Raising Your Kids on Primal Foods (plus Mealtime Strategies for Picky Eaters)

The Ol' Stink EyeThe fact is, feeding children is never for the faint of heart or stomach. It’s an entirely different solar system when it comes to dining experience – the noise, the spills, the frantic pattern of go-get-this, can-you-help-me, cut everyone’s food until your own is stone cold, precise timing of chewing to complement your expected participation in knock-knock jokes – you get it. In the years my children were small, Carrie and I would relish the times when we were able to go out to dinner alone or when family members took the kids and we had a solo meal at home. The silence and ability to eat – uninterrupted – at a normal pace were enough to make us ecstatic. I think most of the time we didn’t even talk – not a word, and we each understood exactly why.

I think it’s safe to say this mismatch in preferred ambience often coincides with a mismatch in tastes. While the Primal Blueprint can be plenty child-friendly, in many cases it’s a trickier proposition for the small set, particularly if they’re used to conventional fare. Although we’d all, I’m sure, like the same perfectly Primal family affair, a lot of us don’t end up there. As hard core as we might be, sometimes the kids just aren’t so much.

You’re Primal. Maybe even your spouse is Primal (or close enough). It’s not that you haven’t tried. You’ve spent weeks – maybe months trying to transition your child to the Primal eating plan. For some, maybe it’s recurring cycles of effort over the course of years! You’ve read the books and the boards for ideas. You’ve laid out carefully crafted menus, collected all the ingredients, and experimented with an insane number of recipes. You’ve perused and “pinned” hundreds of ways to manipulate the plate presentation. You buy mini-swords, doilies, and cocktail toothpicks in bulk. Martha Stewart would be proud. Your kids, however – meh.

Sometimes it’s the taste. Other times it’s the texture. For some, it’s just the sheer, staggering force of habit. They know what they like, and that’s it. Research confirms what parents have observed: a child’s familiarity with a food determines how full he’ll feel as a result of eating it. Familiar foods are just more satisfying to kids. After a while, even the biggest believers get worn down if they’re trying to instill a significant shift in their children’s diet. With hundreds of dollars of food thrown away and dozens of cooking hours gone, it’s hard to keep justifying the misery.

I know folks – good, healthy, well-intentioned people who are strongly committed to eating Primal – but feed their kids SAD. They themselves wouldn’t touch the Cheerios or Gold Fish crackers their kids are snacking on, but there’s the paradox. It boggles the mind, sure. Still, having had kids, I get it. Having been worn down by the fatigue and the arguments and the cajoling, fed up with the wasted time and money, they finally just throw up their hands. Though perhaps bothered by guilt in certain moments, over time they learn to justify it in their minds – as we all justify many things in life. The kids are so young, they tell themselves, their bodies will burn it off. They don’t see any obvious differences in behavior or general health. They give them a multivitamin. Maybe they look at the way they ate growing up and tell themselves, “If I survived that, my kids can too.” They’ve given up the internal conflict.

However much I identify with the fatigue and frustration – and respect parents’ needs to make independent compromises based on their given situations – the actual science is less understanding. Research suggests early nutrition impacts cognitive functioning in the adult years and even by the age of eight appears to reduce IQ. In terms of overall health, we know  how nutrition sets us up for epigenetic changes – positive or negative. We know how even the roots of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity can begin in childhood.

In other words, good nutrition matters even more to them than it does to us. Though we might be motivated to stave off mortality or aging – i.e. maintain what we have longer, their bodies’ and brains’ very ability to reach their basic potential is on the line. What they eat today will determine what they’re capable of for the rest of their lives. Likewise, the habits they begin early on can cement pretty quickly. The older they are, the more the window closes on making dramatic change in diet and exercise. Unfortunately, there’s no way to sugar coat that point.

I don’t mean to throw those points out there in the interest of inciting a massive guilt trip. I didn’t feed my kids 100% perfectly all the time. It’s not passing judgment, but it is about passing on information. Doing so, with support and strategies, can help us individually brainstorm and prioritize. The fact is, I think there’s major stress in our culture – now more than ever – to be the perfect parent in dozens of ways that weren’t even on the radar screen when most of us were growing up. I’m sure we could go on for days talking about all the things we used to do that we’d never let our kids try today (e.g. lay on the floor during car trips, bike across town alone, etc.). I’d say the vast majority of today’s pushes toward perfection should be chucked, repudiated, scorned and named the worthless wastes of time and energy (and often hindrances to personal development) that they are. Nonetheless, one of the few genuine priorities worth having, I think, is nutrition. When it comes to kids’ food, fighting the good fight matters – as early and as often as you can.

Creating Strategic Versions/Substitutions

Many people find focusing on strategic substitutions allows them to preserve their sanity while making sure their kids are fed decently. Grass-fed organic hot dogs, sans buns can win over most kids. Homemade jerky or nut butter offers a healthier version of less desirous packaged foods. Parents learn to make gluten free versions of chicken fingers. They make their own sweet potato fries. They figure out how to make better fish sticks. They bake root veggie chips with healthier oil options and sea salt. I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve heard from already – on the boards and in emails – who say Primal Cravings has been a godsend (their words) for this very reason. The recipes look like food their kids would recognize and want to eat. There’s a mind to texture and simplicity that will work well with kids’ palates. Most children I know want uncomplicated food.

Using Copious Varieties (or Quantities) of Desired Condiments

There’s the assumption that most kids will eat a lot of things if they can put ketchup on them. Why not? Kids love the concept of dips and sauces.

Planting Forbidden Fruit

This defies reason, but sometimes the best strategy is to prepare a healthy (but kid-friendly) Primal dish and put it aside, tantalizingly almost – almost out of reach, in a place or position that makes the the child suspect it’s “for the adults” (for guests, even better) or not ready to be brought to the table. There’s something in children’s impish (or reptilian) little brains that makes forbidden food – even when healthy – seem that much more appealing. A friend’s daughter was so anti-meat that she wouldn’t even eat bacon. (Collective gasp.) One day, the husband was cooking a second batch of bacon for dinner and had put the plate with the first on a far counter to keep himself from eating it. His little girl ran in, saw the slightly obscured plate, gleefully grabbed a piece and absconded with it while he teasingly called after her to get back there and help, police. Within 10 minutes, she’d repeated the same move a few times and eaten half the batch. Since then, they’ve used the same technique to get her to eat other meats. For the “harder sells,” they go all out in making the platter look more enticing and forbidden looking (e.g. on the fancy china, in behind one of their wine glasses). Of course, it means she ends up eating most of her dinner on the run instead of at the table (so much for family dinner), but their perspective is this: at least she’s eating well!

Bartering Food for Freedom

This introduces another strategy – one we used with our children. Make certain foods or meals “roaming” approved. In other words, the parent grants freedom to skip sitting at the table if the kid will eat the healthy fare. Lay it out in a fun, festive, or otherwise eye-catching buffet style. Put on music. Teach and practice conventional manners at easier meals.

Some people might cringe at the idea of a toddler run amok and family dinner down the tubes – especially if there are other, older children. It highlights another important point. We all have our personal priorities, our chosen compromises, our sacred cows, our deal breakers as parents. This goes far beyond issues of decorum to the food itself. As I’ve said often, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Getting your kids to eat better isn’t an all or nothing proposition. It’s your call. Maybe you’re a solid no-GMO above all else. Maybe you’re first and foremost anti-gluten or grains. Perhaps your main goal is promoting veggie intake. Whatever goal you commit to, you’re making a positive difference in your children’s health and opening your mind – and theirs – to the idea that food choices matter.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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