Last year I was in Key West vacationing with my family when we decided to go to Benihana for dinner on New Years Eve. My husband and I, as well as our then one year old son, took a seat at a table with another family who also had small children with them. The mother in the family was feeding her child, who looked younger than mine, shrimp. She joked with me saying, I know she's not supposed to eat it, but she loves her shrimp! I remember thinking, babies under the age of 3 aren't supposed to eat seafood, at least that is what my doctor told me. I worried for her daughter that she may develop allergies to seafood or worse yet, disrupt her digestive system. Since then, I have seen my friends feed their children chocolate, cookies, candy and cake, potato chips, french fries, donuts, fried chicken nuggets and hot dogs and wondered, what were they thinking? How does a child that starts out eating mashed up fruit and vegetables get to chocolate and french fries within the span of a few months? Feeding your children is a slippery slope that can decline rather quickly if you aren't careful with what you allow and don't allow your children to eat.
The first foods you feed your child will have a lasting effect on what they eat when they move from mashed and blended food to solids. Starting your child off on the right foot by choosing the right starter foods is important in creating a healthy and balanced diet. Jarred foods have come a long way recently with the addition of organic foods to the grocery shelves. Gerber baby food produces the Organic Harvest line of organic jarred foods and there is also Earth's Best Organic baby food for you to feed your child. Organic foods are free of pesticides and additives that can exist in conventional produce. The good news is that even if you don't want to spring for organic, the regular jarred foods are additive and preservative free, usually having simple fruits and vegetables and grains as the main ingredients. You can also be adventurous and create your own baby food by buying a small food processor to create your own mashed meals. At One Step Ahead (www.onestepahead.com) you can find whole kits to make your own baby food, including storage containers, as well as individual processors and food mills to grind your own meats, fruits and veggies. Although making your own food is somewhat labor intensive, it offers the opportunity for your baby to try foods and flavors that aren't available in a jar. The best gift I got as a new mom was a cook book called First Meals by Annabel Karmel. This book offers recipes for baby through toddler and into adolescence that are colorful, healthy and fun. The book offers tips for ways to get your child eating healthy wholesome food.
The movement from jarred or mashed foods into solid foods is where most parents make mistakes that can severely damage a child's diet. For instance, my son Miles was given fries early on in his solid food adventures. His grandparents thought it was cute, and he loved to eat fries whenever they were around. Now, we can't even order fries because he will only eat that and none of his other food. You would think that if I made him baked fries or even roasted potato or sweet potato he would eat it, but no. Too often, I have seen my peers fostering habits in their children that are sure to have a drastic effect on their health.
Children, in general, are two times as sensitive to sugar as adults are. That means that one tablespoon of sugar is really two tablespoons when given to a child. Because of the way processed foods are such a part of our food environment, it is hard to escape exposing our children to too much sugar. Feeding them donuts and cookies is actually shocking to their small, developing systems and is a contributor to obesity and early onset diabetes in children today. The way most parents use sugar with their children is as a reward or a pacifier. I remember more than once running into friends with children at a store where the child was holding a bag of chocolate and the parent, knowing that I am health conscious made excuses for feeding their child sweets by saying "It's the only thing that keeps him quiet while I shop" or "Its only once in a while, so its not that bad." The repercussions from overindulging your child with sweets are great. Aside from the hyperactivity that excess sugar can cause, the crash and burn after sugar consumption for a small child can be in the form of a meltdown or tantrum and no parent likes to see that kind of behavior in their child.
So what is a parent to do in order to avoid creating bad habits in their child's diet? First off, avoid chemicalized artificial junk food. This includes highly processed foods like cookies, candy and cake as well as chips, crackers and snacks. Believe it or not, a lot of the foods that are marketed to parents as healthy choices for their children are just the opposite. Fruit snacks like gummy candies or rolls are no substitute for the real thing. By feeding your child snacks like grapes, strawberries, melon and mango, they get the sweetness that they like in the form of fresh, wholesome fruit. Carrot sticks, sliced sweet peppers, cucumber and tomato also make for great snack foods. My son is partial to garlic dill pickles which I rinse in water before serving him to lessen the intensity of the flavor. Whole foods, meaning foods that are not processed into something other than as they appear in nature, are the best snacks to feed your growing child. They are full of fiber, vitamins and minerals and do not tax the digestive system. Other great snacks are cheese sticks, organic is best, and healthy crackers like Kashi TLC crackers or Carrs Whole Wheat crackers, which my son calls cookies because they are so sweet. In place of plain juices, which you should always water down, I give my son Vruit which is a vegetable fruit juice blend that tastes great. You can find Vruit at most health food stores and Whole Foods markets. Instead of chicken nuggets, I serve veggie nuggets that are made from soy, spinach, broccoli, or mushrooms. My son's favorite brand is called Quorn and he will take those over fried chicken any day. On the rare occasion that he does eat chicken nuggets, I make sure to feed him organic, free range nuggets with a whole grain crust such as Health Is Wealth or Bell and Evans.
Don't get me wrong, I feed my child junk on occasion and I am sure if he liked cold food I would have exposed him to ice cream and frozen yogurt. But by knowing the damaging effects of sugary foods, I can not in good conscience make these foods a part of his regular diet. There is no reason for any child to drink chocolate milk instead of regular milk and there is absolutely no reason to ever give a child a soft drink. Instilling good habits in your child starts early and needs vigilance on the part of the parent to make sure that a healthy diet continues well into adolescence. Remember, you as the parent are in control. Therefore, you make the rules about food for your family. Don't let food be a quick fix to pacify your child when he or she is upset and don't offer sweets as a reward. Instead, try limiting sugary foods to times when you aren't in control of the food being offered, like another child's party or family celebration.
I will never forget the time my son and I went to someone
else's home for a lunch play date. The mother was serving cold cuts, bread,
cheese and some sides. She asked if my son would eat it, and I said yes
since sliced turkey, American cheese and pickles are some of his favorite
foods. However, when we sat down to lunch, he tasted and spit out every
single thing she put in front of him. I couldn't understand why until
I looked in her kitchen and saw where the food was coming from. Wonder
bread, packaged meats and processed cheese just didn't compare to his
usual organic bread, fresh sliced turkey and organic cheese. I realized
then that my son was now officially a food snob, preferring organic whole
foods to processed versions of the same thing. We won't even talk about
the "dessert" she offered of chocolate chip cookies and brownies
that my son also wouldn't eat. He preferred the sliced strawberries on
the table over the baked goods. I was so proud. Being strong about the
choices you make for your child will create a happy healthy kid who is
starting out on the right foot when it comes to food.
Rachel Leslie is a certified holistic health counselor
and founder of A Cup of Life, Holistic Health Counseling. She is also
a partner in Green Parties CT, an organic catering company located in
Fairfield County, Connecticut. Rachel lives in Stamford, Connecticut with
her husband and son. For more information: www.acupoflife.com.