Feeding Our Children Well
Each year as the school year begins, national attention shifts towards the topic of school lunches in particular, and childhood nutrition in general. The quality of food served in our nation's schools has been the focus of much attention recently, and if you have so much as walked through a school cafeteria in the last decade, you know why. Our kids deserve better, and I have great admiration for those who are working to reform the complicated system that is our national school lunch program.
While strides are being made, albeit slowly, in the political arena of school lunches, there is an even more difficult aspect of our children's nutrition, and one that we actually can do something about: the food we feed them at home. Many of us with children, or grandchildren that we care for, struggle with the challenge of what foods to buy, prepare, and serve that are both truly healthy and that they will eat. After 30 years of aggressive marketing by food manufacturers, and the constant barrage of what I call “pop” nutrition information, it is not surprising that most people, especially parents, feel confused and overwhelmed when it comes to feeding their children, and themselves, well.
When I was a kid, in response to my brother’s hyperactive behavior, my parents decided we were going to eat “natural” foods. One day the pantry held sugary cereals, sugar based drinks and packaged baked goods that mysteriously seem to stay fresh forever; and the next day we were eating Grape Nuts, wheat germ, and granola bars. And although we still ate desserts and the occasional processed snacks, most of the “junk” was gone and the bounty of the garden was in. When we asked why we could no longer have the “foods” that we had been used to, their response was, "Because we love you, we want you to be healthy." Yet so often we parents take the easier route, succumbing to feeding our kids, and ourselves, what is now known as the Standard American Diet (otherwise known as SAD). We feed our kids a steady diet of “chicken” nuggets, ketchup and fries, mac n’ cheese, sugary breakfast cereals and soda, and let ourselves believe that is OK for them because the TV commercials and advertisements call them "kid food".
Yet, research on the impact of daily nutrition on a child's ability to learn in school is unequivocal: kids must have real food to learn. According to a study by the American School Health Association (ASHA), students who had consistently insufficient protein intake scored lower on achievement tests than their classmates who had adequate nutrition. Students with chronic iron deficiency were more likely to suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Under- or malnourished children were found more prone to infections and illnesses, causing them to miss school and fall behind in their education. It is crucial for proper development that children receive key nutrients from high quality foods. Many studies have shown the positive effect of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, on brain function and in the treatment of ADD and ADHD. Children also need to receive quality protein and minerals for proper skeletal and muscular development, plenty of filtered water, and good quality complex carbohydrates for sustained energy throughout the day.
And in this age of soaring obesity and diabetes rates, the fact that eating habits picked up in childhood carry over to adulthood is a grave concern. Eating habits develop early. Most children acquire them from their parents and older siblings. Kids don’t develop food preferences on their own, not even for candy. They learn what to like or dislike by observing others. What you as the parent buy and bring in the house is what your children will have access to. How you treat your own body in terms of diet, exercise and lifestyle choices directly influences your child’s behavior.
It's hard. We all know that in a media environment of merciless child-focused junk food marketing, parents' job is made even harder. For those of us who want to choose really high quality foods, the definitions and choices can be dizzying. I have a lot of compassion for families who are too busy, worn out, overscheduled, and unsupported to cook good food and model healthy eating habits. But it's worth the effort. Kids aren't born knowing why adequate protein, fats, vegetables, and whole grains are important. They need to be taught, and until they can make good choices for themselves, good choices must be made for them. I think my parents were right: it's what love requires.
Changing your family's diet comes down to gradually serving more of what is healthy, and less of what is not. Change happens most effectively when taken in small steps over several months. No one wants the kids (or the adults!) to freak out with too many changes all at once. At the same time, it doesn't seem very helpful to kids when adults make food choices based on what they think kids will eat, instead of what's healthiest. It's the adults' job to serve the best meals they can, and the kid's job to eat when they are hungry. Sometimes it takes a few times before some kids will like a new food. But by “leading by example”, taking it slow, and consistently serving whole foods that really do taste good, the whole family can begin to enjoy a healthier way of life.
Helping Kids Develop Healthy Eating Habits
As a parent, you can go a long way to helping children learn to be aware of what they eat by being a good example and developing healthy eating habits together as a family. Better meals at home begin with buying better quality food. So what kind of foods should you be buying and preparing for your children and yourself? Look for “whole foods”, which means foods that are in their natural state or minimally processed, and are what is called “nutrient dense”. When foods are refined and processed, they have been stripped of the fiber, vitamins and minerals that human physiology requires to function properly. Most of what you find by shopping the perimeter of your grocery store, or your farmer’s market, would qualify as whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables (in the produce section), organic milk, yogurt, and eggs, wild-caught fish, and hormone-free or organic meats (not cold-cuts). On this website you can find easy-to-make delicious recipes using whole foods that the whole family will love.
10 Steps To Feeding Your Children Well
1) Lead by Example! Encourage healthy eating habits to your children by demonstrating them. You can’t encourage them to make better choices if you are not doing so yourself, but you can support each other as a family in trying new foods and exercising together.
2) Including your children in the decision making, food shopping, and meal preparation. It teaches them about healthy options, and empowers them to be involved in making healthy choices. Remember, you are not just teaching your children, but through them can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of your grandchildren and great grandchildren.
3) Provide plenty of vegetables and fruits. Buy with the seasons and locally for best quality and price. Nutrient dense veggies include broccoli (more Vitamin C than an orange and half as much calcium as milk), cauliflower, bell peppers, carrots, and (of course) dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale and collards. Lightly steam them, or create a veggie casserole that is topped with grated cheese and crushed nuts. Sweet potatoes are said to be the most nutrient dense item in the produce aisle, and they are naturally sweet and yummy. So are parsnips, butternut, acorn and delicate squash. You can bake, roast, or broil them, and serve with real butter.
4) Learn the difference between refined and whole grain products. Unfortunately, most of what is labeled “whole grain” is really refined- pasta, breads, bagels, breakfast cereals, crackers, etc. They can fill you up, but without the fiber and minerals, don’t really nourish your body and lead to sugar cravings, hypoglycemia and diabetes. Real whole grains, like brown rice, quinoa, millet and amaranth, come in a bag, like dried beans, and should be soaked at least 8 hours before rinsing and cooking with twice as much water to grain (to remove the phytic acid that is present on real grains). A pot of rice can last for a few meals, from dinner to a breakfast pilaf with nuts, raisins, and cinnamon, at a fraction of the cost of sugary refined breakfast cereals. Oatmeal is another example of a minimally processed grain that just requires cooking.
5) Include organic whole milk, yogurt, kefir, and hormone-free unprocessed cheese. Choose grass-fed meats, free-range poultry, and wild-caught fish. Unfortunately, conventional milk and meat generally come from herds that are fed antibiotics and growth hormones on a regular basis. There is growing evidence that these drugs are traveling far and wide through the food system. The more you know about them, the less you want to eat them. The good news is that in many places, including your local grocery stores, where there are plenty of clean dairy products available. When buying organic milk, stay away from the "ultra-pasteurized" kind. Stores that don't sell much milk often carry this because they can leave it on the shelf for weeks or months before it goes bad. The problem is, the "ultra" pasteurization means it got heated higher, longer. Besides the nasty effect on the taste, the protein is rendered totally indigestible. When looking to buy organic cheese, some stores also carry "rBGH free" cheeses. They're not organic, but at least there were no growth hormones used on the cows. And there are now several brands of “free-range” eggs available. Grass-fed meats ( as opposed to animals that were fed organic grain) is a little harder to come by, visit our Organic and Local sources page to help you find the best sources in your area.
6) Include legumes like lentils and beans for protein, fiber, and minerals in your diet.
Legumes like beans and lentils, are often served with whole grains like brown rice and quinoa (keen-wa), in many traditional cultures, from South American to Indian. Cooked with traditional herbs and spices, these dishes are both high in fiber, nutrients and taste, and low in cost, and can add variety to your meals. Try making your own hummus (from garbanzo beans) or black bean dip.
7) Use your waterless cookware. For easy, inexpensive and delicious, get out your gourmet (Slo) cooker. With a just a few minutes of preparation in the morning or evening, you and your family can come home to some real home cooked soups and stews. They are warming and filling. Make them with your left over vegetables, beans, lentils, or make a delicious and nourishing bone broth.
8) Serve healthy snacks, like apple slices with almond butter, carrots and celery with hummus, homemade salsa and guacamole with natural corn chips.
9) Encourage your family to drink lots filtered of water, and replace sugar-sweetened beverages with fruit teas sweetened with unrefined stevia. You can make your own “vitamin water” by putting orange, lemon, or lime slices in a pitcher of water.
10) Limit and work to eliminate processed and refined foods such as boxed dinners, frozen dinners, canned foods (like soups), processed meats (like hotdogs and cold cuts), soda, juices, and packaged snacks. They contain high amounts of salt, preservatives like MSG, BHT, BHA, nitrites, nitrates, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificially saturated trans-fats.