If you’re reading this article, there’s no doubt you are of a special frame of mind that makes you far more receptive to the idea of better nutrition for a better quality of life. Believe it or not, the vast majority of people hear calls for better health education and more healthy options, yet those ideas will be considered over the top. They will be placed alongside the ideas that most utterly ignore, and you’ll be lumped in with people who are morally opposed to killing a house fly, people who think presidents can simultaneously be secret Radical Islamists, and people who predicted the end of the world at the millennium and again in 2012.
Some will admit the craziness that entrenches our Western diet: the massive infusion of sugar that’s more addictive than cocaine, the absence of nutrients, and excess calories. Some will even appreciate concerns about the spiral of health consequences from lack of focus for children and adults, to poor sleep, to fatty liver disease, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Most people think these things are bizarre, yet won’t change, like the electoral college system and the peculiar practice of advertising prescription drugs.
The problem is that our children pay the ultimate price for the dominance of processed poison we shove in their face throughout most of their development. Years of fast-food fortifications lining the school walls, daily giant cookies in the cafeteria, and soda with candy after every sporting event eventually manifests into patterns that create chronic mental struggle, physical pain, and frequent hospital visits. Parents must actively prioritize a few practices that offer their children exposure to a more vibrant path of physical vitality.
Kids Are Given No Choices
We used to understand that it takes a village to raise a child. This is no longer the world we live in. Our villages have radically reduced available play space, removed fun playground equipment, and have found a way to make treats a staple at every childhood event. The combination of sedentarism and omnipresent sweets is the perfect cocktail for entrenching habits more deadly than smoking. What’s significant, though, is that often kids are given no choice but to be unhealthy.
My buddy’s mother adopted a few elementary age kids. He called me to talk about how shocked he was at what they were served during school lunch. As he said, “They come home telling me that they got nachos. That’s all they were offered. At that age, you don’t get choices.” This is the quality of lunch that society chooses to serve our kids? We then eliminate recess and put them in a chair for most the day. If you are to raise a child who does not fall victim to our society’s insane disconnect between health and fulfillment, you will have to be willing to do and see things differently.
Take Education Into Your Own Hands
I’ve preached nutrition to kids at every opportunity for as long as I’ve been in front of them. What becomes apparent when talking to high schoolers about health is that almost all of them have an epic level of ignorance towards nutrition. I’ll be railing on about the importance of breakfast and ways to eat more real foods, when someone will raise their hand to brag about having packed cold-cuts on white bread with baked chips and yogurt for lunch. Oh, and only one cookie, because you always have to have at least a little dessert. This is what our kids perceive as a healthier lunch. The tragedy is that this is all they’ve ever been offered. The majority of kids are eating fast food every day, so if they aren’t eating fries and their yogurt has fruit at the bottom, they think they are healthy. It’s not their fault. We must do more to teach them.
I was sick of talking about these issues, but not seeing change. I went to a group of sports coaches and asked that we make the athletic field house a no sweets and no fast food zone. This was a small start. My pitch was that it was an athletics facility, thus there was no need for gummies and soda. Unfortunately, I was adamantly overruled.
I’m not here to vent. I’m here to convince you that you have to take your children’s nutritional education into your own hands. There are a few simple steps you can take that will, at the very least, give your children considerably more exposure and direction for balanced, healthy living.
New Rules On Eating
1. It’s a family thing.
I’ll never understand the parents that try to change their diet for better then allow their kids to still eat garbage. I’ve seen it countless times. Two parents decide that they want to begin eating healthier for greater quality of life and then still offer their kids as much nutrient deficient food as possible. Parents create dinner spreads featuring salmon, quinoa, and asparagus, or chicken, sweet potatoes, and steamed broccoli and then rush to also throw in some instant mac or fish sticks for the kids.
It’s as if parents think kids are only capable of eating foods that didn’t exist until the last 50 years. This way of thinking is the norm. Parents have forgotten that they provide almost all of their children’s food. Parents have an amazing opportunity to promote nutritious habits and a healthy life. Eat healthier and make your kids eat what you eat. Sure it’s okay for them to not like something occasionally. I never developed a taste for mushrooms. But a lot of their pickiness is the result of their never being forced to try new things and the constant availability of sweet, savory, packaged goods that are chemically engineered to be addictive. Direct them to do what’s best for them, even when they don’t want to. It’s the same reason you make them do their homework or go to bed—you’re the parent.
2. Don’t make it weird.
Having said all this, please do let them sleep over at a friends house without sending over some special healthy meal. Take them to go get ice cream after their first tee ball game. As best as possible, make your kid feel normal and in the flow. It may have to be a radical shift at first, if things are way out of whack, but they should be able to adjust. If it always feels like jail and deprivation, they’ll struggle. What I’m advocating is living in balance and restoring treats to their appropriate role as occasional splurges that enhance life, rather than daily (or more frequent) staples that you’d feel deprived without.
3. Fad diets are not allowed.
In this vein, do not ever put your kid on any sort of fad diet. Diets, in the way most people approach them, do not work long term. Instead, slowly change nutritional habits in a sustainable manner. Change can be incremental as you replace less nutritious foods with better options. An easy framework that can help is Mike Roussell’s 6 Pillars of Nutrition. These are simple rules to help you make healthier decisions.
- Eat multiple daily meals (a minimum of three).
- Reduce your family’s processed food intake.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables.
- Drink water, almost exclusively (coffee is fine for adults as I find it promotes sanity).
- You’re an adult, have an occasional adult beverage (unless of course that means 10). It’s basically the same rule as a balanced approach to ice cream or cookies, etc.
- Consume lean proteins.
- Eat starches (potatoes, brown rice, etc.) near times of heavier activity.
I know I said no dieting, but the The Mediterranean and Nordic Diets aren’t really “diets” as much as they are categorical lists of foods that you’d be wise to get the bulk of your daily calories from. Both feature fish, some lean meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains of some variety. It’s so hard when you try to eat within the typical American image of what food is, yet it becomes very simple when you look at healthy cultures and begin to view food from a naturalist perspective. If the food was possible without a factory, then it is probably better.
Look for foods and recipes with fewer ingredients. Count the ingredients in this meal: salmon, sweet potato, and asparagus. Now look at the ingredient list on your kid’s granola bar. Note the difference.
4. Crush breakfast.
If you want to raise a healthy child, make breakfast a point of pride. Expose him to healthy smoothies, overnight oats, omelets, muffin pan egg recipes, apples and peanut butter, cantaloupe and cottage cheese, or even the Mike Dolce Breakfast Bowl. The sky is the limit really, but with lots of healthy breakfast exposure they will begin to like some options. On weekends, make breakfast something that you do together. To eat healthy requires one to have a basic competency in the kitchen. As your child gets older, give them the tools and let them go to work. No high schooler should miss breakfast, and no high schooler should rely on mom to make that breakfast.
5. Make sure school lunch is covered.
I’ve already described the nutritional wasteland that children find themselves in from the time they arrive at school until they leave. It’s probably a necessity that your kid brings her own lunch to school. There are a ton of strategies for meal prepping that can make this less of a stressor for you, but there is no way around the reality that if they are going to find nutritious foods, they’ll come from home. Before they leave elementary school, this responsibility should begin to shift to the child. You buy it, they pack it. I’d recommend checking and helping when there is need, but there is nothing overly challenging about packing a lunch. Invest in a few items that make bringing a lunch easier.
Get a lunch pail with a freezer pack that keeps items cool and a separator that prevents messes. Have everything from apples, bananas, and oranges, to cut up kiwis and pineapple on hand. Rather than chips, have large containers of mixed nuts they can put in Ziploc bags. There are all sorts of cold protein, bean, and vegetable based salads that would be devoured with pleasure. It’s so easy to make homemade chicken burrito bowls with simple prep on Sunday. Have the ingredients cooked and split them up into five different containers. Boom. Done.
6. Beware of nutritional myths.
The first myth is that you can never eat out and be healthy. This idea creates feelings of deprivation that lead many to quit trying to leap from healthy choices when they are on a trip or out with friends. In a small town, the local deep fry diner may be the only option, but in many towns of 30,000 or more, I’m always amazed at the abundance of options. My local Kroger has the best salad bar I’ve ever seen. I can find fun variety and good options at Luna Grill, Smoothie King, Chipotle, Subway, Panera, and countless other local operations.
The other unfortunate myth is that you can’t eat healthy on a budget. There’s an old adage that if you show me where you spend your money, I can tell exactly where your priorities are. For most, discretionary income is going to be spent on massive cable bills, video games, tons of clothes, and a number of other items. This is not inherently bad, but it is not of the same value as the family’s health.
If you want to eat healthy on a budget, all you need do is invest some time planning or researching. Even at the notoriously expensive Whole Foods grocery store, Fit Men Cook creator, Kevin Little, was able to create a full week’s meal plan for only $75. If you’re willing to commit to a lighthearted journey of exploration, you may find that a fun and exciting world opens up to you.