Can kids benefit from paleolithic nutrition? Of course they can! Maybe even more so than adults because their food habits and associations are just starting to form. Plus, gluten and the other lectins in grains and legumes can be even more damaging to a child’s immature digestive tract than to an adult’s. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids is crucial for brain development. And of course, a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables provides all the vitamins and minerals a growing child needs. In fact, a paleo diet is more nutritionally dense than any other diet.
If you found paleolithic nutrition prior to having children, then you have a wonderful opportunity to start your baby off with outstanding nutrition. Avocado is an excellent first food as are banana, sweet potatoes, squash, applesauce, and egg yolk (see this post for more information about Paleo baby foods, and when to introduce specific foods). If you are trying to transition an older child to paleolithic foods, then you’re probably experiencing some of the frustrations that I am (my oldest is exceptionally picky and it’s hard to say no to my youngest if I let my oldest eat cheese and crackers). But any improvement to your child’s nutrition will benefit them, so keep trying and be patient.
Try your best, but also give yourself a break. Your child’s diet does not need to be perfectly paleo. In an ideal world, you would provide a 100% paleolithic diet at home. You would probably allow all the gray area foods (well, obviously not alcohol or caffeine!) and limit refined sugars while not worrying about carbohydrates (especially from fruit and starchy vegetables). But what happens when your child goes to a birthday party? Birthday cake, cookies and ice cream are a rite of passage for a child and I don’t believe in depriving our children of those experiences. What happens if your child goes to a school with a mandatory lunch program? Hopefully there will at least be a gluten-free option that you can sign your child up for. Do you worry about your child eating pizza at a playdate? I think it’s important to do whatever we can to raise our children with optimal nutrition but also with a healthy, not obsessive, attitude toward food. Let’s not make a big deal out of those occasional treats, but also strive toward a tasty, healthy variety of paleo foods at home. Of course, do be aware of whether your child is extra sensitive to those occasional exposures to neolithic foods. Most kids will be okay, but trust your instincts.
Now, what about dairy? This is a tricky one. While many paleo enthusiasts are adamant that dairy should not be included in our diets, there is also evidence that children need milk proteins until at least the age of 5. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view because prehistorically (and indeed until only the last hundred years or so), children were breastfed until at least 3 or 4 years old, and often older. In our current society, this is rare (I am a strong supporter of breastfeeding but both my girls still weaned shortly after turning 2). So supplementing a child’s diet with dairy seems like a good idea (this is what we would call a lacto-paleo diet or a primal diet). But, how can you avoid the gut irritants found in commercially available pasteurized cow’s milk? Cultured dairy tends to be better, so try to stick to yogurt and kefir (whole fat is better too). Even better is yogurt from grass-fed cows, which is pretty easy to find these days (Whole Foods has a few different options). Your local farmer’s market may have raw cheese from grass-fed cows too (and I’ve heard that Trader Joe’s has a pastured cheddar). Goat’s milk and goat’s milk products are also a good choice because they tend to be less problematic, and are very easy to find these days. Many paleo enthusiasts believe in giving their children raw milk (again, ideally from grass-fed cows or goats). While the nutritional quality is higher and the milk contains many beneficial enzymes, you really need to know where your raw milk is coming from, especially about the health of the cows. Remember that unpasteurized milk was the main source of tuberculosis just a century ago. I am still researching this as an option for my family, and am not at a point where I can recommend it across the board.
Please see this section of my blog that is dedicated to posts about feeding babies and kids, and other topics for Paleo families. I hope that the blog posts in this section will provide you with ideas, moral support and also recipes to help you transition your children to paleolithic nutrition.