Getting Your Kids On Board–Toddlers & Preschoolers

February 25, 2012 in Categories: , by

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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 meatballschicken fingers, or fish sticks?  The paleo versions are easy and taste great.  My paleo muffins and cookies 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 (see all my bread recipes) or paleo crackers (see all my cracker recipes).  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.


Great advice!!!! I am in the transition process and have already made my own chicken tenders, breakfast sausage, and some other familiar foods paleo. I am slowly phasing out some of the processed neolithic foods. Right now mac & cheese and pizza is our special Friday night “family movie night” treat. I struggle with wanting them to be kids but also wanting the best for them nutritionally….

I understand the pain of transition! I prioritized getting my kids gluten free before recently starting on the other grains and legumes. Maybe you can at least switch out for gluten free mac&cheese (Trader Joe’s has one now, boxed) and gluten free pizza crust (some pizzerias carry that option or you can buy frozen gluten-free pizza crust or make you own)? I think if you could do that, you could keep your tradition of family night intact without worrying too much about the health implications! 🙂

Thank you! I have a 4 year old and a 2 year old. They eat just about everything we do, but they still have some milk/dairy products. The 2 year old is my “challenge”. I’d love to see a list of snack ideas or things you have in your home that they can always access. It seems like my girls want to eat ALL day! Awesome post!!

Thanks! I’ve been working on a Kid Snacks post for a while, broken down into categories like easy foods to have around the house vs portable foods vs foods that can live in your purse or car. I want to make sure it has as many ideas as I can think of before I post it, but I’m sure it’ll be ready in the next couple of weeks.

i found you from paleo parents. my family has been following paleo for about 6 months, not really coming across tips like you have to offer about the little ones. i have a 2 year old daughter and a 3 year old son. my daughter is all about eating fruits, veggies, and meats. she even turns down bread/pasta (i love it, even though i have never forced her!) my son on the other hand only prefers bread and pasta. uggh! you can’t win them all. i am going to try your tj’s gluten free recommendations. i am excited to come across and follow your paleo journey/blog. 🙂

Thanks for this post. Lots of good suggestions, and I think I’m doing the same approach. Question– is there any research that backs up the claim that kids on a paleo diet focus better in school, get sick less, etc? I know it makes sense to those of us that have experienced the benefits–but I’d love to see some research too.

There is some research done on gluten-free, casein-free diets in the context of autism. However, I think all the evidence for the benefits of paleo in kids is anecdotal (so far).

My oldest is extremely picky. When transitioning to paleo, I worked hard to present her with foods she liked and didn’t worry too much about the macronutrients (I started with the foods that she liked that were already paleo and worked from there). We also ate alot more paleo baking when we first transitioned compared to now. I always tried to get her to eat 2 bites of anything new. We slowly found more things that she liked. We’re still slowly discovering more foods that she likes (and I think her taste buds are finally starting to adjust). The hardest part with her has always been meat. She actually likes softer meats like liver compared to chewier meats. I’ve really had to remind myself to be patient and think about the long-term with her. I guess the most useful thing for us was persistence without making it a battle. I hope this helps!

I’ve only just discovered paleo. I’m in Australia and we just don’t have the range of food options that you guys do. e.g. No raw milk.
I’m unsure as to what to do about my cow’s-milk-drinking 2.5 year old…. I don’t know if coconut milk is the way to go, and I’d like to keep butter and cheese in her diet.
The hardest one, though, is BREAD…. Especially since so-called paleo bread is apparently not really paleo… it’s very discouraging! :\

Hi. I’m also in Australia (Melbourne) and I have a 2.5 year old as well. I try to keep him paleo-ish (well, probably more “primal” since he has dairy) when we’re at home, and try not to think about what he’s being fed at the grandparents’ house or daycare centre… lol!

I’ve found that I’m usually able to pick up raw milk (sometimes labelled “bath milk”) at health food stores. Sometimes they even have raw cream, although that is rarer (but presumably they could order it). There is also one farmer’s market where i can buy raw milk.

If I can get my hands on raw cream I use it to make my own raw butter. Otherwise I just try to buy whatever organic butter I can find – at least it will be from clean, grass-fed cows. I get organic cheese when I can, but we like vintage cheddar and it’s hard to source so sometimes we buy supermarket brands. I dream of one day making my own raw milk cheese, but haven’t attempted that yet.

Thankfully my son is young enough that he doesn’t miss bread. When he is given sandwiches at daycare or grandma’s he welcomes them as a treat, but he doesn’t ask for them at home. Kids are very adaptable at this age, and very good at understanding that there are different rules for different locations.

Good luck!

Thanks so much for this! We are just beginning to transition our boys (almost 4 and almost 2). Some of your tips are things I wouldn’t have thought of – you make easing them in sound so much more pleasant than our experience has been so far. Just started reading your blog after listening to The Paleo View podcast. I’m loving both.

Maybe you can help me some – my husband and I have switched to paleo recently, but it’s going well. Hoping to get the kids on board soon. They are 9, 6 and 6. I think I can get the 9 and of the 6’s on board with some prodding, but it can be doable. The other 6 yr old however, is my concern.
He is medicated for ADHD and he also shows several behaviors on the spectrum, we call it aspergers, but haven’t talked to a doctor about it yet. I think he could really benefit from the paleo diet however, in connection to the aspergers, he is crazy picky with what he will eat.
Literally, he will eat either a tortilla shell, an english muffin or a slice of bread topped with cheese and either nuked or grilled. He will eat chicken nuggets McDonalds or other breaded style, and he will eat hotdogs. That truly sums up his diet. Anything outside of that box is a MASSIVE battle. I wish I could write Massive larger.
How do I get a kid like that to agree to eat meat and veggies and fruit and give up his bread/cheese completely? He would choose to starve himself here at home and then would gorge on whatever he could get at Grandmas, school, etc. I feel so stuck, because as I said I think he could benefit the most from the diet change.

My oldest is also very picky and really doesn’t like food. Her staple was cheese and club crackers before we went paleo. Paleo baking helped tremendously. Paleo bread especially (I have several recipes). I also have a recipe for paleo chicken fingers, which is still the only meat that she eats without any prodding. Oh, and grass-fed hotdogs (I buy applegate farms which Whole Foods and some other grocery stores carry, US Wellness meats also sells good grass-fed hotdogs). It’s been a long road, but some things are easier. She eats fruit relatively well and some veggies. She eats eggs, fish and softer meats (like anything made with ground meat) relatively well (usually some prodding required). We’re still not where I want to be, but it’s a vast improvement.

I recommend focusing on what he does like, which sounds like hotdogs and chicken nuggets (there’s lots of paleo recipes for nuggets out there). And then see how much you can branch out… maybe some meatballs or sausage. Present veggies and fruit and see what he eats. Try some paleo baking. I would also see if you can make sure that he stays gluten free (ideally gluten free casein free for spectrum kids) when you’re out of the house. It’s a fairly well recognized diet for spectrum kids so it should be difficult to get a doctor on board and writing notes if you need one.

And as hard as it is, try and be patient and think long term. A slow change will probably be more lasting (and easier). Good luck!

I found this post–and your blog–by doing a google search on paleo for kids. I have a 21 month old boy who has had ongoing stomach problems and an eczema-like rash (despite eliminating all environmental triggers). Our pediatrician keeps saying it’s normal but my mom gut tells me otherwise. I have decided to do an elimination diet to see if I can the culprit, starting with grain then I’ll move to dairy. Could you suggest a milk substitute? I understand coconut or almond milk don’t have the nutrients found in milk, like calcium. I know some foods dense on some of those nutrients but I’m looking specifically for a drink alternative. Thanks in advance and you have a new follower!

Hello! I was just wondering if you have any tips for a parent like myself, that is really making a STRONG effort to move to completely Paleo at home, we are nearly there, but are definitely Gluten Free now, however, my oldest daughter is from a previous relationship and so she is off to her Dad’s on the weekends and the life style over there is pretty far from Paleo or Gluten Free. In fact, most weekends she doesn’t eat a SINGLE fruit or veggie! And I’m at a loss! I do the best at home, but I can only do so much. She is 8 and well aware of our family change at home but she craves the junk and every single weekend comes home with a tummy ache. So, any suggestions on how to curb those cravings and maybe detox?

Thanks in advance!

Is there a paleo egg replacement? I have a 2 yr old with egg and nut allergies but am trying to go paleo. I can avoid nuts but there are many things that require eggs and I don’t know what to replace them with. Thanks!!

Any thoughts on children with autoimmune disorders? My 5 year old son has a kidney disease (nephrotic syndrome) and is currently taking prednisone and on a SAD. My husband, other two kids and myself currently eat gluten free and my daughter is also dairy free. I’m familiar with Paleo and willing to try it but AIP sounds difficult for dedicated adults let alone 5 year old boys who is eating chocolate to cover the horrible taste of prednisone…. Im also considering IGg testing for food sensitivities for him.
I’m eagerly awaiting the release of your book.

Thank You!

What do u think of breads made with the gluten free flour like “better batter flour”? I know it’s not paleo….. But it’s not wheat…… And I can never get a paleo bread to be more than an inch thick lol

I will occasionally let my kids have gluten-free, dairy-free baked goods. I notice that their behavior gets pretty atrocious if they have it too often, but they seem to tolerate it well as an occasional treat.

I am so appreciative of this post as I’ve been wanting to transition to paleo as a mom! I do have one question-what are your thoughts on eating paleo while breastfeeding? or maybe a modified version? are there benefits to doing this or would it be taking away from some of the fundamental nutritional building blocks needed to produce a good amount of breast milk or for the baby to consume?

You should always check with your doctor before making any major changes. It should not be a problem to eat a Paleo diet as long as you are eating an adequate amount of a variety of foods (starch, fats, protein, vegetables, fruits, etc). You may be interested in joining The Paleo Approach Community on Facebook, it’s a great place for support. — Tamar, Sarah’s assistant

[…] ThePaleo Mom, aka Dr. Ballentyne, says that “Children who follow paleolithic diets . . . 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,” she wrote in a  blog post. […]

Your website is awesome!!!!!! Congrats! I’m on paleo diet for two months already and I learned about the AIP and we (as a family) started it 2 days ago but for my 18 months little girl is really rough. I’ve hashimoto and off course gluten sensitive, my daughter is also gluten sensitive and she has every week stomach ache with painful gases. That’s why I decided that she needs the AIP, she’s very uncomfortable with the snacks that I’m giving her, she didn’t like the coconut banana cookies neither the coconut breadsticks. She rejects to eat chicken and sweet potato that she use to love it!!!!! And only wants fruit!!!!! But on the protocol only 20 grs are allowed. So far so good she hasn’t pain and her bowel movement is better! In just 2 days!!!! What do you recommend? She never was picky with food, she used to open the mouth for everything!!!! She used to drink almond milk every day also and I tried the coconut milk and didn’t like it. Don’t know what to do!!!

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