10 Steps to Raising Healthy Kids Who Don’t Totally Hate the Experience and Who Grow Up to Make Kombucha and Support Their Local CSA

“Raising healthy kids” is one of the many goals of most parents I know, myself included. We want them to be strong, to have great immune systems, and to have healthy skin, bones and teeth. We understand the importance of eating well and getting exercise. And before we actually had kids, many of us had a wonderful theoretical framework of how we were going to implement this amazing wellness protocol in our households.

And then we had kids and our brilliant idea to plan (meticulously ensuring we covered all three macronutrient food groups as well as a majority of the essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids), shop for (from locally sourced, organic farmers with whom we were on a first name basis) and prepare (in non-aluminum and non-Teflon coated pans, without the use of a microwave) nutritionally dense snacks and meals, went totally out the window. In truth, we barely have time to pee.

Ironically, for that we can be thankful. It made us have to rethink the whole concept of wellness; decide if time spent reading and playing with our children was at least as valuable as time spent shopping, soaking, sprouting, drying, baking, and gardening; and allowed us the opportunity for health to become something we did with our family rather than to our family.

So for those that are rethinking their bigger-than-life family health ideas and for those just beginning to formulate their own wellness plan . . . here are a few pointers that should hopefully give you a fighting chance at:

  • Raising kids who embrace rather than run away from the word “healthy”
  • Having family members who, in their own way, become health advocates
  • Learning a few very cool things about health from your children
  • Having enough time for the occasional bathroom break!

 

10 Simple Steps to Raising Healthy Kids

1. Start early.

I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but I feel very fortunate that I spent the first couple of decades of my life as a “sickie.” It meant that even before I had kids, I’d already started on a complementary health journey to try to deal with my crappy immune system, my dysfunctional digestive system, my imbalanced moods and my seriously depressed energy levels. By the time we had kids I was well-versed in optimal vegetable intake, could make an awesome tofu cheesecake, and had already tracked down great sources of grass-fed meat and free range eggs. That meant that my kids really didn’t know what hit them nor did they have a life of Twinkies, fast food, white bread and sugary cereals with which to compare our “back to basics” approach. If you can start a healthy eating and lifestyle plan when your children are young, or ideally pre-conception, then you will have an easier time. I’m not saying you won’t have challenging days or embarrassing moments (one of my lowlights, a child’s loud comment in the middle of a meal in which we were guests in someone’s home, “Are we actually even allowed to eat these white flour buns?”) but you will have an accepted lifestyle that your child will be very familiar with and will have accepted as the norm.

2. If you didn’t start early, start now.

It is almost never too late to begin a healthier lifestyle. Swapping club soda and a splash of OJ for soda pop, planning a family bike ride instead of a couch surfing evening, adding vegetables to every meal or snack, ensuring your children get enough high quality protein-rich foods and healthy fats, and seriously limiting refined sugar and grains always has a positive health impact. Call a family meeting, outline a game plan (with a few non-negotiables . . . remember . . . children and teens are like mini-lawyers), get input on approach and timelines (By when do we want to have our veggie intake up to 5-7 servings/day?; Who wants to choose the new recipes from this list for this week?) and take it slow. You’re changing your family’s wellness framework. It didn’t get in the shape it is overnight so give yourselves a month or two to get it in proper order.

3. Keep it real.

Your kids do not live in a glass (or BPA-free plastic) bubble. If you have done a good job of raising them to be decent human beings they are going to get invited to birthday parties, have birthday parties that others want to attend, will want to bake cookies and cupcakes with their friends, and will have sleepovers that require junk food as admittance to the event. Develop the concept of “sometimes” foods, foods that we may like the flavour of and enjoy from time to time but that are not, in large quantity or with frequent regularity, all that good for us. Figure out with your children how many times/week sometimes food are going to make an appearance and have your child learn to plan when it makes sense to have those foods. Then, teach them to become a sometimes food snob and pick higher quality options (i.e. fair trade chocolate, natural, chemical-free potato chips). You’ll help them cultivate a taste for real as opposed to processed and chemically-filled foodstuffs and because of the higher cost of quality sometimes foods, you’ll likely have them appear less often on the menu!

4. Keep it fun.

While there may be nothing amusing about ground cloves in grapefruit juice (This was the great pinworm remedy of the 1990s; my children have almost forgiven me but let’s just say, “Do not attempt this in real life!”), there is a lot about raising your children to be mini health nuts that is actually quite fun—for all of you! And if you are going to start somewhere, with children it is probably most important that you make their food enjoyable: go on picnics, plan “Iron Chef” burger bake-offs with each of your children creating their own unique flavour combination, have make-your-own-pizza nights with a plethora of healthy toppings, come up with amazing sparkling punches with fruit-laden ice rings instead of the birthday party standard bottles of pop, and designate whole nights, ours was New Year’s Eve, as sometimes food nights.

5. Give a little.

I am an extreme Carbohydrate Body Type (i.e. sympathetically-driven to the max) with a cautious, reserved and task-oriented disposition. My idea of a fun time is a big pot of rooibos tea and a couple free hours to watch a documentary entitled “An Organic Chemist’s Perspective on Paleo.” I am structured, organized, pretty much always think I know what is best and am not great at spontaneity, flexibility and chaos. In my ideal world, not a speck of refined sugar or grain would have touched my children’s lips until they left home and chose that of their own accord; as teens, they would have never slept in more than an hour from their usual weekday wake up time (so as not to disturb their circadian rhythm, impact their adrenal glands and cause undue stress on their overall hormonal symphony) and purified (the correct way) water would have been their only beverage.  While parents set the stage, define the boundaries, and give understanding to natural consequences, they are not the only people in the family. Often parents feel they have all the right answers, and it is their way or the highway all of the time. Kids (especially five kids) can change that. And you should let them.

6. Let them be themselves.

Your job is to model, to guide, to give reasons, to set boundaries AND to nurture and encourage all those things to be expressed in the character and personality of each of your children. What are their strengths? Capitalize on those. Instead of groaning at your early risers when they pop their heads in your door, have them be the wakeup call for a morning bike ride. If you’ve got a true bookworm on your hands, put them in charge of researching artificial sweeteners. As they figure out who they are, they may not turn out doing the exact same things you do (i.e. become a holistic nutritionist) but they probably will not be able to completely get away from that either (i.e. they marry a holistic nutritionist!). Your goal is not to turn out little “mini-me”s and if you are as anal-retentive as I am, for that you should be eternally grateful!

7. Learn from them.

I have a distinct picture of my youngest, still pre-school, sitting on the floor in front of our refrigerator figuring out what she was going to create for me for lunch. I am a “by the book person” (at least the first time I make a recipe), and watching my little one’s brain ponder the possibilities of all those raw ingredients, see options that I would never have considered (melted jack cheese with jalapeno juice salad dressing?) and then create something delightful, with which she could delight me, has forever changed how I see both cooking and nurturing others with what I’ve prepared. As parents, how we see the world (what to eat, how to live, where to shop, which life values to accept and walk out, how to respond to situations) is not complete, despite our age and experience. There is always more to learn, to grow in, to discover, to fine-tune, even to discard. Your children can be great teachers in some of those regards.

8. Let them own it.

So much of parenting is passing along the things we have discovered to be important in life. As children grow through the various developmental stages we see them do things because they are told to and want to avoid consequences; because they want to please and conform; because they are peer-oriented and want to fit in; because they think a choice is better for them, personally; and eventually, because they can see a choice being better “big picture.” As parents, we have come to the conclusions we have on life’s biggies—beliefs about relationships, sexuality, wellness and faith—through that journey and, if we are honest, most of us hope our children come to similar conclusions. Ultimately, however, it’s about deciding if we value our values more than we value our children having the same right of process and discovery. Do we want them to blindly follow us into what we believe or do we trust that if the intrinsic value of what we believe is strong enough it will someday capture them as well? And if it doesn’t, then a) can we learn from them (see point 7) or b) can we be OK with our differences?

9. Watch for the little things.

Our oldest child’s move to middle school required a cross town bus trip that conveniently included a transfer directly in front of a coffee shop. Within a week, he went from fairly sugar-free to fairly addicted to hot chocolate. In true melodramatic form I figured I’d lost him forever to the dark “refined and sweetened” side. Mid-semester he came home, totally enraged. His school included several classrooms of children with autism and the administration did a great job of working to integrate students in as many settings as possible so our son had easily come upon the information that a new behavioural reward system had been implemented in the special needs wing. Good behaviour now merited a can of pop. Our son’s frustration was through the roof: when the kids with autism were already dealing with information transfer setbacks, when over stimulation to certain things was already a factor for many of these children and when EVERYONE knew that nutrition was even more important when dealing with brain functioning issues, how could this plan be seen as anything other than a major disaster? It is surprising how much of what you teach is buried under a layer of peer pressure, the essential stage of individuation, and simply just the need to have an occasional hot caffeinated beverage. Watch for and be encouraged at what is foundational!

10. Never give up.

I would be presenting a very false picture if I didn’t acknowledge there were times, when our children were younger, that I wanted to simply scream. And I would be lying if I pretended these words, or ones like them, never came, very loudly, out of my mouth: “Seriously, why do I even both trying to squeeze all these vegetables into every meal and stretching our limited budget with home-soaked beans and homemade bread? No one even appreciates it!”  “Well, you wouldn’t have such a cough if you would have done what I told you to do—stopped eating dairy and sugar—the second you started to feel it coming on!” “Fine then, go eat all the Slurpees you want; see if I care if your teeth fall out of your mouth!”  Early on, however, I decided that one of my values was to pass on a heritage of health to my children (in my crankier moments it came out as, “They could piss it away in a pot later . . . but I was dang well going to give them one to start with,” but you get my point!) and whenever I thought of the ultimate goal, took a couple of deep breaths and reminded myself of points 8 and 9, I start to see a few of those little things, remember who was the mom and who was the child, and we’d get back on track.

Raising healthy children isn’t the easiest job in the world. It is often attacked by well-meaning individuals, is sometimes unappreciated by the very people for whom you are putting in the effort, and is not going to win you any grand awards or educational degrees. However, almost nothing is long term, more rewarding. And the first time one of your children calls you up with a hot tip on the best local CSA (community supported agriculture farm) to join, or a daughter’s Mother’s Day gift to you is a week of juicing where she both makes the juice AND cleans the juicer or a son earns the unofficial title of best creative natural chef in his houseful of roommates or a daughter-in-law sends you a sweet set of directions on how to make a scoby (a mother culture for kombucha), you will count it all as having been worth it!


4 Comments

  1. Oh how I enjoyed this!!!

    • Brenda Wollenberg

      So glad Kika . . . it was fun to write and brought back lots of good (and a few “head-shaking”) memories!

  2. Diane Young

    I read the part that says, “I am structured, organized, pretty much always think I know what is best and am not great at spontaneity, flexibility and chaos” and I thought, “wow, that sounds a lot like me.” Great to know I’m not the only one out there like this.

    • Brenda Wollenberg

      Diane: so glad you were encouraged by the article, in particular by the realization that there are other “carbohydrate” body types, just like you, out there. Understanding how we function, and using that knowledge in a positive, helpful way, is the way to go!

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