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.”

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.

Childhood health care advice

Some say, “Well, you must just not have picky kids like I do.” In fact, three of my four kids tried out “picky,” and the youngest two would be insufferably “picky” if I allowed it. Only one of my children has happily slurped up vegetables since infancy. But they are, at this point, all very “good eaters,” as the saying goes.

The natural consequences of skipping a meal are hunger pains. It’s not abuse to provide no options to a nutritious meal besides skipping it. I have some childhood health care advice for you. Contrary to the strange traditions you see all around you, you have no obligation as a parent to provide a junk-food alternative to the family meal. The natural consequences of eating a few bites of zucchini are that you then get to eat the rest of the meal that you like better. Trust in natural consequences as a teacher. They’re “natural” if they’re the family rules. Parents have the prerogative to create consequences. Before the mac-n-cheese, junk-food era, agricultural communities had these family rules for thousands of years: one meal was served, and everyone ate it or had to wait until the next meal. You’ll spare yourself grey hair and a lot of irritation and drama if you adopt this simple rule.

You might also incorporate what my mom did: we were allowed to have one food we absolutely refused to eat. One, not two–and certainly not 90 percent of foods, like many of the kids I know. Most of us had the same food we loathed: spinach souffle. (Some of my brothers chose mushrooms as their won’t-eat food.) My mother raised eight children who will eat virtually anything.

Many parents allow each child to eat his or her own separate, customized meal. I believe this is an outgrowth of modern dieticians, pediatricians, and parenting publications always talking about offering your toddler or small child “options.” As in, offer them a bowl of processed mac-n-cheese, or a bowl of steamed broccoli. Modern parenting theory says that you should just keep offering the options, hoping that one day, the child’s natural instinct will be towards the broccoli (while otherwise eating white flour and processed cheese for years). I wonder how many hundreds of pounds of broccoli you will throw away (or eat yourself) attempting to follow this advice.

This theory and advice is worthless on many levels, and I’ll mention just three. First, when we have given children a taste for processed food by serving it regularly, any desires for natural foods change and often diminish. Sugar, for instance, is the most addictive substance on the planet, more addictive than cocaine, according to several studies. Those addictions and unnaturally altered tastes lead a child to make poor choices, most of the time.

Second, a small child does not have the wisdom and judgment to make good food choices. He knows only what tastes good, not what his body needs. Once one of my university students gave a presentation on nutrition and asked the class, “When you were 8 years old, given the choice, would you have chosen a piece of Chuck E Cheese pizza, or a plate of fruit?” One hundred percent of the class, myself included, raised their hands for the pizza. This is why God, in His infinite wisdom, gave children parents.

Third, the past two generations have been the first in history where this idea of “options” came into vogue, especially where junk food is usually one of those “options.” I trust in the wisdom of history and tradition: encouraging children to have tantrums, express an opinion about every food, and demand that parents go running to find something else is unwise counsel.

Catering to every child’s likes and dislikes can be an exercise in frustration and burnout for a mom, and it’s just a bad habit to get into. Young parents may not realize what the fruits of indulging “picky” will be. I may not be popular for saying what follows, but I’m going to do it anyway. If you allow your children to say no to nutritious foods now, you will spend hundreds of hours in your future making separate meals for each of them–preparing several different meals takes so much longer than just one. Do that today, and I promise that your child will absolutely demand it tomorrow. My alternative childhood health care advice is that you will also feel guilty and wonder what the difference good nutrition would have made, should your child encounter any of the many health problems caused by a modern diet of processed food. It’s not worth it.

Teach Children About Healthy

Nutrition is no different than any other topic, and we have to teach children about healthy.   Would you allow your 9-year old to opt out of her least favorite subjects in school—say, math and science?   Just quit, not participate at all from kindergarten to high school graduation?   Why would we knowingly allow our children to opt out of the most important food groups they need for growth, development, energy, and disease prevention?   Yet this is what most parents do: they leave all food choices to the child, and throw up their hands, saying, “She just won’t eat any vegetables!”

As parents who embrace being in charge, you can certainly be your child’s friend, just as long as you know that you’re a parent-leader first—and sometimes your child will resist the structure you provide and even not “like” you for a short period of time.   I avoid fighting with my children about food, and I use firm but positive phrases, with a smile, such as, “This is what we’re having tonight,” or, “I’m sorry this isn’t your favorite–sometimes we have to try something a few times before it appeals to us.”   Or, “I think you’ll like this better mixed into your salad—you’re welcome to have a small helping.”  

Sometimes I point out that I don’t always get to eat my favorite foods every night, but if I did, they probably wouldn’t be my favorite foods any more.   To drive these points home, and teach about nutrition on a level even a young child will understand, I read two of my favorite books to my children about food choices:   Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, and The Children’s Health Food Book by Ron Seaborn.

I don’t plead, beg, guilt trip, wheedle, cajole, or whine at my children about food, and I don’t reward those behaviors in them, either.   The rules are clear (after you state and enforce them the first 20+ times): they can have what is served or skip the meal.   They rarely, if ever, choose to skip a meal after that initial period of testing limits.   Teach children about healthy!

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]

Throw Away Your Television

With more than one-third of America’s children overweight, we have TV to thank (more importantly, our choice to indulge in it).   Throw away your television (or at least leave it mostly off) for two reasons.

One, kids are burning fewer calories because they aren’t exercising while they watch hours of TV.   Most parents remember childhood being about riding bikes and playing sports.   Today’s kids spend an average of four hours a day watching TV or videos, almost 2 hours listening to music, and at least an hour on the computer.   Although some of that time overlaps (kids doing two things at once), none of them involve stretching either the muscles or the brain.

Two, while they’re watching all that TV, they’re being bombarded with their favorite characters such as SpongeBob and Shrek selling burgers and fries, Skittles, and Pop Tarts.   Kids aged 2 to 7 see 12 food ads a day–that’s 4,400 per year, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.

It’s not that hard to get kids off soda.   And it’s not that hard to control their TV watching, either.   Parents can and should set limits–it’s not exclusively the schools’ job.   We have to compensate for funding cuts that mean that gym classes are becoming the exception rather than the rule.   When they get home from school, they should be moving their bodies, doing something they like so they learn that being fit is fun, not a chore.

A contributing factor to kids’s bones bowing and breaking at skyrocketing rates is that fewer than one-quarter of them are getting enough calcium–and what they do get is robbed by the massive amount of phosphorus in soft drinks.   But also, you need Vitamin D to absorb calcium and harden bones.   And kids certainly aren’t outside getting Vitamin D from the sun.   They’re inside on the computer, playing video games, and watching TV.

Finally, setting an example is critical.   Obesity expert Dr. Bob Whitaker at Temple University says, “‘Do as I say, not as I do’ didn’t work with smoking and it won’t work with exercise and eating either.   If you want your children to be healthy and fit, you must live the lifestyle, too.”   We might start with this simple step: throw away your television, or at least turn it off a lot more.

Childhood Obesity Facts

Before I go on to list some sobering childhood obesity facts, here’s the one that hits me hardest:


Yale University found that overweight children are routinely teased and bullied by peers and even teachers and parents.   That’s now 35 percent of all kids, half of whom qualify as obese.   The Yale study concludes that “obese children had quality-of-life scores comparable with those of children with cancer.”

Clearly, buying your child a treat every time you’re at the store, eating fast food a couple of times a week, and stocking your home with high-fat, sugary snacks is hurting your kids in more ways than physically.

It’s not “baby fat.”   It’s FAT.   It leads to a lifetime of health (not to mention emotional) problems.   Many of these kids have atherosclerosis—hardened arteries full of plaque.   Overweight children have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight adults.   And I believe that statistic will rise without major societal change, since we haven’t yet tested fully what will happen with this generation of overweight children, never before seen in history.

The U.S. spends $177 billion on obesity-related health care.   That’s $0.83 of every health care dollar.   No surprise when obesity is the primary cause of cardiovascular disease, our top killer.   Then, of course, we have the meteoric surge in diabetes, also related to obesity.   What happens in 10-20 years, when these “childhood obesity facts” are adults in the health-care system?

My next blog: what effect just one factor—SODA DRINKING—has on all this.   Because if you feel overwhelmed by all the ways your child’s health (physical AND emotional) is at risk–at school, social events, and at home–simply having a talk about soda and getting the whole family off it could make a huge difference.

Freebie composting

We’ve had a beautiful  Indian summer in Utah, and the last couple of weeks, I’ve come home from my Saturday run past my neighbors bagging their leaves.   I asked them to drop the bags off at my house instead of the dump, and we layered them in our compost boxes as the “brown” layer to mix in with the “green.”

 I’m told that grass clippings and leaves, mixed together, will break down and become perfect mulch in a matter of weeks.   Also, you can poke holes in the bags of leaves and leave them over the winter, because the rain and snow will get in the holes, but so will air, letting them decompose.   Mindy told me today that you can put PVC pipe with holes in it sticking out of your compost pile, to help it get air.

We almost had a very nice dead goldfish, Emma’s longtime pet, Bob, in our compost.   Unfortunately, this conversation ensued upon Bob’s death today:

Me: Bob might not be dead, but he’s on his way there.   You don’t want him to die slowly, do you?   I don’t think that’s what he’d want.

Emma (looking at me with horror): But he’s not dead yet!   You’re not going to put him in the compost pile, are you?   The dogs might eat him.

Me: You know, most vegetarians would love the idea of dust-to-dust, ashes-to-ashes, Bob becoming part of the circle of life.   He would be part of the earth, contributing to nutrients that feed our family someday.   Remember when we went to the Plymouth village in Boston last year?   All the native Americans putting a dead fish in each hole where they were planting corn?   That’s how they got great corn.

Emma (testy now):   That’s not why I’m a vegetarian.   I don’t care about that.   HEY!   What did you do with my LAST fish that died, Nemo?

Me:   Put it in the compost pile, I think.

Emma:   You did WHAT!!??   You didn’t!

Me:   Okay.   I didn’t, then.

Nutrition activity for kids

Need a nutrition activity for  kids?    Have them watch  my new  three-minute  green smoothie  demo on YouTube.   If you like it, give me five stars so I can bump out all those weird and totally inferior green smoothie demos.   :-)

I wonder how fast YOU could do it if you weren’t talking the whole time like I was.   Set your kids loose in the kitchen with your BlendTec (see greensmoothiegirl.com for the actual recipe allowing for lots of variety,  7 reasons why BlendTec is the best blender, and a deal with freebies on that blender if you don’t have one).   Tell  the kids  you’ll—I  dunno, give them a sticker on their forehead or something—for making a green smoothie and drinking it.   They will  drink it, I swear.   Extra agave/honey/stevia and extra berries is the key to converting them in the beginning.

A Halloween tip for moms

My kids have all the usual fun trick or treating.   I wouldn’t deny them that.   Then, when they get home, I bribe them.   Twenty bucks buys a big bag of sugar from each kid, which then gets upended into the  garbage in the garage or handed out en masse to those scary teenagers  who show up after 9 p.m.   Best money you’ll ever spend.   And the kids are happy when they get to buy fun stuff at WalMart the next day, stuff that lasts longer than a sugar rush.