Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
23 May

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

hamburgerkidThe 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? I’d suggest making your own, but why limit it? Kids love the concept of dips and sauces, and I think I’ve got a good book somewhere for that, too.

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. Take the poll, and add your comments below.

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Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Thankfully my son was never much of a picky eater. What ever I put in front of him , he would eat it. Since going primal almost two years ago, I cook the same thing for both of us to eat. I think I would find it frustrating to cook different meals. Everybody eats the same thing. So if one person is allergic to something, nobody eats it. I know at school he occasionally drinks a Gatorade or eats pizza, but even at 15, he notices that his body feels different when he eats junk.

    Angelica wrote on May 24th, 2013
  2. This article really was a great read. I have two small children 2 and 4 who eat 50/50. What I loved most about this article was the comments! This sounds terrible but it’s so nice to hear that I’m not the only one struggling with their kids.

    Kristen wrote on May 24th, 2013
  3. My kids get to choose whatever they want for their birthday dinner. My daughter turned five in March, and when I asked her, “What would you like for your birthday dinner? Choose anything you like!” Her response was, “Braised ox tails, sweet potatoes and roasted brussel sprouts…..(followed by a very long) SLUUURRRRRP!”

    Now that’s my definition of a picky primal eater. :) But I guess I’m a picky mama, too. I would choose that meal over pizza any day!

    Twyla wrote on May 24th, 2013
  4. I make mostly primal foods and my kids eat the stuff they like and don’t eat what they don’t like, but i keep serving those foods anyway and sometimes a few weeks later they eat it up as though they never not liked it. my son likes chicken and salmon, so i make it a lot. Like mark said, they tend to feel more satisfied eating familiar foods they like, so if that means he eats chicken or salmon for every meal 3 days in a row, so be it. i also took him out to buy his own smoothie cup with a straw and he loves throwing foods in our blender to make his own smoothie. We also make it a color game…something red, something blue, something green, white yogurt, ect. My son has a handful of primal foods he likes and while we always encourage him to try the other foods we make, i am very happy that what he does eat is nutritious. If he doesnt want to eat dinner, i dont force him, but that is also because sometimes I dont want to eat dinner either. I think its normal and since the snacks in our house are fruits, veggies, and nuts, and there are always leftovers from dinner, if he gets hungry later, he knows where to find something and I know it is healthy. Eating is a natural normal part of our daily lives. Dont turn it into a daily battle or punishment, just go with the flow. Oh, and it helps to keep your kids active and busy playing…really builds up their appetite and makes them desire food more so they want to eat and rebuild those energy levels. :-)

    stefanie wrote on May 24th, 2013
  5. As a mother to 2 teenagers and where my husband and both children all have Autism and thus sensory/texture issues with all sorts of foods. This has been an ongoing issue we have worked on for years. I used a rather scientific method when they were little and explained that their taste buds and likes and dislikes change over the course of their entire lives. It takes over 30 different times of trying something to know for sure you do not like it. For example I told them I do not like cauliflower, I keep trying it hoping I will like it better in the future and try it different ways but I just do not care for it. We approached that with everything.

    Also we have been eliminating foods and switching to more real food gradually for years as my knowledge increased. We eliminated all dairy except organic milk and limited that when they were younger due to ear infections. 5 years ago I went completely dairy free and my children went mostly dairy free except the occasional pizza. Then I tested positive for Celiac’s disease about 3 years ago as did my daughter. My son has the skin version of it which still affects the intestines. Now I have been mostly primal for the last year and my children are mostly primal with some addition of beans, peanut butter, rice and tortillas as they are hungry all the time as teenagers and honestly feeding them completely primal they are not yet interested. They do love my primal meals and will eat them with me but need more carbohydrates than I fix for myself. They tolerate potatoes well and both like sweet potatoes too. So mostly it is easy with my kids. Honestly the most difficult person right now is my husband who eats a more traditionally SAD, he eats some of what we eat but has such severe texture and taste issues I don’t know if he is capable of changing his diet too much further.

    Stephanie wrote on May 24th, 2013
  6. When I was a kid, I hated carrots. They drove me nuts, with their flavor and texture. And then, suddenly, when I turned 6, I decided they were fatabulously delicious and I devoured enough that I’m surprised I didn’t turn orange.

    Also, re: letting the kids roam… has anyone ever noticed that the less ‘developed’ toddlers/young kids in the world often roam around chewing random food at feeding time? The adults are usually all sitting (or crouching) near plates, but the 3-6 year olds are wandering, visiting different family members while they chew on whatever they’ve gotten their sticky fingers on. Can’t help but think there’s nothing wrong with letting the kids wander around a dinner table. They’ll grow out of it, and I don’t personally believe in restraining natural instinct like that.

    Wow, I sure wish my family had discovered paleo/primal eating when I was a kid. I had brain fog like no other, no ambition for much more than watching tv, and by my early teens I was having severe gut issues that lead me to the bathroom 5-6 times a day. Considering how awesome primal is to me, I feel like I was cheated out of my prime development here.

    C. wrote on May 24th, 2013
    • Er– I meant, in the less ‘developed’ countries, toddlers/young kids…

      Not less developed kids.

      C. wrote on May 24th, 2013
  7. I think we need to have some compassion for children who are raised on junk food, and then suddenly are thrust into the world of healthy eating. Junk food is a drug. They are addicted. You need to be gentle. It’s one thing if you start your child on healthy food- then I think zero tolerance can work. But for a child who is addicted to junk food, you need to go slow and be patient. If you’ve been serving Mac n Cheese for 8 years, and overnight you switch them to salad and steak, they will probably experience withdrawal symptoms. Do you really want your kids to have to go through low carb flu?

    My daughter was, for better or worse, born with many food allergies, so she has never ever been able to eat “normal” food. We’ve been gluten and junk free since she was born. Because of her circumstances, she is a great eater and rarely complains about anything, despite having an extremely limited diet compared to your average person. When I list her allergies (dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, coconut, gluten) most people say “OH MY GOD, what do you eat???” to which we always reply “Meat, fruit, and vegetables. What else is there?”

    Marian wrote on May 24th, 2013
  8. I so wish people would stop with all the judgment.

    I have four children (two grown, two teenagers). My first, second, and fourth child each have a few foods they dislike, as do my husband and I, but will eat whatever happens to be for dinner. My third child dislikes almost everything healthy and wants nothing but white flour, cheese, chicken nuggets, etc., and even those only in tiny quantities. He has serious issues with food texture, especially.

    Given a choice between “this or nothing,” the choice will ALWAYS be nothing. This is why, at nearly 15 years old, he barely weighs 70 pounds. His height is not even ON the growth chart, and he is underweight even for that height. He has been going to a pediatric endocrinologist since he was 4 years old for his growth issues, as well as other doctors for Tourette’s and being on the autism spectrum.

    I feed him whatever I can get him to eat. When those things are primal, they’re primal. When they’re not, they’re not. I challenge any of these commenters who think just being strict about food will fix everything to watch his/her 70 pound 15-year-old son starve himself without realizing that lousy food is at least SOME food.

    Carolina wrote on May 24th, 2013
    • Your third child sounds like I was when I was a child, and like many children with Asperger’s, autism and other disorders that fit these symptoms. I demanded “beige foods” with certain textures, and my parents complied. I wish I could have told my parents then what I know now–”Please don’t feed me a ‘beige, soft/uniform-texture, diet,’ even if you think it’s somehow being kind to me or helping me, because it’s not. It’s the opposite. It’s this very diet that is causing me to be this way. Please put up with my tantrums in the short run so that we both can benefit in the longer run. Please be strong for me, because I’m too sick and young and unknowing to be strong about this myself. I’m not going to starve to death and it’s not the end of the world. Thanks.”

      I don’t think in the slightest think “that being strict about food will fix everything,” but I do know that my parents’ caving into my demands for the sort of foods you report was part of my own undoing. How I wish they had stood firm against my demands. If only I could go back in time to tell them.

      Paleophil wrote on May 25th, 2013
      • And despite my parents’ giving in to my demands because they were afraid I would be too thin, I ended up emaciated anyway, so it didn’t help even in the way they thought it would.

        Paleophil wrote on May 25th, 2013
  9. Definitely tried 2 of your suggestions with great affect with my kids…

    I made my own version of ketchup. they wouldn’t go near it until I told them it was my special sauce and they couldn’t have any…

    surprisingly it disappeared quite quickly! ;)

    Tomas wrote on May 24th, 2013
  10. This just appeared on a Celiac listserv, written by a high school senior. It’s not exactly on topic but shows some of the issues “non-standard” kids face. http://www.glutenfreejenna.com/Bullying.pdf

    Paleo-curious wrote on May 25th, 2013
  11. I am so grateful to have discovered this way of life before my kids were too old. It has been very easy to transition them to primal eating, however it does take a lot of work and I had to experiment a lot. Now I know what to have on hand at all times (hard boiled eggs, certain raw veggies and dip, deli meat, avocados, almond butter) in case I run out of time to cook or whatever. If I am having trouble getting them to eat something I will lay out the meal picnic-style on a blanket or arrange the food into a “face” on their plates. It’s amazing how these tricks can get a child over the hump of trying a new food or eating a food they don’t love.

    jj wrote on May 27th, 2013
  12. My son is almost 21 months. Still nurses frequently and eats mostly primal. He did not start solids until almost 7 months-he wasn’t interested, the kid loves the boob–but when he did eat solids it was fruits, veggies, and meats from the get go. We did baby led weaning and he never had cereal, oatmeal, or any other grains. He didn’t have any grains at really until he was well over a year old. The result–he doesn’t like chips, cookies, crackers, muffins, anything like that. He straight turns his nose up at it. He devours anything green, prefers fish and steak to anything. He eats dried green beans, homemade yogurt, raisins, cherry tomatoes, and carrot & beet “chips” as snacks I love it and am so happy we decided to go the route we did, contrary to what pediatricians and baby nutrition guidelines say we should do. We will be doing the same with our second child, due in Dec.

    BFranked wrote on May 30th, 2013
  13. Wow some of you people have absolutely crazy mealtimes. Over complicating something that doesn’t need to be a power struggle. Some of the stories sound like kid nightmares!

    Kids don’t care what its healthy. They will never see it your way unless you are gifted with a precocious child.

    My mother was a health nut and a terrible cook. She tried to get me to drink bitter herbal formulas and other questionable “health” concoctions. It was absolutely disgusting. I was her guinea pig and and she wouldn’t drink it herself, it was “for my health!”. I was punished by being made to sit at the table until I drank it. I often chose to be grounded rather than eat that junk. I would find ways to throw it out when she wasn’t looking. It damaged my trust in her and I still don’t like the woman.

    I was a picky eater and still am. I have many allergies and intolerances. If my mother hadn’t been such a terrible cook and less punitive I might have been more open to trying new things and eating healthier. I didn’t like vegetables until I was an adult because my mom didn’t know how to cook them properly!

    My cousins had a mother who made them clean their plates, no matter how full they were. They often looked ill and got stomach aches. Don’t be that person, it did them no good.

    Find something your kid likes that is healthy, and just make that. Make it WELL! When they get bored of eating the same thing all the time, they will want to branch out and try something else. That’s when you get them. Encourage exploration, don’t punish their fears. Positive reinforcement goes miles further than holding a knife to their throats (I think someone actually mentioned that they would threaten to kill the dog).

    Ann wrote on July 19th, 2013
  14. It takes approximately 17 attempts with a new food before a child is comfortable with it, so if you’re having issues and you’ve only tried it at 5 meals, there is your problem. Persistence is key, don’t be forceful, just persistent, and try to involve them in the cooking process and they are much more likely to enjoy what they’re eating!

    Dan wrote on August 11th, 2013
  15. Oh my goodness, this topic has so much frustration attached to it for some and I totally understand! My older daughter (now 14) was a real carnivore as a youngster, also loved potatoes, rice etc. but would not touch vegetables. After years and years of trying we finally when she got to the age of 9 told herthat she was eating a portion of veg at each meal whether she liked it ot not and we didn’t want to hear any more about it and that was that.

    We went primal last year (our diet before that was mostly whole foods cooked from scratch so it was really just about taking out the bread and vegetable oils and sugar, we weren’t even too bad on the sugar). Neither myself nor my husband were overweight and my husband was losing too much weight even with added fats so we added back in some potatoes and a little bit of rice with curries etc. My older daughter was pretty much eating what we were, although wouldn’t eat things like zucchini noodles or swede and carrot mash, so I would give her rice noodles and some frozen potato rosti things I managed to find that weren’t full of junk and were made with palm oil. However we found out she was going to the shop every day after school and filling up with doughnuts etc.! She was a little chunky to start with and I had wondered why she hadn’t lost any weight! With a bit of education she’s now on the right track.

    My younger daughter (aged 4) is another story altogether. She was breastfed for quite a long time and when I started her on solids I would just give her what we were eating and just chew it up for her first (how primal is that!?!). I had great ideas of how that would get her used to all different tastes and that she wouldn’t be picky then at all, ha!

    She will happily eat veg, not all veg, but happy with the ones she likes, loves rice and potatoes (though only roast or in fries, home cooked in beef dripping of course) but trying to get any form of protein down her has been fun! She loved cheese as a baby, fish, ribs, roast chicken, nuts but then went off the lot!

    I just try and do my best with her and have managed to coax her back to eating roast meats. Breakfast and lunch is a challenge though, she won’t eat the meals at school and I don’t think I’d want her to anyway so, as she won’t eat much protein options I do give her sandwiches but do make them with real sourdough bread and make sure they’re very nutrient rich fillings, she usually has smoked salmon a couple of times a week, liver pate a couple of times a week and maybe ham on the other day along with some berries and cucumber every day.

    Her snacks are live greek yogurt, although I admit I do get the ones with sweetened fruit compote, fruit, little cocktail sausages, those little round cheeses (called babybel here). The one thing I can’t get her off is her cheese oatcakes that she loves but I reason that at least they’re made with some cheese and palm oil to offset the oats. Hopefully when she’s a bit older I can do an education job on her like her sister and get her all the way there!

    Vanessa wrote on March 14th, 2014
  16. I’m new to primal (and not yet fully converted) but I have been gluten-free for over a year. I have been converting my 2 boys (10&7) to gluten-free for the past 6+ months but can’t convince my hubby at all (he is a bread/carb junkie but that’s another issue). We are also partly dairy free (except for cheese & grass-fed butter) My question is: how do you counter-act the information that they get at school regarding nutrition? My oldest has been arguing that they have been told that “whole-grains are healthier.” Any advice? But please do NOT suggest home-schooling as that is not an option.

    Michele wrote on May 19th, 2014
  17. My 3.5 year old has grown up paleo. He does get rice and a few corn chips and organic gummies once in a while that have tapioca. I”ll say he is the only kid I know that prefers kale to potato. Actually he hates potato chips. He has had bad chocolate and prefers 80 percent and higher dark chocolate.

    He doesn’t like dips, sauces, or anything to be mixed or mushy. So even though he has an amazing diet we still struggle. I sometimes feel like he doesn’t get enough and then I see his friend eating all grains and sugar. Hell my kid doesn’t like sweet things. He doesnt’ like honey, or sugar and won’t touch a paleo pancake and most paleo cookies unless they are super thin and cracker crisp.

    Kid are odd. I’m glad mine is paleo but he still has odd quirks about his foods.

    Laurie wrote on May 19th, 2014
  18. Love this. We have 5 kids. and they ALL eat Mostly Primal. We stick to NO GLUTEN EVER. And we do have a stash of little lollipops for those special moments. but we go with what they love they like potatoes, so they get potatoes, they love burgers (so they get homemade burgers with hidden things, no buns but lots of veggie toppings), they love apples so we buy lots of apples. they love Caesar salad so we skip croutons. we bring gluten free goodies to parties, and every now and then we make a gluten free pasta dish or salad these are considered treats too. sometimes they complain but after about 6 months their bodies adjusted completely and now even if they eat conventional food they get actually get sick. their little bodies say no. and though we thought they were healthy before they were active etc. we look at pictures from a year or two ago and you can see the pre primal bloated tummies and faces, and now they all have flat tummies and healthy glowing faces

    Haley wrote on May 20th, 2014
  19. Overheard at the Dr Office “if it’s not a Cheeto Cheesie he just won’t eat it”. yikes

    My son who is 90% paleo with a little yogurt and rice is off the charts in height and weight for his age but the Dr just smiles and says what a beautiful healthy boy he is.

    I’d like to let his genes fully express his true potential for height and strength.

    Georgia wrote on May 20th, 2014

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