Junk Food Everywhere - How To Get Our Kids To Eat Healthy?

It’s quite obvious, with a quick stroll down the middle aisles of any grocery store, that a lot of food marketing targets children.

It is also no secret that obesity and type 2 diabetes rates are skyrocketing in kids and appearing at younger and younger ages… Could there be a connection? (duh!) While most parents (I hope) agree that basic foods like healthy proteins and green veggies are important staples for the little ones, the issue of child nutrition is hardly a clear cut one anymore. With soccer games to play, choir practices to attend and a social schedule that would have made me dizzy at their ages, most kids these days (and moms!) just aren’t home at meal times much. This rapidly paced lifestyle makes it easier to justify quick food, even if it is devoid of nutrients.

Another factor that I have noticed with many children is the connection to food as a type of reward. From a young age we reward birthdays with sweets, school achievements with meals out, good deeds with ice cream and even healthy eating with dessert (if you eat all 3 of your peas, you can have a piece of cake…) why!!

With the world against her, what is a health conscious mom to do? This is a question I struggled with myself for a long time before finally reaching family peace! Before I get to the “how”, let’s talk about the “what” to eat!

What’s A Kid To Eat?

Like I said, while most parents agree on the benefits of veggies and healthy proteins, it is all the other things that seem to cause the debate. Should they drink fruit juice? If so, how much? Is sugar ok in moderation?

With the hubbub of daily life, it is easy to forget just how important our kids’ nutrition is! The most simple and basic way to test if a child should be eating a given substance is to determine if it is actually a food or not. Any “food” that can sit on a shelf and not decompose for a year is likely not fit for consumption (try that with a salad and see what happens!). This “non-food” list would also include anything containing hydrogenated oils (peanut, soy, cottonseed, vegetable, canola, etc), anything containing MSG, anything containing High Fructose Corn Syrup, anything containing artificial sweeteners, and anything containing processed grains (white bread. Pasta etc) This basically knocks out all the fast food, microwaveable food, “food” bars. Except really healthy ones or made at home, and most drinks besides water. It’s also important to avoid chemicals in sources that are not so easily recognised like the BPA in canned goods and bottled water in soft plastic or the antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides found in conventional meat.

If your head is swimming with the idea of all the things you shouldn’t feed your kids… don’t worry, the list of great foods is a tasty one! The following foods are excellent, and necessary sources of nutrition that every child should consume on a regular basis. If yours aren’t chomping down the Brussels sprouts just yet, stay with me, the “how to” comes later.

  1. Good Sources of Protein: Proteins are used in every function in the body and are absolutely vital for all of us, especially those still forming bones and muscles. Healthy meats, especially, offer complete proteins that children desperately need for proper growth (the Tofu just won’t cut it here). I’ve heard all too many parents state that their kids “don’t like red meat” and then have their kids test positive for a B-12 deficiency. So what are healthy meats? Kids need real, untreated, chemical free sources of protein, and chicken nuggets just won’t do! Regular, daily consumption of pure, organic beef, chicken, ostrich and eggs will ensure that kids’ protein needs are being met. Most kids will eat healthy meats willingly once they have tried well-prepared sources. Proteins to try: Free range organic eggs, are range meat and chicken, ostrich wild game and other whole, real proteins and fish. Even things like luncheon meats and bacon are ok if you can find the nitrate/nitrite free varieties. Proteins  to avoid: Processed meats like chicken nuggets, deli meats (with nitrates), meats that are served with processed foods (hamburgers, pizza, etc) commercially raised beef, poultry, or fish.

  2. Veggies and Fruits Maybe you noticed I said those in a reverse order than that which you are used to (“eat fruits and veggies!”). This was intentional. Studies show that people eat much more fruit than veggies, a trend that I hope will reverse. While fruits are wonderful and have their place, veggies are equally (or more) important, and have much less sugar. Even though fruits contain natural sugar, fructose in large amounts (even from fruit) can be damaging. Besides this, kids will usually choose fruit over veggies if given the choice, and many parents are happy to make this concession as long as the kids are “eating fruits and veggies.” Even the foods we feed our kids, thinking we are increasing vegetable consumption are not really vegetables: corn (a grain), potatoes (a tuber, high in carbs and low in nutrition compared to other veggies), and peas (a legume). Most kids receive a majority of their “vegetable” intake from tomato-based products like tomato sauce or pasta sauce (tomatoes are genetically modified if not organic). Despite the widely acknowledged fact that veggies and fruits reduce risk of almost every disease, we still aren’t eating them! The good news? As parents, we have much more influence than we think in our kids’ diets (more on that in a minute)! Veggies and Fruits to Eat a LOT of: Green and leafy (spinach, lettuce, mixed greens, kale, chard, turnip, mustard, etc), Colourful (peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, squashes, carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, cucumbers, avocado, berries, bananas, grapes, etc), Unusual (leeks, fennel, okra, olives, artichokes, Bok Choy, Brussels Sprouts, Sea veggies, beetroots, parsnips, radishes, asparagus, etc.) Veggies and Fruits for Treats: Call me crazy, but most fruits, for my kids, are treats at the end of meals. While berries are in season, they feast with reckless abandon, but during most of the year, veggies come first and fruits are the “dessert.” After some adjustment, kids really do learn to love the natural sweetness in fruit, even over processed sugar. The higher sugar content fruits that make great treats are: apples, oranges/other citrus, melons, mango, papaya (organic, if possible), pears, pomegranates, peaches and the like. Dried fruits (prunes, raisins, dates, dried cranberries, etc) are also higher in sugar and are usually given as treats in the form of food bars (make your own) LCC has the recipe. Veggies and Fruits to Avoid: Fried ones like french fries, potato chips, onion rings and other non-foods, “veggie” chips,  “fruit” roll ups and “fruit” snacks, fruit juices (even the no-sugar-added types- they all act as pure sugar in the body and don’t compare to the nutrients in real fruit), any “fruit” or “vegetable” product that has ingredients besides fruit on the label.

  3. Healthy Fats We tend to surf the extremes, letting them eat fast food or junk food but giving them “healthy” low-fat alternatives at other times. While some parents, with the best of intentions, restrict fat in their kid’s diets to prevent weight gain, a restricted fat diet in kids can lead to health problems, vitamin deficiency and ADHD. Dietary fats carry the necessary vitamins A,D,E and K into tissue and allow for uptake. Breast milk, considered the most complete food for babies and toddlers is over 50% total fat and 40-50% saturated fat. It seems odd to me that children would suddenly go from a dietary need for this much fat to a much smaller need for dietary fat. A lack of necessary dietary fats, especially saturated fats, can cause reduction in the myelin sheath’s that coat kids’ brain cells, causing uncontrolled or rapid fire impulses in the brain, which presents as ADD or ADHD. It will be a paradigm shift for many of our generation to stop demonising fats, but for our kids’ sakes, we need to make this jump. Kids under 14 especially need adequate amounts of fat (including saturated fat) and this intake should comprise 30% of their total diet. Be careful, of course, in choosing healthy fats; avoid trans fats and engineered fats like vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils and shortening. Great sources of dietary fat: Coconut (raw, or as oil, shredded, flour, milk, butter… all coconut is great), avocados, olives/olive oil, butter, ghee, animal sources (as long as organic/grass-fed), eggs, fish, organ meats, wild game, nuts, seeds & Avocado. I also recommend supplementing Omega-3s and Vitamin D. Sources of Dietary Fat to Avoid: Polyunsaturated oils (liquid at room temp like peanut, soy, canola, vegetable, etc), hydrogenated oils, shortening, trans fats, and any other engineered forms of oil or fat. (P.S. these are the oils and fats used at restaurants and in most processed foods).

  4. Things Kids Don’t Need Anyone new may be wondering when I will mention the “healthy whole grains” and dairy products. The truth is, you don’t need them and neither do your children. Particularly in processed or pasteurized forms, these two “food” groups are responsible for a lot of childhood allergies and are just not the superior nutrition sources that they are made out to be. Studies (and personal experience) prove that kids who can’t eat either of these sources due to allergies receive just as much (or more) nutrients as those who eat these regularly. The water soluble proteins like gluten and lectin, present in grains, can do damage to the digestive system over time, and these particles can then pass through the small intestine and move into the bloodstream where they are seen as a pathogen. The body creates an immune response and an allergy is born (not to mention you would basically have feces floating in your bloodstream!). The good news here is that in many cases, and especially in children, the body is very capable of healing itself if given real food! Even those who recommend intake of “healthy whole grains” for “fiber and nutrients” will acknowledge that meats, veggies, fruits and healthy fats have a much higher nutrient profile. While we avoid grains entirely, at the very least, they should be a small part of a child’s diet. The issue of dairy in the diet can be an even more controversial one! While we don’t do much dairy, and only in raw, unpasteurised form from an organic farmer, dairy is a staple in many children’s diets at the recommendation of their doctors. Statistically, kids who go without the dairy by choice or by allergy still receive adequate calcium and other nutrients, dairy is the main source of dietary fat for many children. In some cases, even though dairy isn’t necessary, until this fat is replaced with more healthy sources (see above), removing all dairy can do more harm than good.

With all this information on what to feed your kids, the question then becomes: HOW DO I GET MY KIDS TO EAT THIS STUFF??

This was a major stumbling block for me. As a new mom, I used to feel guilty for making my children eat things they didn’t like. I shuddered at the thought of them going hungry, if only for one meal! It wasn’t until I started to realize how much they liked/wanted the unhealthy foods and how he was becoming increasingly resistant to healthy foods that I knew something had to change, and change it did! I realized that we, as parents, exercise authority in many other aspects of our kids lives, but turn into a short order cook at dinner time to please everyone in the family. We wouldn’t dream of letting them stay up three hours past bedtime, go without washing their hands or their clothes regularly, or throw down a few beers after school, but we routinely concede on healthy eating, even though it has a more detrimental effect than dirty clothes or staying up late!

“I AM THE MOM” I realised, and damn it, my kids will eat healthy, and I will figure out a way for them to love it! Much to my relief and surprise, the transition was much easier than I expected. While kids can be picky, they are also extremely adaptable and resilient. They also see the effects of dietary improvement faster than we do. Also, as kids eat 3 to 4 times the amount of food per pound of weight as adults, the choices they (and I) make now, can and will affect them for the rest of their lives!

Some practical suggestions for the switch:

  1. Make up Your Mind first! When it comes to dietary shifts, you must present a confident front, and believe the information you are telling your kids! Research, meal plan, and commit to making this positive change for your family.