Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Reader Advice Day: Whole Food Plant-based Parenting of Young Children

For those of you that are new to HGK, newly here because of The Eat to Live Cookbook Project, welcome! Today I am bringing you an installment of something that I feature regularly here on my blog, which I call reader advice day. These posts are inspired by a letter I receive, asking for advice. Being no expert, I feel more comfortable engaging the whole plant-based community in finding the answer and seeing what we can come up with collectively.

It's also way more fun that way!

So here goes . . . a letter that I received just the other day:

"Hey Wendy,

I was telling my husband tonight that I feel like i need to see a therapist or something about being a SAHM [stay at home mother] to young kids, about them and food specifically. Because it's overwhelming and confusing, and right now, my least favorite part of parenting!

I then wondered as he asked me what's in those awesome banana zucchini muffins that are now a staple in our house, if perhaps you've already blogged about this or have some thoughts on the matter. I need ideas...I need guidelines...I need a philosophy. 

My current m.o. has been to buy little to no "junk" food, an almost useless term because everyone defines it differently. So ok, no cookies, cake, or candy except a small amount on Shabbat. Although we'll take him for froyo with all the various candy toppings fairly often, probably 2-3 times per week. I try not to make dessert contingent on eating or finishing regular food when that kind of situation comes up. 

Have I mentioned my 3.5 year old is a grazer? Meaning he will eat a small amount of something, say that he's done, and request more food shortly afterwards, usually something snack-y. It's. Driving. Me. Insane!! I also feel really anxious when we are at other people's houses and it's junk/sugar galore and I feel like I have to manage it. I feel like others are watching me and thinking I am nuts just for trying to manage it, however calm I may be. I truly believe sugar is addictive and as much as I've heard people say that kids know what they need for their bodies - I don't buy it.

I really could go on and on and on so I'll stop here and just ask you - any words of wisdom??

I really love your blog. Yours is the only one where I actually make the recipes and they are always fantastic. I find your 'voice' to be a down-to-earth, real take on this way of cooking and eating. Thanks for your help!

Andrea (name changed)"

Dear Andrea,

I feel your pain!

When you said, "I really could go on and on," I also feel like I could write a horror novel on this topic. Readers keep asking me what my kids are eating while I'm serving all of this Nutritarian food. I'm going to attempt to keep this on the shorter side, but please forgive me if this gets long.

As difficult as my own personal food struggle has been all of my life, things are 1000 times more difficult once you add children into the mix. All of a sudden, it's not just what you want and decide to consume, you now have to made decisions all day long for other people (who are often angry about it or resistant to your desires). Personally, it's been one of the biggest stresses in my adult life. They say knowledge is power, but in this case, it's also drama!

My number one observation about kids and food is this:

The age you start makes a big difference in the ease of it all. 

If you start when a child is a baby, they won't know any differently. Once they reach a certain age, they will resist because they don't understand why you are limiting certain foods and encouraging others. Then, they all can reach an age where they are mature enough to learn and understand the nutritional information for themselves and make their own excellent choices willingly.

My second observation about kids and food is this:

The personality of the parent has a lot to do with it.

Truth: I am not a particularly strict parent. I'm kind of a pushover. I desire peace in my environment above all else, to my family's detriment. Peacemaking is not at all a helpful personality trait when it comes to kids and food. If I were more able to tolerate screaming and crying and drama then I would probably have better luck with getting my kids to eat their vegetables. I own this--but hey, I am a work in progress.

I also recognize that it is my job in the world to parent these kids, and that means that I have to rise above my own personality affectations. So even though I am very uncomfortable with the drama, I have created a lot of drama surrounding food with my eight year old in particular, who has very specific food tastes (a love for processed carbohydrates) that I do not want to support. She wants to eat what I think is junk, or poison, and I am not that shy about telling her how I feel about it.

It's all very, very painful.

How has this played out in our family? I'm going to summarize it by child:

Thirteen year old girl: I began a Whole Foods Plant Based diet when she was ten. At the same time, I took her to hear Rip Esselstyn speak at a local lecture. Because she has always been a mature child, she immediately "got it" and changed her diet. She understood the link between diet and health. At about the same time, she also read The Omnivore's Dilemma for Kids by Michael Pollan. Both experiences dramatically effected her. She makes amazing food choices. She eats lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains every day. She will at least try, and often really enjoys, all of the more adult recipes that I make. Except for salads--she's not big on those. But she loves oil-free, Vegan soups, stews and casseroles. She is also wildly lactose intolerant, so it's easier for her to choose not to eat dairy then most kids. When she wants to eat dairy, which I do not give her a hard time about, because she is so on target with her food choices the rest of the time, she can take a Lactaid and indulge.

Eight year old girl: This adventure began when she was five. Without going into gory details, things with her became really difficult when it came to food choices. At five years old, her palate wasn't ready for all of the new and delicious food that I was preparing. She showed no interest in it, but things are maybe starting to change? She has gone through phases where she loves raw spinach and then raw celery and then raw carrots, only to emerge weeks later claiming she hates those foods. Right now the only vegetable I can get her to eat is iceberg lettuce. How freakin' sad is that?

Luckily, she loves most fruit, so I make sure to have tons of fresh fruit in the house at all times, even though that is very, very costly. I make an attempt at controlling what she eats by keeping a lot of what is disagreeable to me out of the house entirely. But, like I said, I have a problem with wanting peace in the home and many, many times I have given in to that desire at the expense of my children's health.

Five year old boy: He was two when the adventure began. He can't remember things any differently. He likes to ask me if a food is healthy or not and will make a choice based on my answer. He doesn't have a sophisticated palate though and won't eat any of the Nutritarian food that I prepare or much of anything with a vegetable. He is also a BIG lover of fruit. He's almost a Fruitarian.

The typical kids dinner in our home looks like this: whole wheat pasta with no salt tomato sauce, fake meat tacos with lettuce and cheese (both the real and the Vegan cheeses are available to the kids), fake chicken nuggets, actual pizza with real cheese, frozen ravioli with real cheese. I'm not proud of it, but that's the honest truth. If I have the energy, I will put raw veggies and fruit on their trays. The fruit gets eaten, the veggies often do not.

Lunch is a lot better than dinner. My oldest daughter packs her own good lunch. I invested in two Bento style lunch boxes this year for my younger children. This makes packing lunch so much easier. My son is currently very into bagels and cream cheese, but always has fruit also. Vanilla coconut or vanilla soy yogurt in one container with crunchy sweet whole grain cereal in another container is something that they both like.

Breakfast is not so great. Convenience pancakes and french toast from Trader Joe's on most days for the two younger ones. My daughter likes Life cereal with almond milk. My son sometimes just wants a banana. They both do like oatmeal, and sometimes we will go into an oatmeal phase (do you really want the gory details? My son will only eat it with "butter" (ie Earth Balance) on it). My oldest daughter grabs a Lara bar.

We also make frozen banana soft serve and smoothies, and like I said, always tons of strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, mangoes, etc., etc.

This is all very embarrassing to go public with. But there it is, the truth.

I feel sick.

I want Nutritarian kids, like Sharon McRae has. She'll be doing a guest post right here on HGK soon with the story of exactly how she got her kids to go Nutritarian. Something tells me she is one ultra firm parent, which is a very, very good thing when it comes to getting your kids with the program.

Me? I'm trying yet again another scheme to get my two younger kids to eat their vegetables. It involves paying them, with a fun system (see photo above). For every serving of vegetables that they eat, they earn one "healthy buck." They can also earn healthy bucks for exercising. The healthy bucks can later be redeemed for cash (three healthy bucks earns one dollar) to buy the toys and art supplies that they like to have.

Wish us luck.

What's your opinion? Your experience? Your thoughts on this matter? Leave a comment below.

If you'd like to see the Facebook discussion about this subject, click here.

Here's an interesting video done by Dr. Greger of nutritionfacts.org on kids and food choices:

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