Getting kids to eat healthy food is one of the great challenges of parenting. Changing how they eat once some sort of routine is established is tantamount to torture (both for the kids and for the parents!). Changing my kids’ diet was probably the most intimidating challenge I have faced as a parent (and no, I am not looking forward to their teen years) and the process has been a roller-coaster ride of triumph, defeat, set-backs, frustration, tears, laughter, and discovery.
I started this transition by first focusing on finding Paleo foods that my kids like (especially my oldest who is ridiculously picky), while simultaneously phasing out gluten-containing foods (my first priority). This worked for treats really well because my kids love Paleo muffins and cookies. This didn’t work as well for replacing breakfast cereal or crackers or car foods. For those things, we tried to just get used to not eating them anymore. My oldest used to each cheese and crackers for at least one meal per day. Now, she gets some meat or fish, vegetables and fruit instead. Now, our only car food is raisins (except for longer, special trips, in which case bananas and bags of nuts make an appearance). I have tried to focus on making foods they like, but also slowly adjusting their taste buds to enjoy less sweet foods. I have tried to do this as gradually and nicely as possible, but with my oldest some very firm lunch and supper rules were required.
So, what foods helped the transition and what do my kids eat? Breakfast was a huge challenge. Neither of my girls are super fond of eggs (although my youngest will eat them if she isn’t presented with them too often). My oldest doesn’t even like bacon! Initially, we moved to Chex cereal for my oldest and Trader Joe’s gluten free waffles for my youngest. At least they were gluten free, which was my initial goal. But, I hated that this low protein breakfast left my oldest child with a blood sugar dip that typically resulted in whiney and emotional behaviors and left my youngest child hungry an hour later. Two recipes saved the day. For my youngest, it was the waffle recipe from Eat Like a Dinosaur. She now gets to eat grain-free waffles for breakfast with substantially more protein, good fats and fiber that keep her full and energetic for much longer. For my oldest, it was my Cinnamon “French Toast” Flat Bread recipe (well, the 6th iteration of it, anyway) that finally won her over and is now her favorite breakfast (both girls love it and I make two batches a week!). This breakfast noticeably improved my oldest’s energy and general behavior (at least in the morning). I still try to present eggs about twice per week, but feel much more comfortable with these higher-protein, grain-free options.
When we first started the transition to Paleo (or lacto-Paleo, which was my initial goal), typical snacks involved cheese, yogurt, Paleo muffins or Paleo cookies, and occasionally fresh fruit. We have evolved away from these sweeter snacks and now my children typically eat fresh fruit, raisins or dried cranberries, nuts, coconut chips, nut butters (usually on a spoon) and date squares (like my recipe for Chocolate Date Squares but I typically make them without chocolate now). My youngest will even eat some jerky. My oldest does sometimes still get cheese with her snack. Yogurt has found its way into “dessert” classification. The gluten-free treats like rice cakes, rice crackers, and popcorn that we relied on initially are no longer an option. Lunch typically consists of a natural, nitrite-free lunch meat or canned fish, some raw veggies and some fruit. My oldest still likes her meat in sandwich form with two large slices of cheese substituting for the bread. Yogurt often follows lunch. Supper consists of some kind of meat or fish, several different vegetables and usually one type of fruit. We try to eat organ meat twice per week, which the girls seem relatively indifferent to.
I have worked very hard to enforce the rule that the kids eat what we are all eating, that they have to eat at least a little of everything on their plate, that they have to eat all of their meat or fish, and I don’t bribe with dessert. Changing to this rule was absolutely the hardest part, especially with my oldest (it actually made things much easier with my youngest who likes food and will eat most things but feeds off the cues of my oldest). Supper still seems like a struggle most nights. We discovered that the best enforcement of this rule was to not allow my oldest to be excused until her meat is finished and she has eaten a good portion of her veggies. My youngest is in that stage where sitting still is boring. She typically eats half her meal, goes off to play, and then strolls in for a bite here and there while the rest of us finish our meals. My oldest doesn’t seem bothered by the double standard, so we’re not worrying about it. For a while, we had to use a timer in order to get my oldest to eat her supper. We would set it for 10 minutes and tell her that whatever time she took beyond that would come out of her play time before bed. I felt horrible giving her this ultimatum and engaging in a food battle with her (this is what all the experts say NOT to do!), but it seems to have worked. After a while, just threatening to bring out the timer was enough to get her to eat. And for each of the last three nights, she has eaten her supper immediately upon sitting up at the table, without complaint and without attempting negotiation.
So, are my girls Paleo? Yes, I think they qualify as lacto-Paleo now. They are grain-free, except for the occasional treat of a bowl of Chex cereal or rice at supper (they both love wild rice especially). I don’t plan to buy any more Chex or rice, so those treats will eventually no longer occur. Avoiding legumes was actually quite easy as both my girls like almond butter and neither complained when I stopped making edemame. We all eat good fats and high quality meat and a variety of fruits and vegetables. And the quantity of refined sugar that my girls eat is very low. When I started this venture, I was undecided about removing dairy from their diets. Only recently did I decide that going dairy-free should be the next challenge (more on this in my next post). When I think back to how my kids ate just 6 months ago, I am completely amazed at how much progress we have made. And I stand by my choice to tackle this transition gradually. For my girls, it’s working.