This is another excerpt from my new book How to Eat Right In the Real World coming out Jan., 2014, on the subject of raising healthy eaters:
Of course, one of the most common tips I received from my parent-readers was to lead by example. Parents told me over and over, “Kids eat what their parents eat.” Quite a few studies show this to be true.
In fact, the field of epigenetics has shown us that our assumptions have been fairly wrong about why specific diseases tend to run in families. The primary reason, it turns out, that if your father and grandfather had heart attacks, you’re more likely to have one too, isn’t “genetics.” It’s the fact that you are highly likely to eat the same diet your father ate. That’s how powerful modeling is.
My mother raised eight children, and I was the oldest. Her secret treat was yogurt-covered almonds, kept in a stash in her closet. They were expensive, and we lived on a very tight budget, since my mother was a homemaker and my father was in the military, with a big house payment in an expensive Washington, D.C. suburb. So, she wasn’t going to spend $6/pound on all of us.
I imagine she had no idea that every single one of us knew exactly where her “stash” was. My mother was a healthy eater at a healthy weight, exercised often, and fed us a whole-foods, plant-based diet made from scratch. But the point is, whatever we think we’re hiding from our kids? We’re deluding ourselves. They know.
The unforgettable memoir of Jeanette Wall, The Glass Castle, is about her mentally ill, nomadic, highly educated but chronically unemployed and under-achieving parents. They raised Jeanette and several other children, and Jeanette went on to become a New York Times journalist. It’s been many years since I read that phenomenal book, but one scene stands out.
The family was living for a time in a ramshackle house in a poverty-stricken town in the Appalachian mountains. The kitchen ceiling has caved in, and rain is pouring into the small house. There is no bathroom or running water or trash service. The children defecate and throw their trash behind the house. It’s been raining for days and there is no grass or ground-cover. They are literally sliding around in the mud.
There has been no food for days, and the only thing to eat is a picked-over, days-old ham carcass with maggots crawling in it. The desperate children pick it clean, and eat the shreds of meat, trying to avoid the maggots.
One night, the mother is sleeping on the floor on her filthy mattress, with her hungry children all around her, and the kids hear some paper crumpling sounds from under the mother’s blanket. One of them walks over and pulls the cover off their mother.
She is hiding under the blanket, while eating a giant Hershey’s bar. Hiding it from her several starving children.
Everyone I know who has read that book, I ask what scene stands out most, and they always describe that one. It literally took my breath away. We mothers are chilled to the bone by such astonishing selfishness.
Children know. They know what you eat, what you do, what you spend money on, what you care about, what makes you mad, how you treat people. They will find out. Even if you hide it in your closet between your sweaters!
So, a mama having something for herself is no crime (in a normal situation, anyway, where kids have enough to eat). But eat a diet in front of them, that 95 percent of the time, or more, is nutrient-dense, made of whole foods. As one mother said in the GreenSmoothieGirl reader comments that follow, her 11-year old twins know the word “hypocrite” and aren’t afraid to use it!
Not only that, but eating a high-raw, plant-based diet is an act of unselfishness. We can be there, for our family, far more if our health and energy are strong. We are more likely to live longer and show up for our grandchildren. And last but not least, we model healthy eating habits that will be copied by our children and their children, to their benefit.
Very frankly, when I read the “Raising Healthy Eaters” contest entries by many parents, I felt a lot of hope about the world. I had the thought, “There are still plenty of smart and loving parents who are doing every good thing they can, for their kids.”
Thank you for being great parents and for sharing your ideas. Next I’ll share the ideas and favorite recipes of a runner-up in our contest, Jenna Dayton.