If you knew that eating an ice cream cone would cause your child to die that day of heart disease, would you not give it to them?
I will miss many things when the girls leave the nest.
Kitchen island conversations while making dinner are at the top of my list. They’ll walk in and strike up a conversation – venting about schoolwork or checking plans.
Sometimes they play with the dog and talk to her more than me, or sometimes they take a vegetable knife and start chopping in silence. I just love that they’re there (because sometimes they’re on the couch, fiddling with their phones!) I also love the car rides, as it seems like that’s where the really good stuff comes out. We’ve had some defining moments on the road – declarations, frustrations, hopes and dreams. Keep talking kids, I’m all ears.
Last night, on the way home, Belle was giving me a grocery list of snacks: cheese sticks, jerky, and grapes. She put herself on a sugar free month after freaking out a little over Easter – I swear I didn’t instigate this!
She’s become a good self-regulator lately. I asked her what was helping her make these healthy decisions and she said, “That’s when you relaxed the rules and gave us more freedom. Sometimes I ate sugar not because I wanted to but because I thought it was my only chance and I should eat it while I could.” Damn.
It was a little hard to hear because I would like to think that my education as a mother regarding nutrition was perfect. In reality, I’ve been learning as I go. Isn’t that motherhood in a nutshell?
When the kids were younger, I definitely held onto sugar a lot. To be honest, I saw it as a health and safety issue. I couldn’t understand why people would wear helmets and seat belts but allow their kids to have an unlimited amount of trash. I reasoned that more people were dying from lifestyle-related illnesses than from traffic accidents. Why don’t we want to avoid that too?
But …. there is the issue of immediacy. If you knew that eating ice cream would make your child die instantly, you wouldn’t give it to him. Instead, we have to navigate a food environment that is cumulatively unhealthy. We have to make short-term decisions with long-term impact – and it’s hard! It is very easy, cheap and socially acceptable to eat garbage. On the other hand, it’s often too difficult or expensive to make the healthy choice, and sometimes people will tease you for doing it (or at least tempt you for the less healthy option they’re also having… people feel less guilty of their choices when they have a company).
Ultimately, there is a balance to be found, and as my children have grown, I have given them much more freedom to find that balance on their own. They had the education and knowledge to make healthy choices; I had to give up control and see what they did. The result? There was definitely more rubbish than I’d like. They are capable of tormenting me with hideous slushy or blue push pop (my stupid buttons)! But then I saw self-regulation coming. I found that at home they would look for the healthiest snacks or order “a smoothie plate” (which is what they call a fruit and veg tray) after going out to parties or brunch or general overindulgence.
I think it was too restrictive when they were younger? Perhaps. They got off to a pretty healthy start and I don’t know how it would have gone if we’d done differently, but Belle’s description of eating sugar because she thought it might be her only opportunity – that was a wake-up call for sure. I’m sharing this not because I know what the right solution is (and I suspect it might be different for every child and family), but because the insight is often helpful.
Regardless, there were a few key things that definitely worked in our favor when it comes to establishing healthy eating habits at home. I have listed them below in case they are useful for you as well. If you’ve been a little strict with the nutritional rules, this might help you relax the reins a bit. Or he’ll give you tons of ways to build a healthier home if you feel like you haven’t been tight enough! Anyway, I hope you find it useful. And to all the moms out there, happy Mother’s Day. Let’s keep learning as we go!
Healthy habits at home
1, Create a supportive environment
It’s much easier to say “we don’t have it” than “you can’t have it”. If it’s there, don’t blame the kids if they bug you about it. Humans are designed to crave energy-dense sources of carbohydrates, to be able to overeat them and store the excess as fat. This worked brilliantly when we were hunter-gatherers swinging between food abundance and food scarcity. It backfires now, when we have the same biology but a different environment. Experienced food shortages lately?! So try to keep sugary or fried options (ice cream, chips) mostly out of the house and save them for restaurant or outing occasions.
2, have a limited amount of garbage
At the same time, having some junk food around can come in handy. Having some chips and crackers available helps teach self-regulation and balance. But buy a small amount during the weekly shop, and when it runs out, it’s gone. If there is a discrepancy between how quickly family members eat or drink these items and if that seems unfair, you can always divide the items into bags or baskets for each person. I have some clients who do this for their kids and it works like a charm.
3, try to make treats from scratch
If you want cookies or cake, try making them from scratch instead of buying them. There’s so much satisfaction in creating something on your own, and – if you can handle the chaos in the kitchen – it can be a good match too. By adding flour, eggs, sugar, etc., it’s a good opportunity to talk about what these ingredients are and what they do (or don’t do) for our bodies. You can talk about choosing healthier flours or fats, or using natural dyes for decorations too. Tip: try making a small batch to enjoy that day, but don’t leave too much. Remember that supportive environment!
4, Try cooking meals together too
It’s tempting to stick to baking, but teaching kids how to make a meal from scratch is an amazing life skill and something you’ll find they’ll do again and again when they’re older. My mother was a wonderful teacher and I went to university knowing the basics. So yes, I ate my fair share of crap, but I also regularly cooked bolognese, stir-fry and roast chicken. I will always be grateful for that.
5, Keep yourself well stocked with healthy snacks
We’ve talked about what NOT to have, but we all know that kids – especially growing teenagers – can be insatiable. Having snacks is probably a must, but keeping tons of healthy options close by will really help. Try explaining that adding protein to a snack is important for supporting muscle growth and sustaining energy release. This is very useful for improving how they feel on a day-to-day basis, but also for increasing things like sports performance and concentration in class (or homework). If they have fruit, encourage them to eat nuts too. Belle loves frozen grapes (great for older kids who don’t choke) and tolerates pistachios. She also loves biltong – which is a much healthier alternative to those weird meat sticks at the gas station! Organic cheese sticks are good. Plain organic Greek yogurt is naturally high in protein and you can add fruit or a low sugar granola (try KIND or Made Good) with a few extra nuts/seeds. Fresh vegetables with hummus/guacamole work well. If you have an older teen who enjoys making protein shakes, a quality brand is a must. My favorite is Miles’ Garden of Life Organic Sport brand (whey or plant based). For a younger child, you can add protein to a smoothie with Greek yogurt, collagen, nut butter and/or ground seeds (eg Linwoods mix from Miles’ baking section).
Catherine Burns is a fully qualified clinical nutritionist. She can be reached at 291-4725, [email protected], Facebook or Instagram