Eliminate junk food

On this next suggestion for helping kids to eat right, I’m going to mince no words: eliminate junk food. Get rid of the worst choices from your fridge and pantry. Just quit buying them, cold turkey. Especially soft drinks, processed meat (like hot dogs, bacon, and sausage), potato chips, and sugar. Life isn’t over or even less fun. Your kids will still see those foods on occasions such as parties and barbecues–and that’s where those foods belong, a once-in-a-while indulgence, not daily fare. Tell them you’re going to learn to make treats that are both yummy and good for them. (I dedicate a whole chapter of 12 Steps to Whole Foods to that.)

I want to assure you that “picky kids” will not starve themselves. People who eat sugar every day have tastes adapted to that very addictive chemical and the dopamine receptors that respond to the chemical. But get rid of sugary foods for even a few days, and tastes change rather dramatically (of course, you have to live with the withdrawal symptoms in the meantime, but they don’t usually last more than a few days). Fruit tastes better, for instance, when you’re “off” sugar. Green smoothies are in the realm of possibilities when Capri Sun has been out of the picture for a while.

When all else fails, enter bribery. Do it in a subtle way you can live with. My friend Brenda pays her kids $20 for a month of eating no sugar, and then doubles that amount for each additional month. If that’s too crass for you, start out your green smoothie experiment with a chart on the fridge and a fun family outing planned for the end of the month for anyone who drinks a glassful every day you make it during the month. Then have a conversation with your kids and (if you’re doing my 12 step program), document in your 12 Steps journal the health effects they noticed, as well. Tell them at the beginning of the month that it’s a personal experiment for them, as well as a family experiment, and you want them to keep an eye on whether they have more energy, more focus in school, better digestion, or a more positive mood. If you eliminate junk food, your changes become permanent, rather than just another short-lived “health kick.”

Teach children at home

Teach children at home, in age-appropriate ways, about nutrition, since that’s where most food prep and eating takes place anyway.I once taught my children about the three parts of a grain–the bran (fiber), the germ (vitamins), and the endosperm (the glue).I’ve told them that white bread throws away the two good parts and keeps only the one useless part–the “glue” of the grain.Months later, I happened upon a conversation between my daughter and one of her friends, where she was explaining to her friend, waving a bottle of Elmer’s Glue, that the bread her friend eats every day is made of exactly that substance.Obviously she’d taken what I said far too literally.Consider it a challenge to explain nutrition principles you read about in terms a child can understand.

My belief is that parents willing to “walk the talk” and fill their own plates up with good things are teaching in the most powerful way possible: by example.But also, as the parents, we believe that we are in charge.Salad is not an option, and it’s not a “side dish,” something in a corner taking up a square inch or two.I started feeding my kids green salad when they were old enough to chew.We did have to put it on the fork for them and help them with it, the first few years.In our family, we eat salad first (to provide enzymes for any cooked food that will follow), and if you want the rest of the meal at our house, you are required to eat a big helping of salad.

All four of our kids love and crave raw, green salads.So much for the idea we’ve heard often that if we “make” them do it, they’ll hate it and “rebel.”(My mom “made” me eat salad every night, too, and my siblings and I all love salad.)People simply do not rebel against everything they’re taught, and so a sound strategy is to teach true principles and set sound expectations regardless of any random guess about choices children might make in 20 years in reaction to those principles and expectations.On the other hand, kids who rarely or never eat vegetables aren’t likely to make the switch to eating nutritious food in adulthood.

Our kids don’t give us a hard time about eating salad, because (a) the rule is well understood, (2) they know exactly why I provide them raw green food every night, and (c) they have learned, from listening to their bodies, that they prefer how they feel when eating lots of green roughage.

Further, no one person burns out on making salads, because we take turns doing it.Even our 10-year old knows how to wash and chop greens and other vegetables, getting a large salad together in 10 or 15 minutes.Only my 7-year old doesn’t help with that, because he’s not old enough to handle a knife yet (he can set the table and do other tasks, though).Not only does this free my time so I don’t burn out on being a slave to the kitchen, but it also gives my children a chance to contribute to the meal they will eat.As you teach children at home, they’ll have a sense of accomplishment for having done a job well, and an opportunity to learn healthy habits for life.

Parental responsibilities and rights

You might consider that part of parental responsibilities and rights includes keeping your talk about nutritious food positive, while expecting some reaction to your changes toward good nutrition.Avoid adopting the attitude, as you speak to your kids, that eating good food is a chore to be endured on our way to dessert.

With a little thought and effort on your part, children become “invested” in the process of improving the family’s nutrition, through the several ideas that follow, and many more you may think of.

First, ask your children to taste a new recipe and suggest ways to change it.What does it need more of, or less of?Treat the experience as a taste test.I have a lot of experience in this, having tested every one of the recipes in this book on my own four kids (sometimes several times, because I didn’t get it right).They loved telling me what they liked and what needed to be different, and they contributed many ideas to the recipes herein.

Second, have a child help you make the recipe, or give him the entire responsibility.My mother always started dinner with the “compliments,” such as, “The salad is compliments of Robyn.The vegetables in the soup are compliments of Dave,” etc.We rolled our eyes at this tradition but secretly appreciated the acknowledgement of our contribution.

Third, as you’re educating yourself, educate your kids.As with so many things, knowledge is truly the key!Some of your children may relish the opportunity to read each chapter of this book with you, and discuss it with you afterward.Everyone knows “vegetables are good for you,” but when we know several very specific reasons why they’re critical to a quality life, suddenly we care more.Then it’s a group project everyone is invested in, not just you, and they know what’s coming next in your plans to get healthy, and why.Tell your children what you’re learning as you read 12 Steps to Whole Foods.

Someone once said, “I’ll go to the ends of the earth for you, if I know WHY you want me to.”I often use the dinner table conversation as a parental responsibilities and rights opportunity to talk about why the foods we’re having are so good for us.I use descriptions relevant to my children’s lives.They may not be interested in a discussion of the interplay of phosphorus and calcium in soft drinks, especially when they’re too young to study chemistry.However, my competitive soccer players are very interested that carbonation robs their red blood cells of the ability to exchange oxygen–they are therefore more competitive than soda drinkers because they abstain.

A teenage, weight-lifting son might be interested to know that Bill Pearl was a vegetarian Mr. Universe.He’d be interested to know that Arnold Schwarzenegger said that while Bill didn’t convince him to become vegetarian, he did convince Arnold that a vegetarian can be a world-class bodybuilder.That leads into a conversation about proteins–which proteins lead to lasting muscle mass and why.

Parenting Skills for Young Children

My next week of blogging will be about one of my favorite topics, possibly the #1 question I am asked—and the one I care about most.   How do I get my kids to eat right?   That is, parenting skills for young children when it comes to food and nutrition.   These blogs are derived from the introduction of my program 12 Steps to Whole Foods.

Taking on the 12 steps in the program is a worthy goal for anyone, and you can make these changes whether or not you have children, and whether or not they live at home.   But one of my greatest passions in life is to help parents understand the importance of excellent nutrition early in life and implement strategies to achieve it.   So if you have children at home (or are close to people who do), this is for you.

I have found dieticians to be largely useless and sometimes harmful in the way they teach mothers about nutrition.   (I’m sure truth-seeking dieticians do exist, however.)   Keep in mind that these are the folks designing the menus in school and hospital lunchrooms.   (Enough said?)   It’s not their fault: they are taught curricula heavily influenced and even written by the wealthiest industries in America: the dairy and meat conglomerates.

My experience is that dieticians feel their main job is to push milk and dairy products, because they have been taught that these products create strong bones and teeth.   I spoke with a dietician recently who had never heard of the ingredients in my Appendix A (whole-food sweeteners and other nutrition products you can find in health food stores).   She taught in a class I attended that getting your child to drink “flavored” milk is a great idea. By that she means hormone- and antibiotic-contaminated milk with pink chemical dye and plenty of sugar added.   Dieticians also believe that to get protein, you need to eat plenty of animal flesh.

I have looked elsewhere for my own nutrition education and strongly recommend you do the same, to increase your nutrition-related parenting skills for young children.   I don’t advocate for vegetarianism, but rather for increasing whole plant foods in the diet.   But the most bioavailable sources of calcium for humans are not found in the milk of other animals.   And protein is manufactured and utilized by the human body very well when the range of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) in whole plant foods are supplied as fuel.   We need look no further than our vegetarian cousins, the primates, for evidence of this.

 [more tomorrow]

Avoid Soft Drinks

One of the most important statistics, I believe, related to the obesity epidemic, is this one:


Teen boys are drinking three times as much soda as they did 30 years ago, and teen girls are drinking more than double.   I hope parents will avoid soft drinks, because of two critical factors they may not be aware of:

First, almost half of peak bone mass develops during adolescence.   This is critical to development, because by our 30’s, bone is broken down faster than it is rebuilt, making that period of childhood and adolescence very important.

Second, soft drinks are very high in phosphorus, linked by many studies to robbing the bones of calcium.   Kids who drink sodas are four times as likely to break bones as those who don’t drink sodas.

Dr. James Beaty is president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.   He says, “There’s some early data showing that even a 10 percent deficit in your bone mass when you finish your adolescent years can increase your potential risk of having osteoporosis and fractures as much as 50 percent.”

 The first goal of my 12 Steps to a Whole Foods Lifestyle is to get the family to avoid soft drinks and start drinking green smoothies.   That way, you stop robbing your body of critical bone-building minerals, and start giving your body what it desperately needs in childhood and beyond.