By, Barbara Sobel
My oldest son came from school one day this fall and asked if horchota, a sweet Mexican rice drink, or soda was healthier. He started high school this year and is allowed to go off campus for lunch. While my first choice of lunch for him wouldn’t be tortilla chips and a sugary drink, I smiled inside when he asked — knowing that just by asking this question he was trying to make informed decisions about what to eat.
I’ve been thinking about what I feed my kids more and more lately. Is it healthy? Will it harm them? Will the packaging make them sick? Last week’s New York Times had two interesting opinions about the chemicals in our food. (Warnings From a Flabby Mouse and Eat Like a Mennonite). Information can be scary, overwhelming and confusing, but information also gives us the power to make informed decisions.
When my kids were babies, food choices were easy. I would choose to make something and my kids would choose to eat them or not. When they went out to eat, they brought their own food in little containers.
I persevered through the years of their self-imposed “white diet”. I learned that if I took my kids to the farmers market they would taste all sorts of new fruits and vegetables. When I planted cherry tomatoes in the backyard, I asked one of my sons to pick a few for me. When I turned around to check on him, he had a mouth full and tomato juice running down his chin. I began involving my kids in cooking. Ripping lettuce, measuring and mixing were their favorite jobs. Gently exploring new foods helped my kids graduate from the white diet to something that was a bit more well rounded.
Elementary school is where things really started getting difficult. It wasn’t just what I chose to serve and what my kids chose to eat. Suddenly my kids were having lots of other people give them choices. How would I keep them healthy eaters despite what seemed like endless play dates, sleepovers, birthday and holiday parties, bake sales and post sports game snacks that involved unhealthy food? Could I keep my kids from trading in their carrot sticks for Oreos?
My husband and I tried to model the behavior we wanted our children to follow. I educated myself and made small changes along the way. At home I bought organic ingredients especially meats, dairy and produce when available. Over time I stocked my pantry with glass jars and tetra boxes to avoid the BPA in canned foods and plastics.
I began having a weekly CSA fruit and vegetable box delivered to my door and we made a game of inventing what we could cook with this week’s assortment of vegetables. I shopped the perimeter of the grocery store. Instead of buying treats, I tried making my own. Turns out my husband is a quite a good baker.
I looked for ways to avoid takeout on busy nights. I bought a crockpot and began making easy one pot stews for those nights when I “didn’t have time to cook” and when I made spaghetti sauce I packed it with vegetables and made enough to freeze for another night.
As my kids grew, our conversations around food became more sophisticated. We talked about how their bodies felt after they ate certain foods, what foods are grown with the most pesticides, what are GMOs and why they are they unhealthy and why big industrial farmers give their livestock antibiotics. We watched Food Inc. together. We cooked together using fun recipes from books like Stone Soup.
My kids made changes on their own and so did I. Most of the time, my kids make good food decisions. While they are the first in line for chili cheese fries, when they indulge they have learned to balance out their next couple of meals with healthier options. They often say no thank you to the donuts offered at a post game snack and come home from birthday parties and say things like, “no dessert for me tonight, I already had some cake today.”
When it is my turn to bring snacks or bake treats, I often bring fruit, homemade hummus and vegetables or bake something using organic ingredients. Instead of ordering pizza, we make our own.
Over time I let go of controlling the food my kids ate and embraced the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time my kids eat healthy foods and 20% of the time I don’t worry about it. I know that the meals my kids eat at home are made with healthy ingredients and that these are most of their meals.
All of those conversations about healthy foods, modeling smart food choices and answering their questions have paid off. Instead of spending his lunch allowance on junk food, my high schooler brings his lunch from home most of the week and one or two days a week he treats himself to a burrito and sometimes gets a horchata.
For more tips and information on food and kids check out these resources:
Mark Hyman’s three part series of articles on raising healthy eaters
Environmental Working Group
Mark Bittman on pesticides and American Academy of Pediatrics
Jeffrey Smith’s groundbreaking film about the health risks associated with GMOs
Barbara Sobel is a member of the MOMAS Advisory Board. She is a communications and fundraising consultant as well as a photographer. She also the mother of two teenage boys. www.barbsobel.com