What to feed kids (but first, ourselves)

Yesterday I ran into a dear old friend. I hadn’t seen him in well over 10 years, but we were close friends all through school and as soon as I saw him, it took me back to all the great times we had. We were similar kids, with many of the same likes and dislikes. I grew up a vegetarian and somewhere along the line he, on his own, without the support of his family, adopted a vegetarian diet. We were both chunky (the PC term for fat) kids and carried that into our teens. Being vegetarian doesn’t mean that we were skinny, nor healthy.

Feeding kids is a complex business because kids are kids. They’re not yet programmed to care what is good for them or not, that’s not their job. That’s the job of a parent. All they care about is what tastes good and for the great majority of kids, sugar and fat taste great.

When my friend and I were kids we were in the ‘heavier’ or ‘bigger’ group, but compare us to today’s norm and we were either average. It’s no longer uncommon to see kids grossly overweight, from all races, genders and all socioeconomic groups.

Salad for lunch?

In June, I set off on a mission to post about a nice little package of recipes for you to make lunch meals for your family. In my mind, this would be simple. Easy to follow, plant based, nutritious and voila, everyone is eating better. I heard from many people by email, and spoke to customers in classes and in store about this idea. The more people I spoke to, the more I realized that I needed a substantial plan that might actually help. Basically I was told that either everything is fine as cooking at home is simple or shopping for lunches is easy as everything already comes in packages to be tossed in the lunch kit.

It became clear to me that if I was going to deliver nutritional information (even basic recipes that would be easy to make), and have an opinion, then I needed to do a lot more research on the issue of diets (as in ‘I’m going on a diet’), weight (including obesity), the role of genetics, diseases of affluence (many cancers, heart disease, Type II diabetes, etc), behaviour issues (kids attention span), depression and mood disorders, and many other common issues that could be diet related.

My initial goal when I wrote about this in June was to deliver quick and easy lunch recipes that are easy to make that kids will eat. I spoke to parents, to my own kids, and their friends, about what’s common in lunches. I came to understand that what I wanted to suggest would not get eaten by kids. This got me thinking of why.

Why, if I was to suggest a lunch size Kale Salad, with a coconut caesar dressing and toasted chickpea croutons, topped with sesame seeds and grated carrot, would it not get a) taken seriously, by parents, as food that can nourish a kid for the bulk of their day b) eaten by ‘most’ kids.

Us before them

I’m quite confident in saying that most children learn their habits and behaviours from their parents (everything else they learn from YouTube!). Either it’s clearly taught or it’s observed. Some things just need to be validated to be ok. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t smoke cigarettes, but they did condone smoking by their friends, and marijuana was everywhere. I didn’t think twice about trying smoking as a teenager as I didn’t see it as bad for me. If a parent eats a burger a few nights a week, and a huge plate of pasta a few other nights, and a few beers to unwind after work each day, then what are our kids learning?

Genetics

I grew up thinking that my genetics were against me. My mother’s side of the family are short and round. Now my height is what it is but that is the only ‘trait’ that I’m going to accept as destiny. I can tell you firsthand, from a lifetime of being heavier, that my body type can gain weight by looking at food. My sister, who was a normal sized teanager, is now obese at nearly 50. It ‘runs in the family’.

We all have varied relationships with food but what is clearly understood is that we don’t have to be fat. Most anyone can be a healthy weight if they want and it’s not about discipline or fad diets – it’s about understanding how we become fat (which leads to many of the diseases above).

As a western population, we’ve become much, much, fatter in the last 50+ years. This is not a genetic issue. This is a type of food issue. Food, and the abundance of it, is making us and our kids fat. I know this firsthand, if I do not think about what I am grabbing to put in my mouth I can consume 300 to 1000 extra calories per day, everyday. Things get worse for me when I’m stressed and/or tired. I wake up early, start eating to get the blood sugar rush and then eat all day because I’m tired. This pattern of eating too much of the wrong food is what can make me fat, not my genetics.

We believe Eating is good, when hungry

I’ve had to learn everything from the ground up. My mom taught me how to cook, and she understood good food, but I was not taught how to ‘eat’. In my first adult years, I listened to pop culture and believed that calories were ‘bad’ but if I snacked more then I’d eat smaller meals, and take in fewer calories. In reality, I’d snack and then eat the same sized meals without the calorie savings. I’m a champion of overeating!

From the basic understanding of science and scientific reviews, I have come to understand that I was doing the opposite of what I should have been doing for years. I previously understood that if I exercised all the time and fed myself well, then I’d be a healthy weight. Well I put in years of long distance running, covering thousands of k’s of road and trail and I didn’t become the weight that I new was right. I continued to have visceral fat, which , for men, is dangerous.  I carried an extra 10 to 15 pounds with me all the time which was like a weight belt that I could not take off, no matter how much I exercised.

What I’ve learned is that I could never keep up to the calories, and especially the type of food that I was eating all the time. I’m an avid cook so I make most of what I eat, which was another false understanding, Homemade food can be just as calorie dense as restaurant food and eating 5 to 6 times a day was jacking my calorie intake. I believed that because I ran so much that I could eat kinda whatever.

Blood Sugar

Insulin, and not calories, is what makes us fat. Understanding this has changed the game for me, and the way that I nourish my family. This is the crux of the ‘I exercise all the time so I can eat kinda whatever’ issue, but not lose weight.

Earlier this year, I cut out processed flour (and everything made from it) from my diet. Surprisingly, over the summer of exercising a normal amount, I shed some of the weight that I’d been carrying around for 30+ years. I didn’t plan to cut carbs whatsoever, just cut out food made from processed flour and sugar, or what’s called simple carbohydrates. I’ve increased my food consumption by replacing simple carbs with complex carbs and many, many more plants.

I also made a deal with myself. I decided that I wanted to feel hungry. Previously, I’d eat at the first hint of hunger in fear that I would bonk and either become hangy and/or unproductive. I made a deal that I’d eat when truly hungry and if I’m not hungry then I won’t eat. At first, this was a bit of a challenge. Not because of hunger, but because of habit. I asked myself each time that I wanted to snack, ‘are you really hungry?’ and every time it was, ‘no, not really’, and I;d move past that hunger and wait till meal time. I find that my breakfasts are 70% smaller and I don’t snack between lunch and dinner, and I also feel that I have more sustained energy than I did before.

Eating this way takes planning. I spend about 2 to 4 hours making food everyday. I fill and completely empty our fridge about 3x per week as non calorically dense plants take up a lot more room!

Going Keto (and the like)

You could say that I’ve reduced my ‘carb’ input, like a Keto Diet. This would be false. I’m very cognisant of our fat and protein intake and at 46 am always looking for ways to improve my health, and keeping my metabolism low and regulated has become important to me. There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that drastically reducing all carbs and allowing fat and protein to be 50%+ of you diet is a good way to ensure you develop 1 or more of the preventable diseases of affluence that unfortunately affect too many in our modern Western world. The Keto, Paleo and the like, diets are no different that the Atkins diet and the South Beach diet (and many others) that have been proven time and time again to be unhealthy – for the goal of getting thin.

Our Kids

I’ve written before that what my kids eat is very important to me. I was always interested in food but wasn’t as interested in the specific benefits of certain foods over others until they became our responsibility to feed. They literally changed my life.
We do not eat fad diets nor do I restrict them from eating when hungry. They eat predominantly a Whole Food Plant Based diet. What does this mean? They eat plants for 99% of their food.

They eat kale, swiss chard, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, beets, eggplant, tomatoes, nuts, seeds, berries, fruit, beans, lentils, whole grains and the like. They get an appropriate amount of protein and EFA’s. They eat complex carbs. They eat loads of fruit. And they thrive.

I’ll be honest with you. Feeding them this way takes dedication and work. I think about what I’m going to feed them (I do most of the cooking in the house) all the time. I plan and shop all the time to ensure that I have the right combination of ingredients to make them food that they love. But our kids are not abnormal, given the chance they’ll quickly eat processed and sugary food. If I’d started off by feeding them food from a package, and took them out to restaurants to eat ‘kids’ food’, then they would have been fine with it, Now that they’re 11 and 8, and have eaten this way all their lives, this is their normal. They know what unhealthy processed food tastes like (to a point) but are learning, and feeling, that Plant Based Whole Food gives them what they need to thrive.

I will not go on about how great my kids are, but I am always stunned by their achievements, especially their academic ones. My wife and I were average students, but both of our children have the ability to constantly, in all topics, bring home top marks. I can only really contribute this to 1 thing – diet. What I’ve observed is that they both have an intense ability to focus, and stay focused for a long period of time. Being focused allows them to absorb knowledge and learn the material. It’s as simple as that. The kids bouncing off the walls (me as a kid), or staring out the window, just don’t absorb as much information. I’m 100% convinced that our children’s diet is what makes them extraordinary students.

So what do I feed them

Regulating blood sugar is critical to maintaining calorie intake. The more insulin creating foods we ingest, the more our bodies will demand a refill when we quickly run low on sugar in our blood.

(a typical breakfast)

Most mornings I feed my kids a veggie dense green smoothie with loads of fiber and EFA’s. They take a few supplements, especially D3 and B12, and they may have a small salad and about 1 oz of walnuts. I am not concerned that they won’t ‘make it through the morning’. I intentionally keep their sugar intake low and in doing so have made sure that their insulin is regulated and their metabolism will not speed up to process excess sugar, ‘high quality’ protein and simple carbs.

In their lunch, I pack a lunch sized salad, which will usually be a cup or two of finely chopped kale with grated veg and seeds. I make a range of salad dressings and am always trying to make their favorites. My boy likes some spice and my girl loves Miso-Ginger. I’ll add a cut up apple, a chopped carrot, some dried fruit and seeds, and maybe some hummus or pan fried chickpeas. Some days I’ll add hot soup or a small amount of homemade whole wheat pasta in sauce, but the salad is always the core of the lunch.

This is their normal. They tell me stories of their friends inquiring about their salads, and if they actually like them. My girl is now of an age where being ‘plant based’ is cool, so her friends are always admiring what she’s eating, and her teachers give her praise for being good to herself, and the planet, which makes her feel great. Both of them feel pride for how they eat and are proud to share their food with their friends.

For dinner we eat a wide range of food but always based on beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and veggies. I roast veggies all the time, with no specific goal in mind other than they make the base of many meals. I keep a cashew or almond cream at the ready and pre soak grains to be ready for fast cooking.

(Ratatouille, ready for the oven)

When we go grocery shopping, we make it an adventure, Both kids are very involved in the ingredients we buy and help me understand what they do and don’t like about previous meals. I’m always looking for improvements and helping them understand the path to nutrition that powers them. We are what we eat, afterall.

Like most parents, my wife and I have made it our mission in life to set our kids up to be the absolute best they can be and we believe that nutrition is one of the most important factors, however we had to walk the talk. If we want our kids to ‘eat their veggies’ then we had too also. We are what they look to for guidance and we influence them more than anything else. This is common sense but we’ve decided to take this seriously, 100% of the time. We know that we come first, as in, if we are not true to ourselves, or don’t eat the way we want our kids to, then our family will not thrive.

The Recipe

This is the recipe that I’m passing on. The obsessive, committed, harder road to travel, recipe. Raising kids, and nourishing our families well, takes a load of work but we just can’t cut them short. Feeding kids processed foods, from a package, or from the kids menu, is detrimental to their cognitive ability and long term health. This is a bold statement – and the statement that needs back up.

Here is your back up, however, this in itself is a commitment. I already had a good understanding of healthy food but in some ways I was missing the mark. This past summer, I spent dozens of hours reading (or listening) about how to nourish ourselves and our kids well. I learned all about our Microbiome (my kids love to talk about our poop!), I learned about why we get fat, stay fat, or get thin and then fat again, I learned why Omega 3 is so critical to our health, I learned about the best source of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients), I learned about how to feed kids the best diet for their health and how parents are the culprits of poor nutrition, I learned that my ‘eat it or nothing at all’ approach for kids is known to be the best method to get kids to eat the right food, I learned about how our modern food system was born and how agriculture has made us fat and sick, I learned more about how corrupt our food system is and how profits always win, I learned more about how fad diets like Keto and Paleo are making people short term thin(er) and long term sick(er), I learned about how our typical North American diet created a breeding ground for disease, especially heart disease and cancer. I learned more about how detrimental animal products are on our bodies and that plants trump animal 100% of the time, and on, and on.

The information above is abundant. There are SO many resources, supported by facts and meta analysis, that it’s quite overwhelming where to start, however if you’re interested in understanding more, here are my recommendations.

If you read only 1 book on the state of food in North America (of western culture) then it’s The China Study, by Dr. Colin Campbell. This is no small task as it’s a big book but the information is indisputable and fascinating.

I suggest 1 resource to help you make food choices every: www.nutrtionfacts.org, Dr, Michael Gregor and his team run the leading online resource for accurate, fact based, peer reviewed, nutrition knowledge.

https://gamechangersmovie.com/

Helping out a dear friend

As my friend and I caught up, our conversation quickly turned to health and diet. When we were in our early 20’s, we were both out of shape, but we picked up mountain biking and dove into it in a big way. We rode all the time, in all weather, day and night. We got pretty good, and thinner too. Nutrition wasn’t really much of a topic but we both knew there was something missing.

In our brief conversation yesterday, I told him that I’d figured out this last ‘bit’. At 46, I am now lighter than I’ve been since I was 18 and feel as good (maybe better) than I did at 26. He was very interested in what I’ve been up to. I’ve passed him the above list of resources and he’s already started to download a few books.

The knowledge contained in the above material is intense, and can be life altering, if you want it to be. Adopting a Whole Food Plant Based lifestyle is a game changer for most but you have to really want to do it, and make it your lifestyle. You will not be long term successful if you just ‘try it’, like a diet. That is not how it works. Adopting a Whole Food Plant Based lifestyle will give you optimal health and positive results for your entire family, for ever..

Our lifestyle

As my wife and I have evolved our way of eating over the years, we noticed that the more Plant Based Whole Food we ate, the more we crave it. Now and again we will eat something that is more for taste, like Neopolitan pizza, but always come back to plant based whole food that we crave. We’ve found that when we began to consistently eat this way, our mind and bodies love how we feel and it’s now become an ingrained lifestyle, as opposed to a diet.

We never go without, or stress over food. We don’t count calories or have cheat days. We do obsess over which head of kale is better and go crazy when (fair trade) cashews are on sale, but that’s the extent of our ‘food problems’. Lucky us, I guess.

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