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:
- How many ingredients does the food have? There should really only be one. A whole food’s ingredient list is simply itself.
- 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.
- 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