change into toddlers, so do the seasons change, making different local foods available at different times of the year.

When spring comes I know that asparagus is fresh and at its peak.  And after a summer of eating crisp, farm-fresh vegetables I look forward to the cooler fall weather making warm stews and cooked vegetables.

The more I noticed the cycles of nature paralleled those of humans, the easier my experience was in knowing how to feed my kids as a new father.  When every parenting book provides a different protocol, I learned to trust my intuition which took a load off my sometimes stressed-out parenting mind!

What to Eat: Local, Seasonal, and Whole Foods

What is local, seasonal or “cool” to eat as a kid will constantly change, but the fundamentals of sound nutrition and family mealtimes are pretty much set.  Fresh, whole, real and if possible, organic food is best.  I often get asked by my patients what a whole food is.  I answer them exactly how I taught my children:

  1. How many ingredients does the food have?  There should really only be one.  A whole food’s ingredient list is simply itself.
  2. Was the food grown in a plant or did it come from one? Real food is grown on a plant, not manufactured in one!  The less processing and steps taken to transform the food is ideal.
  3. Can you picture what the food looked like in its natural state before you bought it? I can picture a chicken easily but chicken nuggets?  Model Healthy Eating–Actions Speak Louder Than Words!

What you eat, how you eat, and why you eat what you do is really important because little people are keen observers who absorb everything you do. Think of them as sponges soaking in all the details from their parents.

Eating wholesome meals is more than modeling sound nutrition; it is about fostering family unity, connectedness, ritual, and identity as a group.

Children, even more than adults, enjoy and require routine.  Studies show the family who eats together, stays together.  Adolescents are less prone to risky behavior, disordered eating, drug and alcohol abuse, and tend to be better socially adjusted when they have a table filled with family or community to sit at and share meals with.   Instill the following in your household to ensure the best for your children, and YOU!

  • Set realistic boundaries about food choices and mealtimes.  Ellyn Satter  is a pioneer in feeding the family and raising competent young eaters.  Her most acclaimed work set the standard for the division of responsibility around mealtimes.  Next time your picky eater is giving you trouble, keep this mind: You provide the what, where, and when and your child decides the if and how much.
  • Always provide at least one high quality food you trust is healthy but enjoyed by your child.  You are in charge of deciding what, but remember, your child can decide how much or not to eat at all.  It is okay if at first your child only eats a little bit of one food, he or she will eventually become hungry for change and ask to try what you are having.
  • Keep in mind that it takes younger taste buds numerous times to taste something new before really deciding whether or not they like it.  Be sure to offer your child a disliked food several times and in different recipes to give them an opportunity to keep trying.
  • Make mealtimes pleasant, relaxed, and fun.  Meals are a time to commune as a family.  Engage your child in conversation and keep the energy light and positive.  Stress is neither healthy nor productive for optimal digestion, absorption, and metabolism.
  • Do not use food to punish, restrict, or even reward!  Food is nourishing information for all the cells that make up your child’s body.  Teach him or her from an early age to have a healthy relationship with food by not associating it with positive or negative reinforcement parenting.  Instead, use games or something non-food related to use as a reward for good behavior.
  • Know when to be the parent and enforce healthy eating.  For example, holidays, birthdays, or stressful times such as when your kid is sick can make it difficult to know what boundaries to establish.  When a child is sick, be a parent and keep all sugar and junk food away even if this is a struggle.  When they are healthy, they will thank you and, more importantly, trust you.
  • When there is a birthday or festivity, be celebratory and flexible but have a plan.  For instance, on birthdays give your child a choice between two whole food-based treats and have them choose one. For example, ask your child which meal of the day they want to be their special birthday meal.  Make it clear that birthdays aren’t excuses to binge on sugar and abandon healthy eating–in fact, it is a day to honor their life and celebrate good  health! If your child loves pancakes, start their day by making a healthier version such as my Soy-Nut Pancakes with Strawberry-Banana Sauce or make your own pancakes using lower glycemic almond flour and your child’s favorite berry. Again, kids like boundaries and sometimes too many choices can overwhelm the young eater. Keep it simple…
  • Other ideas include making your own birthday dessert instead of buying store-made options which usually have disease-causing ingredients. In my family we like to be creative and use tofu or avocado to make the base of a mousse or “fudge”. The special birthday person gets to decide toppings such as cacao, shredded coconut, berries, antioxidant-rich pomegranate powder, or crunchy nuts.  It’s fun to start traditions the whole family can look forward to!
  • If it is a holiday and you are wondering how to contain eating without letting the myriad holiday fare overwhelm you and your child, discuss the meaning of the holiday and make it a point to focus on the greater purpose of coming together.  Involve your child in food preparation and have them menu plan, shop, and cook with you. Participating in meal preparation breeds respect for the hard work involved and is an excellent way to get your child to develop an interest in healthier eating.  For example, as you decide between Spicy Roasted Squash versus Whipped Yams (recipes available in The Blood Sugar Solution) for Thanksgiving you can also teach them about selecting vitamin-rich squash or sweet potato as smart carbohydrate options.  You can also discuss why only one starch is necessary before moving on to select perhaps another low glycemic carbohydrate-based side dish such as Roasted Quinoa with Kale and Almonds or Pecan Wild Rice and Goji Berry Pilaf.  When you make your child a part of the festivities they proactively learn about eating well in a way that encourages bonding and fun without having to be lectured at or embarrassed later.
  • Most of all trust your young child to be naturally attuned to their hunger and satiety levels.  When a child is provided real, whole foods, unadulterated with sugar, poor quality fats, toxic additives, and food dyes their body knows exactly what to eat and how much.  They will eat just what their growing body needs when provided this high quality diet that their DNA evolved from. Over a few days, or even a week in certain cases, children will eat every type of food and receive proper nutrition if we do our part as parents. They know exactly what foods to eat when we don’t sabotage their natural instincts with candy or processed and convenient junk foods!  Remember, adults aren’t the only ones whose brain can become hijacked by sugar, salt, and fat!

How Can You Integrate Healthy Eating Into Your Family’s Lifestyle?

Often, I find that parents have the best intentions but not the easiest schedules or food literacy to make changes.  Follow these tips the next time you feel inspired to get your family on the UltraWellness track!

  • Your time away from your family is spent working so you can provide for them.  Look at your hard-earned paycheck and consider the effect that associating your earnings with your time can have in making better choices when you go food shopping.  It makes more sense to spend your money on healthy foods for your family than to throw your paycheck away in empty calories that make them sick.
  • Think about the power food has on your body and mind as well as your child’s.  What do you want food to do for you and your family?  Give you energy?  Make you a productive member of society?  Help you look and feel your best?  You can journal with your child about your family’s nutrition and health goals.  Make sure there is no judgment and allow your child to dream as big as they wish.
  • Remember, start slowly and take small, baby steps towards these goals.  Change takes time, focus, perseverance, and support.  Your family will be more successful if everyone is on the same page so try to be inclusive of everyone’s needs and wants.
  • Of course, the key to change is to find inspiration, not just motivation. Why put off what you can do today for tomorrow?  In other words, most people wait until a crisis occurs to make changes.  If you can find inspiration together or as individuals supportive of one another, then this energy tends to sustain short-term goals and transform them into life-long lifestyles!

Now that I have your attention on feeding your family, are you curious to know what foods are best to provide children throughout their lifecycle?  In the next blog I will share how I helped nourish my children from the earliest days in their mother’s womb, to providing nutrition as they became newborn infants and even through growing into young toddlers and early adulthood.

Click here for Part II, and here for  Part III of the series.

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below–but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (20)

  • I love this blog post, great information – fabulous ideas to incorporate however I do disagree with telling your kids when to eat. I think we create a glutinous society and create Heath/ weigh issues when we tell people the have to eat a a certain timer just because food is around (whether it’s healthy or not) part of our weight/lepton issues is eating when we are not hungry. I think we should ony eat when we are hungry, our bodies are smart enough to tel use when that it. Sitting down and ain’t when your not hungry causes more harm than good. So while I was glad you said that they can choose if and how much they will eat, I think you have to be very clear on why you are coming together (for family time, and not necessary to eat, unless your hungry). I have learned much of this from Robin Woodall, weight loss apocalypse. Google her and watch her YouTube videos, she is brilliant.

  • Thank you so much for this blog post! This is a question I have always had as I get closer to starting my own family. My mother emphasized eating vegetables and restricted how much ice cream, dessert, or indulgences we could have….but there was never a teaching moment of WHY I was to do these things, nor did she try to make it enjoyable 🙂 love her and her intentions, because they influenced me to eat well as an adult now, but it is nice to hear from you some better ways of incorporating this in to parenting in a way that informs and keeps the child happy and engaged! Thank you again!!!

  • i’m reading this post, a few months away from the birth of my first grandchild….the wisdom contained herein was not the reality i, as a single mom, provided my son, the father to be, nor his two brothers when they was growing up….fast and cheap was the way i coped with the demands of mealtimes….it was only after they were grown that my own brewing health issue forced me to truly examine my relationship with food as healthy fuel…..while i can’t undo the eating patterns engrained from their youth, i can be their healthy, glowing mom of 55 and lead by a much better example….this article, and the 2 that will follow, will help me help them fuel their precious babies to come…..when we know better, we do better…..thank you!

  • I’d love to know how your kids handle the neighbors and friends offering them snacks. I live on a street that is full of kids and families that are always providing the wrong treats and snacks to my kids. So even when I keep healthy food choices at home, my kids (9 year old twins) are constantly offered processed junk from their friend’s. Do your kids feel left out? Do you forbid them to eat at other people’s houses if it’s not a whole food or have they done this long enough that they no longer ask for it? My kids want the junk, they like it and they tell me they feel left out.

    I wholly support what you are saying, but I often feel so overwhelmed by the outside forces that must make me seem like an extremist to my kids. Isn’t it funny how things have been spun so that eating real foods that nature intended makes you the freak and eating foods with ingredients we can’t recognize that are inundated with chemicals and GMO’s make you the norm?

    I have had to make dietary changes this past year due to my daughters food allergies. Last year she was postive to 11 out of 12 food items on her IGE test. The doctor said he couldn’t take everything away so we just gave up gluten. She is already a vegetarian by her choice and tha’ t’s tough. Now after 8 months of gluten free her IGE test is negative for everything (other than very slightly to almonds and rice). Her IGE allergies all but vanished but we also tested her IGG this time ( we didn’t do this one ever before) and now I have discovered her IGG was high for soy. My son, we just discovered ( last week ) that his IGE was positive to numerous things (like her’s was last year) and he is to be put on an antiallergenic diet of no wheat, corn or nuts. At least he eats meat. It is a daily challenge to feed my family. Incidentally despite IGE allergies there were no typical IGE symptoms associated for either of my kids. We had him tested because he has been having stomach complaints for months that went unexplained. Also my daughers asthma went away when she gave up gluten.

  • Thank you! I really enjoyed reading this post and look forward to next two in the series.

    My children are both teenagers and it is hard to break bad habits in teenagers if they have not been brought up with a functional medicine that I am now learning about. We have not done everything wrong. We have meals around the table much more frequently than most families I know and we treasure this time together. For the most part, my girls love the home cooked meals with lots of vegetables. I cook gluten free and mostly dairy free now. However, I struggle with my oldest because she is addicted to sugar. One reason for this sugar addiction is that she was on a low dose antibotic for 6 years – everynight – to help fight of kidney infections from bladder reflux. She has since grown out of that condition, but what I did not realize was that this treatment led to bad bugs taking over and driving a sugar addiction. She will go out with friends and by sodas (that I don’t keep in the house) and no matter what I do at home, she continues to feed her addiction. My younger daughter has allergies to nuts, seeds and some legumes (lentils, kidney beans). I am sure she also has a gluten and dairy issue like her father but refuses to give these things up. I am planning to take both girls to a functional medicine doctor in January when they are due their annual physicals. I will take your advice from your blog and begin to implement your behavior changing strategies and see if they work my teenage girls.

  • Thank you for this post! I’m in The Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Training and they recommended your book. I love to eat healthy and whole foods and work really hard to shop whole for my family but, I have 2 kids that love sugar and treats. Do you have any suggestions to eliminate daily treats? We have started with only having them on the weekend but my son thinks that that means he can have sugar all day, ugh! Thank you for your time and consideration! By the way my family is not obese and is healthy but I think my son’s behavior gets worse with sugar.

  • I have followed Dr.hyman for sometime and as a nurse who is asked daily about various medical conditions. I have frequently suggested Dr. Hyman’s books. I think that there are so many opportunities to eat poorly and it requires courage to take away the bad foods. I have a picky eater with texture issues so it is super challenging. I appreciate this information to ” chew” on. Will keep at it. Thanks Dr. Hyman.

  • I cannot get over today’s parents offering a different meal to each child at mealtime. When you offer different food to a child other than what you’re eating, you are basically saying “you won’t like what I’m eating” so the child doesn’t get the opportunity to try all foods. As children, we all ate the same meal, and had to try each food, whether we ate it or not. I cannot imagine my mother making one food for the children and another for the adults. YIKES!

  • Dr Hyman,

    Thank you so much for writing about how to share your wonderful principles of eating with our children! I have a son with ADHD and know that food choices are especially important for him. Even though I eat a lot of healthy food myself–clean lean protein, vegetables, salads, healthy oils and low starch carbs–I feel so guilty that my son won’t eat any of my food and wants the usual gluten, dairy, eggs, sugar, etc. that have led to my own food sensitivities. Not enough experts talk about how we should encourage our kids to eat in truly healthy ways–especially because out in the world many influences are less than healthy. I can’t wait for your next blog about specific food suggestions!!

  • I fully embrace the healthy eating habits discussed! I, unfortunately, had to wait for a crisis before I made a change in what I ate. My daughter is a teenager and has very poor eating habits even though I provide healthy choices. I don’t know what to do. Help!

  • I like Dr. Hyman’s video messages especially the series of 30 I recall receiving when I signed up on the email list.

    I am a mom of two teenage boys and have gradually increased the vegetable proportion of our dinners and that has worked well (no sudden change), just gradually more greens/vegs appear on the plate at dinner.

    My husband buys ice cream, diet pop, and cake from time to time (and most of the time ignores my requests to stop buying them). So I feel my efforts to bring more vegetables into our diet offset some of the negatives from these foods. I imagine a lot of others have the same situation to one degree or another!

    I don’t have time to fix dinner when I get home from work so I use the crock pot once per week (prep completely the night before and put the crock pot insert into the fridge/then put the crock pot on in the morning before I leave for work). Once per week I make a large bean-based salad at least once a week (prep completely the night before). I keep the dressing separate until serving if needed and it works out pretty good. On Sat/Sun night, I prepare new recipes or old reliable ones and these are pretty high in vegetables.

    The other 3 nights are less nutritious at this point as I don’t effectively plan that far in advance and run out of ideas for things that are quick to prepare in advance and that are good the next day without much prep.

  • I like this blog because it reminds parents to be parents. Children need to feel secure and like someone is ‘in charge’ and looking after them. We are our children’s best teachers, coaches and caregivers. Parents can be very busy and not necessarily mindful. We coach skateboard camp and I have to remind parents all the time what to pack for their child’s snacks and lunch to ensure that the kids have enough energy to make it through the day. Often the parents have to totally change the way they eat to be able to coach their children.

    • Hi Kim,

      Thank you for interest in Dr Hyman’s work. Meal plans are coming, please stay tuned.

      For more personalized nutrition advice, Dr Hyman’s nutrition coaching team would be happy to work with you on an individual level to help you reach your goals. To work with the nutrition coaching team please go to: OR call (800) 892-1443 to get started.

  • Thank you for another great article. I especially liked that you encouraged us to invest in seasonal, high quality fruits & vegetables.

    I have found that when I try to “save” and buy conventional supermarket produce, my kids won’t eat it. They would however eat with gusto local, seasonal vibrant fruits and vegetables. I suspect that many kids (and adults) “hate vegetables” because they’ve been exposed to the dull conventional stuff that can turn even the greatest veggievore off.

    Also, I have taught many kids’ cooking classes and once and again watched the “miracle” of a child who won’t eat vegetables eating the vegetables she cooked and asking for more. So it might be a good idea to get kids to cook at home and/or take them to a cooking class.

  • Well said! Love your tips Dr. Hyman! Raising two pre-teen kids -one who can’t stand vegetables and another who loves ’em– has been a challenge but as parents we do get to choose what we introduce into our kids bodies. My husband recently jumped on the “juicing” train and has enlisted their help in the preparation and actual juicing of the vegetables and fruits. Don’t tell my kids but he’s made getting in their fruits and vegetables fun and competitive. My son who can barely force down a few kernels of corn or shreds of lettuce is downing shots of green juice made from vegetables he’s never heard of before. I think he does it just to be like Dad but he’s getting his antioxidants and phytonutrients in one way or the other, so whatever works for him. My daughter gets a kick out of feeding fruits and veges in the juicer but won’t try the juice yet…in time….But they’re also now more open to the protein shakes mixed with fruits that my hubby and I drink daily as a supplement to our healthy meals since we are always on the go. I totally agree with you–the family that juices/shakes together, stays together!!! On our holiday wish list is a more powerful food processor/blender that will break down not just fruits, but vegetables so we get all the benefits of the plant rather than simply juicing it for its juice. This article was a great read and I will share with other parents whom I know have the same challenges. Please keep more of this valuable info coming! Aloha!

  • Thank you Dr. Hyman. I have struggled with emotional eating for 6 years. Three years ago I had 3 children. They are 3.5 years old 2.5 years old and 6 month old and I want to teach them eating healthy. My 3.5 year old boy is a very picky eater. I was at Mcdonalds almost every day to get him nuggets, French frize and cheeseburger. He would eat very little of it and I would through the food and money away. My 2.5 year old boy eats everything. I can give him healthy choices and he will be fine. But he too wants the junk the oldest is eating. My 6 month old girl I make sure she is eating healthy because I cook her food. As for my self I have been working with Lizzy in helping me getting healthier and to stop binging and emotional eating all together. It has been a rough rode but I feel very good, happy to learning about how to enjoy portions control and eating whole foods and make my own food. Thank you for everything you have written from books, newsletters and blogs. I might not write back but I read every thing you write. I trust your advice and I work hard to implement your advise. Thank you for chaining the world one person, one child, one family, one community and one country at a time. Hope to meet you in person one day. May God bless you p.s when are part 2 and 3 come out Helga

  • I can not tell you how perfect this post was for me right now. I was thinking about what I was feeding my son and it was really embarrassing and sad. Last night he ate a ton of new vegetables and we were so excited, but I realized that this should be normal. Why did I wait so long to introduce these to him? So, thank you for this!!!

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