As a naturopathic doctor, there are a lot of things I assumed I would do as a parent before I had kids. Personally ensuring they get a 100% totally natural, optimal diet every single day of their lives was a big one.
Like so many parenting decisions made in the fog of pregnancy (and 80+ hours a week studying for my board exams), it proved to be unrealistic almost immediately after my son was born. Breastfeeding was challenging, then as my children grew up, I progressed through the inevitable stages of picky eating, sugar-fuelled birthday parties and the challenge of getting healthy meals on the table as a busy working mom on a budget. Reality often trumped “ideal”.
As my children – now 6 and 9 – have grown up, I’ve realized the two things I think count most in terms of family nutrition (and keeping one’s sanity as a parent):
First, you can’t do it alone – ensuring optimal nutrition needs to be a family affair. Second, sometimes you just have to relax and not worry about every morsel that passes their lips. There’s so much you can’t control as parent. That’s why I choose to focus on making the best choices I can 80% of the time, and refusing to stress about the other 20%.
Knowledge is power
To get my family on board, I’ve made a point of sharing the hard-won nutrition knowledge from my education and practice. People of all ages are more likely to be proactive about nutrition if they know why it’s important.
From mapping out what a balanced plate looks like (½ veg, ¼ protein, ¼ complex carbohydrate) so my family knows a good meal when they see one, to explaining the role protein, carbohydrates and various nutrients play in the body, we talk a lot about nutrition.
When the kids were little, that meant teaching basics, like “this will make you big and strong”, or “this will give you lots of energy to play outside”. Now that they’re older, I get into more detail (full disclosure: ask my kids and they might say, too much detail!).
Know your onions
Buying all-natural, organic and non-GMO food all the time is a nice idea, but for most parents it’s simply out of reach. It certainly is for us, and it was even more so when the kids were small. The key is knowing where to compromise and then letting yourself off the hook for the rest.
The Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15”, which refer respectively to the fruits and vegetables that are the most and least contaminated by pesticide use. It’s been a really helpful tool in terms of drawing the line on what we’re willing to purchase for less.
I stuck the lists on the fridge and even printed copies for my husband and I to bring shopping. Defining your parameters really takes the stress off when it comes to navigating all the choices at the grocery store.
Have some tricks up your sleeve
These days my kids are pretty good eaters, but they are still kids. To increase the odds of them eating the good stuff we put on the table, we play games like, “Best for Last”, where they have to eat all the veggies before they’re allowed the roast potato (an under-rated nutrition hero – and with organic ketchup, a real treat!).
Another good “trick” is to give them a healthy snack they love, before they set off for a party where you know there’s going to be a mountain of sweets they also like. For example, before setting off to a family party last weekend, I made my kids a probiotic yogurt “shooter” made of yogurt, blueberries, probiotic powder and a swirl of maple syrup. They loved the sweet treat and it helped their bodies deal with the sugary party snacks.
Mastering the art of timing is another key strategy. At our house, hummus and vegetables sent in the kids’ lunchbox are almost guaranteed to still be there after school. But a platter of the same on the table when they get home from school hungry disappears in minutes.
Relax and have fun!
Ensuring we eat as well as possible at home means that when we’re out, we don’t worry. We eat what we’re served at friends’ places (good manners are also a healthy habit worth cultivating), we don’t stress over restaurant menus beyond insisting they eat some vegetables in addition to whatever they choose, and special occasions are celebrated with fun at top of the menu.
I won’t pretend for a moment that my kids lap up every last and best nutrient like it’s going out of style. We do treats, we do frustrating family dinners like anyone else. And for every nutrition victory battle won (Lily loves asparagus so much she now steals it off James’ plate!) there is a new challenge (How to curb Lily’s burgeoning sweet tooth).
Sometimes kids are picky, sometimes it’s a special occasion sugar-fest, but seeing them picking out healthy groceries and hearing them talk about why can put our minds at ease that we’re building good habits overall. Besides, sometimes having fun is more important that choosing what’s “best”.