Have you decided to transition your toddler or preschooler to paleolithic nutrition and are wondering where to start? Making any diet changes at this age has some special challenges. Aversion to unfamiliar food is hardwired into a child’s brains at this age. And when you add refusing to eat for days, temper tantrums until they puke or pass out, and/or restless sleep because they didn’t eat well at dinner into the mix, it can feel like an insurmountable challenge. I can speak from personal experience here: sometimes it feels like it just isn’t worth it.
But it is worth it. Children who follow paleolithic diets (or lacto-paleo diets with grass-fed dairy) tend to sleep better, tend to get sick less often, tend to pay attention in school better, tend to have more energy to play, and tend to have more even moods. So, where do you start?
Start with familiar foods: Focus on what foods your child already likes that are paleo or lacto-paleo. Does your child like raisins? bananas? While transitioning your child, offer these foods freely.
Next, look at “almost paleo” foods: What foods does your child love that can be easily made paleo with a simple ingredients switch can make a food paleo. Maybe it’s switching out almond butter for peanut butter. Maybe it’s switching to grass-fed meat and dairy. Maybe it’s using arrowroot starch/flour as a thickener instead of corn starch. Maybe it’s buying grass-fed no filler hot dogs (US Wellness Meats has 3 different kinds to choose from!). Does your child love meatballs or chicken fingers? The paleo versions are easy and taste great. My paleo muffin recipes also tend to be a hit because they just aren’t that different tasting from a wheat-flour based muffin. Whatever paleo versions of these foods you find that your child likes, offer them often.
Then, look at sorta familiar and new foods: By “sorta familiar” foods, I mean things that might be a bit harder to present as an old favorite, like paleo bread or paleo club crackers. They’re yummy but they also look a little different and taste different than the conventional version of these foods. Try them, don’t force them, and you might get lucky. Don’t make a battle out of the food, but try and encourage your child to taste it more than once. And as you are trying new paleo recipes for the family, offer them to your child (rather than relying on things you know they will eat). However you normally present meals, keep your rules the same (if you normally enforce a “eat what the rest of us are eating” rule or if you normally cook a different meal for your kids that you know they like), and don’t make a battle out of food.
Allow some wiggle room for gluten-free treats: Just like adults are allowed an occasional gluten-free cheat, so are kids. Maybe you want to buy some gluten-free waffles (my toddler loves the Trader Joe’s ones) or allow some mashed potatoes from time to time. This might increase the variety your child is eating and help you get through the transition.
Give kids choice: Children this age thrive on simple choices. Offer them 2 or 3 different things (but only foods you’re willing to give them). Depending on your child’s age and personality, you may need to offer foods right at meal time, meaning you’ll have to prepare food that might go into your fridge as leftovers. Or, you may be able to offer a choice before you start cooking (which is simpler from a food prep standpoint, but then your child may be choosing dinner for the whole family).
Don’t have foods you don’t want them to eat in the house: Purge your fridge, freezer and pantry of anything you don’t want your kids to eat. You decide where the line is. In my house, we have some gluten-free foods just for the kids (like Chex cereal and gluten-free waffles). It makes it a lot easier to refuse giving a specific food to your child if you just don’t have any.
Involve them at the grocery store and in the kitchen: This is similar to giving a child a choice of meals, but goes one step farther. Let your child put food into your shopping cart (maybe let them pick which apples to put in a bag, etc.). Maybe let your child pick out some new (paleo) foods that aren’t part of your family’s normal meals (maybe your child is attracted to the color of a melon you’ve never tried or thinks that the word halibut sounds funny). Let your child flip through (paleo) recipe books and suggest new recipes to try. Get your child to help you cook. Children generally show more interest in trying new foods when they’ve had a hand in choosing and preparing them.
Talk to them about food in simple, general terms: Depending on the age of your child, having some dialogue about family food choices can be very helpful. Keep it simple and undramatic. Please don’t say things like “gluten will kill you!” or “peanut butter will make you sick!”. You don’t need to scare them into eating this way! And a sensitive child may make leaps of logic that you aren’t anticipating (“Grampa eats bread so he’s going to die soon”). I try and focus on the positives “we eat these foods because they help make us grow up big, strong and healthy” or “we choose these foods because they’re better for our tummies” or “we choose these foods because they give us lots of energy and help our brains get extra smart”. Sometimes I just say “I learned to eat this way because it makes me feel so good and I want you to feel this good too!”.
Don’t make a big deal of Neolithic foods when you’re out of the house: Okay, let’s be specific here. I don’t mean that fast food is okay just because you are pressed for time. I mean that if your child wants a piece of birthday cake at a friend’s party or gets offered a piece of pizza at a playdate, don’t make a big deal of it (especially if you have no control over the food choices). As long as they don’t have allergies or strong food sensitivities, a little won’t hurt. When you can, keep it gluten-free. When you can’t, just do your best.