“Mom, I’m really glad you’re a chiropractor. But I wish I could eat the same foods as everyone else. It’s not really fair, you know.” This was Audra’s comment to me yesterday as we were driving, following her question of why I don’t agree with the Canada Food Guide. “I’ve have studied the human body and nutrition for years,” I answered. “I have different information about food and health, and it often leads us to make different choices for our family.”
Her comments were not a surprise to me, as I’m aware that both our kids sometimes wish I didn’t have quite such strong feelings about our food choices. But before I could say anything, she finished her thought with an observation that negated the need for me to say much of anything else: “But you know”, she pondered, “We really don’t get sick all the time like everyone else.”
So instead of launching into a long, detailed discussion of nutrition, all I had to do was acknowledge that I heard her, and remind her of what I believe to be true: “Feeding you well is part of my ‘mom job’ – to love you, keep you safe and keep you healthy.”
That ended the conversation, but not the never-ending journey of feeding our family well. We work hard to buy quality foods from as many local sources as possible. Our staples are meat and veggies, fruit, nut & seeds, full-fat dairy and healthy fats. We avoid /minimize processed foods, packaged meals, sugar, gluten, breads & pastas – all because we want to fuel our family with the most nutrient-dense foods, and to help them develop a taste for real food. We want them to understand how essential their food choices are to their health and wellbeing, as well as to their growth and performance in school and in sports – and in life in general.
And yet, our dedication to healthy eating is another way that we do things against the grain (no pun intended). While we are far from the only families that eat this way, it certainly is not how most people approach food. (or what is recommended by Health Canada, unfortunately) Sometimes this can be hard, especially since we don’t want to make our kids feel so different that they feel weird or left out. And we don’t want to be so rigid that they rebel completely as they get older and even more independent.
The truth is that some days it would be easier to be blissfully unaware of all the information we have. Some days it would be easier to throw a package in the microwave. Or make a sandwich for lunch. Or go through a drive through for dinner.
But at the end of the day, easier isn’t what drives us. We want to give our kids the best chance possible at vibrant, lifelong health – plus an understanding of how smart their bodies are and how incredibly amazing they are.
Over the years, we’ve faced quite an evolution with this. Admittedly, my own understanding of nutrition has changed over the years as well – which means that the choices we made years ago differ from the ones we make now. Both in my practice and in our home, I’ve had to admit to my past mistakes, while explaining that with new information, we make new choices.
When our kids were younger, in many ways it was easier because we were involved in every food that passed their lips. We were present at every party and social event. We could ‘ok’ anything they ate at school and they were too young to spend time at friend’s houses without one of us being there. It was easy to oversee it all.
But as they’ve gotten older, there are many more times that they are not with us. And just as I’ve found with virtually every parenting issue, as they gain more independence, we have to accept that they are going to be in many situations to make decisions where we will not be present.
So as parents, we have to put our trust in them, and in the job we have done in teaching them WHY we make the choices we do. (When this comes to food, I know I will cringe at times to hear what they may eat elsewhere, but I know that I am already losing some control of that.) And as with every parenting issue, we have to ask ourselves if we’ve done the best we can to provide them with a solid foundation for making their own choices and hope (trust) that with this securely in place, more often than not their choices will be made in their best interest. (Let’s get real here – we’re talking about food, but I feel the same about how they will fare with situations in the coming teen years like drinking & drugs, sex, and handling all manners of potentially challenging situations.)
So other than our recurring conversations about health and food – and an understanding of WHY we avoid certain foods, like junk food, processed foods, bread, and heaps of sugar – we’ve had to come up with ways to get our kids on board with our choices. Here are a few that have helped:
1 – We teach them how amazing their bodies are. Our two foundational statements have always been “My body is smart.” and “I am amazing.” We teach them how foods affect their bodies and their brains – and explain how that relates to every aspect of their life: from school, sports, learning, energy, growing, creativity, to simply being the best they can be.
2 – They help plan meals. I often throw out suggestions of what I might make that week and get feedback from them if there is anything they’d like to add. We try new recipes, look at cooking books or websites together, or pick out new things in the grocery store.
3 – They help out in the kitchen. Whether it’s making scrambled eggs for breakfast, whipping up a batch of guacamole, or chopping veggies for dinner that night, Ethan and Audra are frequent sous-chefs in our household. Ethan often talks about the possibility of being a chef – and if his love of eating is an accurate measure, this would be a great example of following a passion for him. (Although he did ask me the other day if I would be upset if he made meals I didn’t think were healthy. To which I responded – “No, I just would choose to eat the ones that were.” And that satisfied him, although I’ll admit that I hope he follows our lead.)
4 – We give them choices. While I refuse to make separate meals for our different taste buds, we do try at most meals to have at least 2 different veggie choices, and they have to have a helping of at least one. Salad or asparagus. Cauliflower or carrots. (Our love of organic butter does help, as they will eat more vegetables when they are tossed in butter with a sprinkle of salt.) And as parents, we eat it all, too!
5 – They have to try everything but we don’t force them to eat anything. This has lead our kids to try lots of new foods, spices and flavours. At ages 8 & 10, they both love sushi, thai food, indian cuisine and are game to experiment wonderfully. I’ve gotten better over the years at choosing new recipes – but sometimes I have a back-up plan in place just in case my experiment is a flop. (like last week’s spaghetti-squash casserole – which I served as one of several side-dish options amongst leftovers… just in case. For the record, it was eaten by everyone, but not in large quantity. Had I gone about this differently, I think I would have had some hungry and cranky kids later in the evening. As it went, I enjoyed an easy addition to my breakfasts and lunches in the following days.)
6 – We set ‘rules’ for when we ease up on our normal habits. Like after Hallowe-en, when for one week the kids get to pick 2 things a day for their lunch bags. Or how they can eat what they want at a friend’s house – but draw the line at drinking pop. Or how they devoured their great-grandma’s perogies while in Edmonton, but avoided (or minimized) their consumption of bread.
7 – We look for healthier versions of foods they want. This has lead to many baking experiments (which is not my forte) as Audra loves muffins and they both have somewhat of a sweet tooth. Or like Ethan’s request to make eggs benedict – in which I substituted the english muffin for biscuits made with almond flour. (Next time I’m trying potato ‘pancakes’ instead). Or along this line, I add pureed vegetables into many of our meals and sauces – like kale into virtually every sauce, meatball or soup!)
8 – We use the natural consequences of eating poorly to help them notice how they feel when they eat ‘off track’. Ethan has had several experiences with this one, including a history of throwing up almost every time he has had a pop. (While unpleasant to clean up, it’s more effective in helping him avoid pop than hearing me nagging in his head!) And Audra will often get tummy aches and feel ‘yucky’ if she eats too much sugar, or eats bread while at friends’ houses.
It’s a little ironic to me to think that one of the most basic necessities of life – FOOD – can come with so much challenge as well as joy. I know how hard it can be to feed a family well. I know how confusing it can be to read so many conflicting views on nutrition.
This is what has worked so far in our home. It takes time, commitment, planning and patience. But just like we tell our kids – our reason WHY: their lifelong health and wellbeing – makes it so incredibly worthwhile.