When i was a kid I ate ALL the junk. Pop tarts, chips and soda. I was a bit of a runt so nobody worried about my weight gain. We also ate “normal” foods, chicken, veggies, fish. Lots of salami sandwiches and utz potato chips. From a young age I constantly struggled with tummy aches. In middle school my parents took me to the doctor. They said I was lactose intolerant and gave me lactaid pills. No improvement. In college I went back to the doctor hoping for some answers to help with chronic digestive issue. This time they diagnosed me with IBS and gave me some pills. No improvement. Every time I ate I felt bloated and uncomfortable. I vividly remember being worried about getting stomach aches so sometimes I just wouldn’t eat. Instead I fueled up on diet coke, coffee, candy and frozen yogurt to keep me going. Somehow these were foods my digestive system could handle. Healthy? Hell no.
Years later, in my early 20s when I met Mark and moved to London, we started cooking together and I finally started listening to my body. The term Paleo wasn’t a part of pop culture, but I somehow discovered that by eating clean, avoiding too much sugar and cutting out gluten my body felt better. Miraculous.
As a family we’ve been eating healthy home cooking and avoiding processed foods for nearly a decade and have learned the power of natural food as medicine. I wonder now how my life may have been different if I’d known as a child what I know now about nutrition. Would I have been able to focus better in school? Would I have been less hyper and avoided chronic insomnia and anxiety that tortured me for years? If your child has ever been constipated or complained of tummy aches this is a red flag. The pediatrician will be quick to give you some pills, but before applying a “band-aid” for health we urge you to consider diet FIRST.
Somewhere along the way parents were taught that kids couldn’t / shouldn’t eat the same foods as adults. The typical American child subsists on pizza, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese and a variety of snack foods. To put things into perspective, the kid food industry is a 41 BILLION dollar market. So how did we get here? Before the 1920s there was no such thing a baby food category. For thousands of years people just gave their kids what they were eating – perhaps slightly mashed up, cut in easily manageable pieces or pre-chewed. Kid food straight up did not exist, people of all ages just ate simple real foods. With the industrial revolution and mass production came new opportunities for big brands to make more money and that’s how the baby food was born. Baby food is a stepping stone to kid food. Purees with no texture do not adequately prepare the rapidly developing taste buds. Purees are generally too sweet and too smooth. So when kids reach toddlerhood and start asserting their opinions they are primed to be more texture and flavor averse.
Massive corporations caught on to this and have developed an entire sector specifically designed to appeal to picky kids. So instead of getting to the root of the problem parents rely on crutches which actually make matters worse.
Kids are biologically primed to favor sweet things over bitter things. The more sugar we give them the more they will crave. For the first couple of years while kids are developing their sense of taste it’s far better to reduce sugar. This is not to say you should never ever allow your kids to eat treats. But when taste buds are developing it can be helpful to minimize junk food. What we’re trying to avoid is kids learning all they have to do is refuse to eat to get the good stuff.
Do a sugar detox to test your own taste buds by completely eliminating all sweets for two weeks. After two weeks have something sweet you would normally eat. You will find it to be sickly sweet at first. It shows that the taste buds are incredibly malleable even as an adult.
If you’re only offering healthy options it’s impossible to overeat. What parent isn’t going to allow their kid to stuff their face full of brown rice! More broccoli please, always.
Think of kid food and processed food as toxic. If your kid wanted to drink only beer and refused water you wouldn’t allow it. Eventually survival instincts would kick in and they would chug water like their life depended on it. Because it does.
Real food that doesn’t come out of a package doesn’t always taste or look the same. Take a bunch of blackberries and some may be sweet while others are slightly sour. To a kid who is not used to different flavors and textures this might be very surprising and consequently offputting. Try a little role reversal and consider how you would feel if after a lifetime of eating whole foods you suddenly had to eat only purees. It would probably be pretty alarming and uncomfortable to your palete.
With some healthy skepticism it’s clear that the kid food industry is mostly marketing. As someone who worked in advertising with some of the biggest brands in the world I know this first hand. Don’t get me wrong, the consumer is getting the benefit of convenience for sure. However, relying too heavily on packaged foods comes at more than just a financial cost. Take pouches for instance. There are some brands out there that are using quality organic ingredients and it seems like the perfect way to get little ones exposed to a variety of fruits and vegetables. However it’s important to consider more than just the ingredients. Eating is about more than just flavors. Early exposure to lots of texture is one of the leading ways to avoid picky eating. Lots of practice chewing plays an important role in language development. Relying too heavily on pouches with their smooth and consistent texture which require sucking instead of chewing can do more damage than good.
I like to think of building the taste buds as building a child’s vocabulary. The same way you read to your child to expose them to lots of language the same way you should expose them to lots of different flavors in the very early years. In the same way kids tend to repeat certain phrases that their parents use often. The more you eat certain foods the more they will too. This doesn’t mean you need to cook a different meal every night that would be exhausting. But go to a restaurant once a week. Have potlocks with friends and neighbors. Switch up your side dishes.
Eating well and avoiding processed food is hard. It is an extreme lifestyle choice and takes sacrifice. Find what works for your family. Health is one of the most important habits and greatest gifts we can give our children. Lots of parents I love and respect rely on kid food some of the time. That’s ok, we don’t judge (much!), but if you are having problems and you want to make changes start by cleaning out your cupboards and cleaning up your diet for you and your family.