Raising Healthy Eaters, By Letting Kids Still Be Kids

gwyneth-made-me-do-it-logophoto(1)Long before Gwyneth got me on this journey to clean eating, I’ve always done my best to cook nutritious meals for my family — and tried my best to get my picky eaters to eat as well-rounded as possible. My husband and I have often joked that we never wanted our kids to be the ones bringing their own vegan cake to their friend’s birthday party. So more often than not, we gave in to their requests for chicken nuggets, cake, and candy whenever the occasion arose, which turns out to be very often when you’re a kid. Between birthday parties, time spent with well-meaning grandparents, play dates, and summer camps, to be perfectly honest, a lot more crap is going into my kids’ mouths than I ever thought I’d reasonably allow. It turns out, being conscious of your kids trying to eat nutritiously is a lot easier in theory than in practice.

Since I’m trying to do a better job of eating cleaner by cutting out dairy, red meat, processed foods, and pre-packaged meals, I naturally want to do the same for my kids. At home, when I’m in charge of what goes on their dinner plates, it’s relatively easy. We very much have the policy of you eat what I cook or you don’t eat — it’s your choice. Of course I try to make some reasonable accommodations for my son, who is ridiculously picky, by setting aside portions of chicken/fish and grains without sauces or garnish, because he likes things so plain. But overall, I don’t get in the habit of making separate meals for different family members.

But when we’re out in the real world, getting my kids to eat healthy and encouraging them to make good choices is very difficult. We’ve been on a road trip for a week now, and after our 3rd day of traveling, I’m pretty sure they had eaten their weight in chicken fingers. So when I decided that I was so done with the chicken fingers, I made the suggestion that we eat at a great vegan restaurant I had heard about when we were spending the day in San Francisco. The kids, and my husband, all looked at me like I had three heads, and I was immediately shut down. We ended up eating clam chowder out of huge bread bowls down at Fisherman’s Wharf. And they were as happy as clams.

Later on, I explained to my husband how I was feeling, and that it was important to me that our whole family eat cleaner and healthier, not just me. After some discussion I realized two things: First, I can’t expect them to change them overnight. We’ve spent years letting them pretty much have a free-for-all with different food options, and I couldn’t expect them to happily change in a matter of weeks, or even months. And number two, we need to let them still be kids, and that means not getting bitter when they aren’t excited to eat at a vegan restaurant.

I’ve had a good reality check while on the road, and what I’ve realized is that the real world — away from my kitchen and my rules — is the biggest challenge, but also the best way to learn to eat clean. What I’ve learned in the last week when it comes to raising healthy eaters, but still letting my kids be kids is:

Provide good options: My kids eat what I provide for them, so that means I have to do a better job of providing healthier snacks and treats, and making foods ahead of time when out and about.

Educate them: Explain to them why I want them to eat different things and make better choices. It’s not because I’m trying to be mean, but because I want them to grow strong and feel better. At age 6 and 8, they are old enough to understand the basic concepts of nutrition, and how food effects our bodies. I need to trust them with that knowledge more, instead of simply saying “No!”

Do research & plan ahead: Scout out the area we’re visiting, and look into fast, kid-friendly restaurants and food joints in our area that provide good kids meals, or at least reasonably priced healthy options, like fruit as a side versus fries, and grilled foods versus fried. Last night I made the mistake of coming into a small town unprepared, and landed at a restaurant that didn’t even have fruit or non-fried options. They ended up eating hot dogs, not much better than chicken strips, but at least it wasn’t fried.

Put your foot down: Sometimes I just need to put my foot down and dig in my heels, even if it makes me the mean mom.

Ask for help: I ain’t too proud to beg, or at least ask for help. I reached out to my Gwynethmademedoit Instagram account yesterday, and asked for suggestions on healthier “crunchy” snack options, as opposed to chips, crackers, and goldfish. I received great feedback and options, many I hadn’t even thought of.

Be flexible when necessary: Finally, when things don’t go the way I would like, remember that they are kids and we need to let them be kids. That means being flexible not only when necessary, but when the end result has the chance to make a lasting memory, both good or bad.

Food is a huge part of our lives, and memories surrounding food often make up funny, sentimental, and horrible stories of our childhood. At the end of the day, I don’t want mom’s “healthy eating” restrictions to be what my kids remember of their childhood. I want nutritious meals to be a natural part of their lives, something they don’t really even think about, but just adopt and take into adulthood in a very natural, organic way.

If that means giving in, and enjoying a huge steaming bowl of rich clam chowder, instead of a clean vegan meal, then so be it. 20 years from now, I’d rather have my kids retelling fond stories of “that time we all went to Fisherman’s Wharf and ate the best chowder,” instead of bitterly retelling the tale of “that time mom made us all eat vegan food when we visited San Francisco.”

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