Thursday, February 26, 2015

5 steps to Healthy, Happy Kids

We're constantly inundated with processed foods. I realize that in many countries there isn’t this extreme industrialization and availability of fake-foodlike products. Kids just eat what their families eat, a home-cooked meal, no big deal. But here, busy people lead ultra-busy lives, and packaged foods and snacks are everywhere! It’s all about convenience. I have parents complain to me that their kids don’t eat any vegetables; kids don’t eat dinner; kids who only will eat neutral-colored foods; kids who won’t try new foods... the list goes on and on. There could be underlying reasons for these things, but most likely the cause is all the sugar- and salt-laden manufactured things that they're allowed to eat! Honestly, in a kid's eyes (and tastebuds) how can a simple vegetable compare with the chemically-loaded, flavor-enhanced foods that scientists have developed to incur addiction? With childhood obesity and related diseases on the rise, isn't it time to break free?

As a child, I had my share of Pop Tarts and Doritos, but they were definitely an occasional treat, and always balanced with home-cooked meals, usually with lots of leafy greens. In college, I would happily go to Chinatown and pick up some produce and rice, spending considerably less for my ingredients, and getting more nutrition for my dollar, than my Spam-eating dorm roommates (I recall a heated argument over this!) 

When I had my first child, I began to focus on organic produce, and making all the pureed baby foods. With life so young and precious, the thought of feeding pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables was unimaginable. Both my children have never eaten processed baby foods. Again, homemade baby food might be common in many countries, but it was really a strange concept to my other mommy friends at the time. (So much so, that I even considered launching my own line of homemade baby foods!) And with factory-farming and all the inhumane and chemical processes that go with that, I also make sure to try to buy grass-fed / antibiotic / nitrate-free meat, pastured poultry and eggs, and wild or sustainable seafood.

By eating real food from the start, my kids are now enthusiastic, adventurous eaters. Out of the blue, they’ve once even asked me to prepare baby octopus for dinner! They’ll try anything, and many times, they discover a dish or flavor that they love, like curry which then becomes a staple. Our snack pantry may not be as “exciting” and enticing to other children who come over, but at least I feel good about giving them a healthy snack like the hummus and peppers or freshly-baked healthy cookies, which they happily eat.

Last year, in tandem with my nutrition school course, I became more aware of how foods affect our bodies. While everyone reacts differently to different foods, I know that people do get into the rut of eating the same foods day in and day out. At the time, I found myself ALWAYS buying bread and dairy, which was breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner, EVERY DAY. Physically, I was also getting bouts of vertigo, my son had really bad eczema on his torso as well as a continuous cold throughout the year. When I cut the gluten and dairy out of our diets, like magic, all of these issues disappeared! 

At first this was a daunting task, and even though my kids eat well, they were suspicious of the change when I was simply replacing GF or vegan products which, at the end of the day, are still, if not more, manufactured. Then I figured out the best way was to incorporate more whole ingredient foods like rice, sweet potatoes, and lots of vegetables instead. Now, it isn't even an issue if we have a gluten-free, vegan meal. Although quinoa and millet aren't favorites, they're happy to go grain-free and adopt more of a paleo diet from time to time. 

My kids feel good about the changes we’ve made. I can see it in their physical and emotional appearances. They’re also rarely sick, never physically uncomfortable, and don’t have crazy mood swings. I’m thrilled to have reached the point where I really do feel great about what my kids eat, and that they’re able to recognize and make these same conscious food choices as they get older. I'm insanely proud of these dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, and some grain-free delicious breakfasts and snacks that they prepare for themselves (pictured top and bottom).

Want to break away from all the big industry foods? Here are some tips:

1. Cook at home
It’s cheaper. You have more control over the quality of food. If there’s only healthy foods around, everyone will find a way to make choices within these options, making it one less thing to think/concern yourself about.

2. Get your kids involved
Food is food. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Kids should know what the ingredients are and how real food is prepared (and not just for baked goods.) Using whole ingredients gives anyone an opportunity to help out. There’s great pride and unity in preparing and eating a meal together.

3. Cooking is nurturing
Cooking for my family is a the true definition of nurturing. Whether I’m time-pressed or not, I know that each meal I prepare is my way of encouraging, upholding, and teaching my children how to develop lifelong healthy eating habits. Having this mindset makes cooking relaxed and fun, it's not a chore.

4. Plan in advance
Everyone is busy. I get it. I don’t spend all day in the kitchen, nor do I want to. If it’s going to be a busy week, then even if it’s just for a few minutes, wash and chop up some vegetables or marinate some meat. Cook larger quantities of one meal. Prepare foods for an hour on the weekend. These are great ways of always having food on-hand and making cooking at home even more convenient, and quicker, than getting take-out or eating out.

5. Eat vegetables
My kids have fought over edamame, grabbed cooked greens by the handful as toddlers, they have always been a part of our every day meal. No questions asked. When you go through the produce section, it’s vibrant, colorful, and nutritious. Eating whole ingredients, which are minimally processed, and completely natural, provides real and necessary nutrients.

I've set up a new Instagram account @consciouskidscook to feature healthy, vibrant food for kids, some of them made by kids.

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