In This Article
- Raising a plant-based child
- Fulfilling your little one’s nutrient needs
- Feeding picky eaters
- Navigating the school system’s diet woes
As with adults, obesity is on the rise in children and adolescents. Approximately 9 percent of children aged 2 to 5, 17.5 percent of children aged 6 to 11, and 20.5 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 are obese. Puberty is starting earlier in girls than ever before—sometimes as early as age 7—due to excess body fat. Early puberty puts our daughters at an increased risk of breast cancer and other chronic diseases later in life. The prevalence of diabetes and prediabetes is rising in our youth, setting them up for a life plagued with health problems.
Why are our youth so susceptible to these health crises? Partly because they’re living sedentary lifestyles. But much more significantly, it’s because they’re eating most of their calories from animal products and highly processed foods. The most common fruits and veggies eaten are tomatoes (via pizza), orange juice, and fried potatoes. Whole foods rarely, if ever, touch the lips of most kids on a daily basis. Childhood diet determines future health. The bottom line: we need to fix the food to save our children.
Getting kids to eat healthy can sometimes seem an impossible task. But with a little finesse and some creativity, you can succeed at getting your kids onboard with a plant-based diet.
The Benefits of Growing Up Plant-Based
At this point in the book, you know the benefits of following a whole food, plant-based diet. The diet consumed during the first decade of a child’s life determines his or her health more than the diet consumed in the next 50 years does. Imagine, then, the opportunity you have for providing your child with all the nutrients necessary to grow and develop healthily right from the start.
Consider this fascinating example: look at families who move from a rural setting of a non-Western country to an urban, Westernized location. Take rural China, for instance. The older generations who were raised in their homeland on rice, vegetables, fruits, minimal amounts of animal products, and no highly processed foods remain slim and healthy into old age. On the contrary, their children and grandchildren, who have adapted their diets to include fast food, massive amounts of animal products, and highly processed foods, become sick and fat like their new neighbors. Their genes weren’t altered on the plane ride to their new home. Their diets changed upon arrival.
Incidence of disease risk differs based on environment. You can’t blame your genes. You can, however, change your destiny with the choices you make at each meal.
As a parent, you should have control over what your child eats. Until your children makes money and drive to the store on their own, you should be able to steer your children in a positive direction. Unfortunately, all too often, others—your parents, in-laws, the ex, cousins, friends, and even schools—make these decisions for you and introduce habit-forming junk food. There’s nothing worse for a parent to wake up one day only to find his or her child overweight, acne-ridden, or worse, at risk for early onset nutritionally induced disease. The good news is that your children can recover and the healthy example you lead now will have more impact as they grow older.
Do as I Say and as I Do
The single most important factor determining how your child eats is how you eat. Role-modeling is an extremely effective technique for teaching. If you want your kid to love broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lentils, and lima beans, eat them and love them yourself. Do you know how many parents tell their kids to eat their veggies while they themselves fill up on junk food instead? The message it sends is contradicting and confusing. Worse, it doesn’t work. You need to be passionate about your food and your health while connecting those dots for your child. When you feel the vitality within your cells, you’ll want nothing less for your little one.
Inspire your family by teaching them what you know. Explain that when you eat your leafy greens, your body gets stronger and can fight off all the bad germs out there. Eating your beans makes you grow big with awesome muscles that can lift heavy things. Getting your essential fatty acids makes you so smart you’ll ace all your classes in school.
Make it relevant to your child’s life. Excite your child in a language he or she will understand. Of course, this changes throughout childhood, based on where your child’s enthusiasm lies and his or her understanding of the world. Your child is in tune with your feelings and actions, so your best bet for compliance is your own demonstration. Represent the habits you wish to see in your children.
Practice Makes Perfect
As with anything, healthy living takes practice. Learning about nutrients and how to make nutritious delicious is a work in progress for you and your child. Why not learn and practice together? Use food shopping and cooking as learning experiences.
Spend time in the produce section with your child, talking about the plethora of health- promoting compounds surrounding you. Pick up a tomato and say, “Tomatoes have lycopene, lutein, and vitamin C.” Ask your child what you should make for dinner tonight using that tomato. Include him or her in these decisions, because being actively involved infuses passion. When you get home, make the meal together. Even tiny ones can stir, hold things, hand you a spoon, or place items in a pot. The older your child gets, the more capabilities he or she will have. The longer your child is exposed to healthful eating, the deeper his or her understanding and interest will be.
Gone are the days of the clean-plate club. Never push food on your kid. Allow his or her own hunger patterns to emerge without interference. Hunger changes based on whether it’s time for a growth spurt, daily activity, and other factors. Let your child’s body be the guide on when it’s time to eat and how much.
Experiment with a large variety of foods and recipes, using a few family favorites. Most people rotate among one to three breakfasts, two to four lunches, and five to six dinner options every week. So find what tastes best and is easiest to prepare. Save the more labor-intensive recipes for special occasions.
Keep the options open. Availability of healthful food choices plays a significant role in a child’s eating habits. Consider a few tips for increasing access to healthy options:
Keep a bowl filled with clean, fresh fruits at arm’s reach at all times.
Cut veggies and fruits into bite-size pieces and keep them in the fridge next to healthy dip options.
Always have a fresh and colorful salad in the fridge with delicious dressings ready to eat.
Make extra servings when preparing meals so you have leftovers.
Create your own trail mix with your child. Choose all the nuts, seeds, and dried fruits he or she likes, and package the trail mix in baggies for easy, single-serving treats.
Stock your cabinets, fridge, and freezer with healthy alternatives so when hunger strikes, you can whip up something fast and easy.
Make recipes like Figamajigs, Fruity Nut Balls, and Unclassic Oatmeal Raisin Cookies for quick and satisfying snacks.
Eventually, as your child grows up surrounded by whole-plant foods and knows why you provide these options, a whole food, plant-based diet will be deeply rooted and more likely to stick. People often warn that when a child gets older, he or she will rebel if the diet is restricted. Rebellion happens as a result of confinement, rigidity, and hefty rules. On the contrary, enthusiasm, knowledge, and room for variety simply lead to habit. It’s well established that people develop behavior based on what they learn at home. Fortunately, then, it’s in your hands; create the soil you want your child’s roots to grow in.
Don’t reward or bribe your kid with food or punish him or her by taking away certain foods. This adds a psychological component to food, which can affect your child later in life. Find other ways to motivate instead.
Meeting Their Macro- and Micronutrient Needs
When it comes to recommendations for what children need nutrition-wise, charts and lists from medical and government authorities abound. Their recommendations include how many servings per day from each food group, percentage of saturated fat as a maximum, and advice on taking the skin off the chicken before eating it.
Somehow, though, this information isn’t translating. Parents aren’t paying attention. Fast food is a daily meal for about one third of youths. That means one in three children eats fast food every single day! No matter how “happy” or “healthy” the option is at a fast-food establishment, it’s impossible to achieve proper nutrient recommendations or avoid the mass quantities of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein in these meals. In addition, the food is as processed as possible and as far away from nature as anything edible.
The two places where nutrition is most important—schools and hospitals—often serve the least nutritious food. Have you seen what the school cafeteria serves for lunch these days? The government-subsidized commodities are typically huge boxes of ground meats and cheeses. When the school receives its shipment, it gets to decide what to make with the items to serve the kids. Many hospitals now house fast-food chains inside their buildings. Furthermore, junk food has replaced real food in lunch boxes, in school-cafeteria lunch lines, at parties, for sports practices, and at other events.
Excuses for why fast food and junk food have become so prevalent include no time to cook and not enough money to afford healthy options. But these excuses fall short when you analyze the possibilities. Opening a can of beans and a jar of salsa and warming some corn tortillas in the oven takes less time than stopping at a fast-food restaurant drive-thru. Batch cooking is even more cost- and time-efficient. Buy foods in bulk (whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and spices) and prepare large amounts at the same time. Package, freeze, and reheat when a quick dinner is needed.
You may be wondering what children need to be healthy. Overall, they need the same thing you need to be healthy: a wide assortment of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Encourage and challenge your child to eat every color of the rainbow each day as a way of increasing variety. If you emphasize and provide these foods, you can easily meet all your child’s nutrient needs (except for vitamin B12, possibly vitamin D, and long-chain omega-3 fats).
Generally, macronutrient needs can be met with adequate calorie intake, and if you give your child the freedom to eat whenever he or she feels hungry, calorie needs will automatically be fulfilled. If you provide whole-food options at those times of hunger, macronutrient and micronutrient needs will both be met. The body is naturally self-regulating and adjusts according to activity levels and periods of growth.
Don’t forget vitamins B12 and D. All plant eaters, regardless of age, need to supplement vitamin B12. And all people—regardless of diet—need to be tested for vitamin D levels and treated if deficient. Breastfed infants should be given 400 IU vitamin D as a supplement, because their sun exposure is usually inadequate and breast milk doesn’t provide enough vitamin D. The adequate intake for vitamin D is 400 IU (10 micrograms) per day for infants and 600 IU (15 micrograms) per day for anyone ages 1 through 70.
Pleasing Picky Palates
Children are picky eaters—and that’s when they’re eating everything under the sun. You might be wondering how you’ll ever succeed in trying to feed them a whole food, plant-based diet.
This scenario might sound familiar: your child’s hungry, so you try to feed him or her something nutritious. He or she doesn’t like it and protests, asking for something not so healthful. You persist. Next comes the whining or tantrum throwing (your child, not you—although you might feel like throwing a tantrum). Finally, you give in.
This episode is common in parenting, especially with toddlers and preschoolers. The biggest problem stemming from this scenario is its self-perpetuating nature. Your child learns that whining, screaming, or begging (or all of the above) eventually works.
Remember that if you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re probably not really hungry. The same goes for your little one. Don’t be afraid that your child won’t get enough food to eat. Remember that child-size bodies are smaller than yours and don’t always need as many calories. Also, when your child is hungry, he or she will eat. Children won’t let themselves starve. If you try force-feeding just to calm your concern, you’re only setting yourself up for frustration.
Many children get stuck on a mono diet, only wanting to choose among a few staples. Although this can be disconcerting to a concerned parent, some simple strategies may help. First and foremost, be the master of your kitchen. Stock only the foods you want your family to eat. Also, provide variations at each meal and snack. For instance, some children may be obsessed with pasta and request it for dinner daily. You can switch it up by alternating among corn, whole-wheat, rice, and quinoa noodles each night so they’re exposed to different grains. You can also change up what you add to the pasta. Some nights, they find broccoli and peas in their pasta, and other nights, it’s kale and lima beans.
One strategy you may try is to implement the “one-bite rule.” Make it a rule that your child must taste one bite of a new food you’re offering before deciding he or she doesn’t like it. Stay the course, and be consistent in offering a variety of options. If your child is truly hungry, he or she will eat what you have to offer. Eventually this phase ends anyway, and your child’s palate will expand.
Creativity counts big time with children! Using fun names and making animals or different characters out of fruits and veggies goes a long way toward making food exciting. Think ants on a log (celery with nut butter and raisins on top), banana boats (bananas cut lengthwise and filled with nut butter, hempseeds, and dried fruit), and chocolate smoothies (with leafy greens, dates, almond milk, raw cocoa powder, and frozen fruit). Use cookie cutters to stamp out fun shapes for healthy sandwiches or whole-food cookies. Use seaweed, collard greens, or whole-grain tortillas to make fancy wraps.
Another issue is taste-bud distortion. Depending on your child’s age when you introduce whole foods, those taste buds may already be biased. Regularly eating refined sugar, flour, oil, and salt causes habituation even at a young age. However, explaining the science to your little one will be senseless and not helpful. Thus, you need to be persistent, especially at the beginning of the transition. Prepare the majority of meals and snacks at home. It’s already hard enough to protect your kid from junk food at school and parties, so try to have whole-food options in every other situation. Soon enough, taste buds will improve, habituation will subside, and whole foods will be appealing.
Schools are nutritional wastelands. With the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the vast overavailability of junk food at every opportunity, you have to put on your power parenting skills to fight off the disease-inducing invaders.
Meeting government standards for the nutrient levels in the school food meals is bad enough, but when Julieanna spent some time in school food service during her dietetic internship, she was advised to increase the quantity of ketchup used in an average meal so the computer analysis would show a lower total fat percentage of calories. (Apparently, ketchup really is a fruit or vegetable serving in the school world. Or just another example of macroconfusion at work.) The requirements themselves are lenient enough; still, the actual intake numbers need to be exaggerated to appear to meet the standards.
Moreover, when produce is offered—in the form of salad bars, for instance—the presentation is unappealing and drab when sitting right next to the brightly packaged chips, sugary products, and deeply fried and reheated foods. If given those choices, which would you choose?
Furthermore, schools are still required to offer kids milk—even if the cartons are chocolate or strawberry milk at every meal. Oddly, dairy-free options are seldom, if ever, provided. No wonder the number of kids diagnosed with health complications is growing!
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is the basis for menu planning in the school system. Therefore, school lunches are required to meet only the standard of no more than 30 percent total calories from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Also, schools need only offer one third of the RDAs for vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and total calories.
What can a concerned parent do to avoid getting absorbed into this misguided, disease- promoting arrangement? Most importantly, pack your child’s school lunch every day. Send healthy choices like you would provide at home, and include special treats to prevent curiosity and desire to buy food at school. Maximize your creativity here so your little one enjoys his or her lunch and doesn’t feel left out.
Here are some ideas for yummy, nutrient-dense lunchbox items:
- Sprouted- or whole-grain bread or tortilla wraps with nut or seed butter and pure fruit spread or sliced bananas
- Sprouted- or whole-grain bread with hummus and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes
- Sushi rolls made with brown rice, cucumbers, avocado, and carrots
- Sweet Pea Guacamole with baked tortilla chips
- Homemade trail mix your child helps make with his or her favorite nuts, seeds, and dried fruits
- Roasted chickpeas
- Pineapple, peach, apple, or pear chunks
- Large, pitted olives
- Fresh fruit with a nut or seed butter or date syrup dipping sauce
- Veggie pizza on whole-grain crust with pineapple, olives, mushrooms, and/or bell peppers
- Soup in a thermos
- Oil-free, salt-free popcorn with nutritional yeast sprinkled on top
- Simply Hummus with raw, chopped or lightly blanched veggies (cherry or grape tomatoes, baby carrots, sugar snap peas, jicama sticks, button mushrooms, celery sticks, baby corn, blanched green beans, or blanched asparagus spears)
- Unclassic Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Additionally, if your schedule allows, try to be active in the planning committees at school. Get involved in arranging class parties and events where food is involved. Argue your points with detailed facts to encourage the other parents, school faculty, and teachers to make healthier decisions. The louder your squeaky wheel, the more likely they’ll listen and learn.
Finally, write letters or emails that include statistics and health information to your school; school district; and local, state, and national government officials. As a concerned and impassioned parent and citizen, you have a voice.
If we are to improve the state of our children’s health, changes must be implemented. We are currently sliding downhill fast, and if we don’t provide our kids with nutritious options at each meal, they’ll only continue to fall. This generation is the first in recorded history predicted to live a shorter life span than the preceding generation. What does that tell you about our state of health? Take action to protect your child—loudly and backed up with facts. The only thing you have to lose is the health of your most precious commodity.
Start at home, where you have total control and branch out. Build your case by showing fellow parents the results of eating a nutrient-dense lifestyle: less sickness; improved performance in school (both academically and athletically); and happy, healthy kids. Be the role model for your child and for other parents, and change will come.
The Least You Need to Know
- Growing up on a whole food, plant-based diet sets the foundation for lifelong optimal health.
- Be the change you want to see in your child. Role-modeling is the most effective tool for inspiring and teaching healthy eating.
- Let your child gauge his or her own hunger. Children won’t let themselves starve.
- Always have whole-plant options available in the house and when on the go.
- Supplement your little one’s whole food, plant-based diet with a multivitamin or at least with vitamins B12 and D and consider a microalgal omega-3 fat formula.
- Survive school’s nutritional wasteland by sending lunch to school, participating in activity planning, and being vocal about why and how to provide healthier options.