It’s true. I’m a food and parenting blogger with four small kids, and I’m still not focused on finding the “cleanest” ingredients, or stocking lunch boxes with this month’s list of super foods for kids. Just back off, okay bone broth?
Like other moms who’ve had it with frantically bouncing back and forth between kale and quinoa, organic to gluten-free, trying to unlock the secrets of the BEST FOOD FOR MY KIDS, it’s exhausting.
Unless kids have dietary needs, all of this is overly complicated anyway. Eating sensibly, moving your body, brushing those teeth and getting enough rest might be the only habits kids need to learn about taking care of their bodies.
But it’s harder than it sounds.
Take my family. I have only two goals for my kids and I learned both of them from Michael Pollan:
- Eat healthy-ish food
- Don’t eat too much of it
With those two ideas in mind, come the rest of my more specific hopes. But these aren’t small hopes. They’re basically everything I write about here every day, the foundation of this year’s entire Feeding Kids Character series. And it starts with two seemingly simple goals:
1. Maintain trim and healthy bodies, without a ton of effort.
I’m just going to get this out of the way because it’s something that’s been on my mind since about the age of eight. That’s right. For almost every year of my life (minus a stressful era in my early 30s where I dropped about 20 pounds) I’ve been just a bit overweight and it’s always been such a burden. Some of that is psychological:
“I could never date that guy, because size 10.”
“I mean, why would he ever want to be with ME,” I asked my twenty-something self in my New York City apartment. “When he could be with someone skinny?”
Never mind the fact that for every year of my life (including that stressful era) I’ve been a hardworking, sharp and fun person who’s awesome at chatting, hiking and looking someone in the eye for just long enough for them to know I really, truly see them. I’ve traveled, volunteered and climbed to satisfying heights in my chosen field. But still, I wasn’t really cut out for true romance because of a flabby tummy?
I missed out on feeling good about myself because I just couldn’t figure out how to align the ideas of not having a perfect body AND ALSO being beautiful.
Like most parents with a hint of sadness in their childhoods, I’d like my kids to avoid as much of that as possible. To simply feel confident about their bodies. And I know that basic body insecurity is typically part of life for most of us. But that’s not all I’m talking about here. I only mention it because it’s true. For me.
In addition to feeling bad, there’s also feeling bad. Because of basic health issues. The New York Times reported that about a third of American kids are still overweight. It’s not a new story but we’re still not taking it seriously. And as parents, it seems like we really should.
Life-threatening ailments like heart disease, cancer, stroke and Type 2 diabetes most often afflict adults. But they are often consequences of childhood obesity.”
That’s because most kids who are overweight go on to become adults who are overweight.
Trust me, it’s emotionally painful to be overweight as a kid. Even a little overweight. And it gets worse.
Problems of youthful obesity go beyond physical ones. Obese adolescents have higher rates of depression, which in itself may foster poor eating and exercise patterns that add to their weight problem and result in a poor quality of life that persists into adulthood.
In a study conducted in Singapore, researchers reported that “individuals who were obese in childhood are more likely to have poor body image and low self-esteem and confidence, even more so than those with adult onset obesity.”
But maybe even more importantly, it comes back to the the physical issues. In addition to things like diabetes and heart disease, there’s the actual toll on a kid’s body that comes with being overweight.
Another study by Dr. Jeffrey B. Schwimmer of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues found that obese children and adolescents reported a diminished quality of life that was comparable to that of children with cancer.”
Yes, they said cancer. So, how did we get here? The Center for Disease Control says:
Behaviors that influence excess weight gain include eating high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages, not getting enough physical activity, sedentary activities such as watching television or other screen devices, medication use, and sleep routines.”
Terrifying, right? So what are we supposed to do as parents? Especially when our own eating habits might not be perfect? Here’s my plan, and I understand if you think it’s crazy. Or not possible. It might be both, but just the same, the whole thing goes for my whole family. Myself included:
- We’re eating a variety of foods and cooking as much of it as possible ourselves. That way we avoid extra calories in overly processed food, added sugars and the addictive nature of junk food itself.
- I do pack as many nutritious ingredients into foods as possible. Chia seeds, spinach, flaxseed and other healthy cohorts including quinoa make their way onto our table but not at the expense of flavor. It’s more of a habit than anything, one the kids never complain about. (Please note: They’re really good at complaining, so I’m sure they’d pipe up if this actually bothered them.)
- Aiming to eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day. (And lunch is an easy place to pack at least 2 of them.)
- Because the majority of our food is pretty healthy, eating the occasional handful of chips, pretzels or dessert isn’t a big deal.
- Portions are small (and sometimes cute). When I dish up the kids’ dinner, I only give them a couple of bites of everything. If they aren’t very hungry, this is something they can handle. If they don’t like everything, it’s not too much to ask. If they want more, they can have as much as they like.
- Stop eating when you feel full. Since the portions were so small to start with, there’s no need for an armwrestling match about Cleaning Your Plate. No forcing, no bargaining.
- We’re not grazing all day long. The kids eat three meals and 2 snacks, at basically the same time each day. Theoretically, they know what to expect, but trust me, it still doesn’t keep them from begging for the occasional bag of Pirate’s Booty.
- Drinks are water and milk with dinner.
- Dessert is served on the weekends and it’s a luscious, full-fat, full-sugar affair. This is where we take a page from the French. When it’s time to indulge, we’re doing it with the most satisfying, delicious dessert we can come up with, and everyone enjoys it to the fullest.
This leads to the second major life goal for my kids:
2. Enjoy meals together.
This is a really simple idea but there’s a domino effect.
Right now, while the kids are little, it’s a priority for me to cook fresh meals. I love experimenting with a huge variety of ingredients, expecting the kids to try everything. They don’t have to love it, but they do need to try it and better yet, appreciate it. We’re working on that last part. I guess, forever.
But here are a few things that help:
- When possible, the kids help plan our meals in advance. Sometimes this is as little as walking through the kitchen and asking, “Hey, what’s one dinner you’d like to have soon?”
- I have a cooking helper for most meals, and another to set the table.
- Everyone says THANK YOU when we sit down for a meal.
- We say grace.
- We pass the food to each other, saying please and thank you.
- When the cook asks, you can give your opinion: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Middle, Thumbs Down. (And please don’t offer your opinion to other cooks–say your grandmother–unless she also asks. #thingstoworkon)
- Everyone clears the table and puts their dishes in the dishwasher.
Our kids are two, four, five and seven, so this is a work in progress. But so far, there’s a sense of community. And with that comes respect and often, kindness. Sometimes there are even compliments.
Instead of tracking the health benefits of an all organic diet or cutting out entire food groups, this is what I’m focused on.
Healthy habits, happy hearts.
Want to get started?
Start with a few of our fastest recipes, made with fresh ingredients and kid-tested x4.
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