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The Road to Clean Eating: On Empowering My Family with Healthier Food Choices

gwyneth-made-me-do-it-logochicken-fingersAsking kids to scale back on eating chicken fingers is akin to asking them to give up their pacifier, their favorite “lovey,” or even their best friend. At least in my household it was, anyhow. My 6-year-old son still mourns the loss of this fare, as evidenced by his response when his speech teacher asked him what makes for a good day. I could feel guilty, but he’s got all of adulthood to indulge in chicken fingers. Right now, though, feeding his growing body is my responsibility, and I decided last year to break our family’s weekly habit, along with noshing on other unsavory things. How did we come to this extreme decision, and how did I get there? It all started with a celebrity cookbook, and a whim.

I read a mocking review of Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Good in the early summer of 2013. I couldn’t help it — I was intrigued, so I decided to check out a copy from the library, not wanting to commit to purchasing it. Thirty pages in, I was hooked, and I had to admit that I was more than intrigued. I was inspired to try a new way of eating and cooking. Her recipes seemed approachable and non-fussy, and they made experimenting with vegan, gluten-free and even dairy-free recipes seem totally easy. So I began working on my eating habits, and after a few weeks, I felt so great, I was inspired to learn more.  That’s when the Gwyneth Made Me Do It Instagram account was born.

I created the account to chronicle my own food journeys, and the response I got was incredible. Not only were people interested in what I was doing, but others who had been eating healthfully for years were offering suggestions and encouragement to keep on going. I started to read food labels more closely and tried to unravel the tangled web of the U.S. food industry, and what I found was scary. It became glaringly obvious I couldn’t continue improving my health through diet modifications and still let my kids gobble up fast-food chicken fingers and bright-orange snack crackers on a daily basis.

The tipping point came when we were on a family road trip in August of last year. We were on our fifth or sixth day of travel, and although we had been very diligent about avoiding the drive-thru lane, we had eaten out on a daily basis, and my kids had eaten chicken nuggets every single day, sometimes twice a day, during our trip. As we were getting ready to order lunch, with the dismal kids menu in hand, they placed their orders, and I put my foot down. I asked the waitress to please bring them a chicken pot-pie to share instead, and then I resolved to set some ground rules.

In the middle of that restaurant, I told my kids that there would be no more chicken nuggets, fingers or strips from here on out. Or at least for a while. We all needed an intervention from them. We, as parents, allowed them to continue ordering them time after time, never even questioning their ingredients, because it was the easy thing to do.  While I certainly don’t think their diets were so bad that weekly chicken fingers were going to cause severe health problems, we also weren’t nourishing them as best as we could. We were, in a very small way, failing them in the nutrition category. And the kids had simply jumped on board, and as a result became somewhat addicted to them. Who can blame them, after all? Breaded and fried food tastes good! Especially to a kid’s limited palate. Not only were we not offering them the most nutritious food, but we also weren’t offering them any guidance as to how to to expand their horizons and broaden their taste palates. We were in a small family owned restaurant, renowned for its chicken pot pie, and my kids were not going to eat chicken fingers from a box.

That chicken fingers moment in that restaurant was a pivotal turning point for our family, on this road to clean eating.

My daughter, who’s 8 years old and is naturally more adventurous when it comes to food, took it in stride and happily gobbled up her chicken pot pie.

My 6-year-old son, on the other hand, threw a big huge tantrum in the restaurant, literally crying because he couldn’t eat chicken fingers. When your 2-year-old cries over something like that, it seems par for the course. But when it devastates your 6-year-old? Well, you know there’s a problem.

From that day on, I made a conscious decision to start sharing what I was learning about food, where our food comes from, nutrition, and the ill effects of a diet rich in processed foods. 

At that point, I had started writing the Gwyneth Made Me Do It column here on Babble, so I was learning a ton of information on a daily basis.  Not only was it my new hobby, but it was my job, and I shared the most relevant findings with my husband, in hopes of getting his full support on the matter.  It only took me a sending him a few choice articles about topics ranging from antibiotics in our meat, to the scary realities of fast food, for him to become just as committed as I was.

Those first few months of clean eating at home didn’t feel, or rather taste, all that different from before. I certainly cooked a lot more, and made many things from scratch that tasted just as good, if not better than their boxed or jarred counterparts. Dressings, sauces, and baked chickens were all just as delicious as before, so my kids didn’t really experience a big shift in what or how we were eating at home. I was a pretty decent cook to begin with, so switching out cuts of meat, different flours, or using coconut oil instead of canola oil didn’t raise too many eyebrows. The green juices were something they hesitantly tried but have now come to love.

The largest roadblocks came when it was time to dine out, and in large part, still do. We loved to eat out before, and in a typical week would eat out at least 3-4 times.  We’ve become a lot more selective about where we go, and what foods we all order.  The kids asked a lot of questions when we made this switch, and we had very open and honest discussions with them about our food choices, and how important they are to our health. We tailor the details to their level but explain how some processed foods are made, let them know the science behind the strange chemicals they put in some foods, and even talk about how some places use unhealthy meat from animals who probably weren’t treated all that great. We do our best to put the responsibility of food choices on them, through education, but of course every now and then we have to guide them. And every now and then, we do let them eat chicken fingers.

There are so many different concerns we have as parents that some days I wonder why I have chosen this to be one of my biggest crusades?  And then I remember how good — or bad — I feel when I eat a certain way.  I sleep better, my mood is better, and my stomach and overall digestion system feels and works better. Eating is the one human function we perform day in and day out, several times a day.  I already know I give my kids all the love they need, and we provide a pretty stable home for learning, offering ways for them to be creative and active. But the one area I was falling pretty short on, and that I have now come to realize is just as crucial, is the power and ability to take charge of their health. When they’re off and gone, studying away for finals in their dorm room, or cooking their first meals as married people, I hope they remember the things they’re learning right now, about nourishment and, ultimately, empowerment.

Babble’s teamed up with espnW to share even more inspirational stories on unleashing your inner champion. Find them all here.

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