Raising Real Food Heroes: A mother’s challenge to raising her children ‘junk and sugar-free’

Before I even fell pregnant with my first child, I knew that I wanted to be able to give her best and healthiest start to life I possibly could.

BACKGROUND

I have always considered myself healthy, but when my husband and I had been battling to conceive, we began doing everything we could to get ourselves in even better health condition. A few years previously, we had already made a joint decision to stop buying bread/bread products and to cut down on our sugar intake, simply because we knew it made us feel better. It was around this time that through a friend, I was made aware of the “Real Meal Revolution: Raising Superheroes” Recipe Book. I bought it right away and everything I read in the first few pages confirmed what I’d been feeling was best in terms of a lifestyle for the whole family.

My husband and I have pretty much grown up addicted to sugar, simply because of the era we were raised. Not much was known about the dangers of sugar, fizzy drinks and processed food when we were young. As a result, my husband finds it difficult to cut out refined carbs completely and I often find myself drawn to sweet things. However, we know all too well the benefits and overall sense of wellbeing we receive when we do manage to resist, and cut those foods out. We are both able to identify that “ugh” feeling when we have over indulged in sugar, refined carbohydrates or heavily processed food. Over the years, I have changed my thinking about sugar and no longer regard it as a necessity to my eating or cooking. My goal is to be able to live as sugar free as possible!

REASONS

My choice to raise my children as sugar and processed-free as possible was based largely on the fact that I did not want them to battle with a sugar addiction in the same way that my husband and I have had to and secondly, to limit as much as possible, the negative effects of sugar and additives on their developing brains and bodies. According to the “Raising Superheroes”, sugar is as bad as cocaine for your child’s brain and most of us know by now too that so many health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, strokes, even cancers and more, are linked to our sugar intake and poor gut health. (Poor gut health is the cause of so many illnesses and diseases and I will write more on it in the future).

Sally-Ann Creed agrees by stating that, “Sugar has been linked to the suppression of the immune system, contributes to mood swings in children, hypoglycaemia, kidney problems, increases the risk of coronary heart disease, mineral deficiency, tooth decay, obesity, diabetes and hypertension”! Why on earth would any of us want to encourage the possibility of our children having to deal with any of these issues!?

Initially my goal was just to get through my child’s first year without any exposure to sugar or refined carbohydrates, but in the end, I was able to avoid it a lot longer than I expected! Although now at almost 4 years old, she is exposed to sugar and processed foods, it is on a very limited basis.

I began the process by weaning her on to REAL foods (no baby cereal), starting with pure vegetables. I introduced as many vegetables as I could before introducing fruit, starting with the tarter fruits first.

Although it took a little more effort and planning it was possible. Wherever we went, I made sure that she had her own meal or snack packed so that it was easy to say no to any offers of rusks, biscuits or sweets for her.

REACTIONS

I have received a LOT of negative reactions because of my choices! Folk jokingly called me “a mean mom” for “depriving” my child (and some weren’t always joking!) My response was that because it (sweets, biscuits or cake) was something she had not had yet, she had no frame of reference as to what she was supposedly missing out on! As far as she was concerned, the snack in her bowl was just as delicious as what everyone else was eating. Another common accusation I heard was that when they went to a party, my kids would go crazy and gorge themselves on the junk food there because they had been so “deprived” –I imagine that the reasoning was that exposing your child to sugar more regularly would prevent binge episodes later? Considering the addictive nature of sugar, I find this reasoning somewhat strange. I have no problem with my child now enjoying a good party and eating her fill, but already she understands that it’s not the norm and not part of our lifestyle.

I must say that given the latest global “health craze” I have been really surprised, by just how much negative attention this choice of mine made. It’s like people want to be or appear healthy, but have yet to really change their mindsets about food and how we eat. I once had someone shocked that I was giving my baby cheese to eat, while her child was enjoying mouthfuls of icing sugar!

Family are often the hardest to get on board, but I am so grateful that in spite of some teasing, for the most part, our families have honoured our requests to limit the junk invasion. I give credit to my sister, who loves to spoil the kids with gifts, but is always creative with her choices – and instead of sending sweets, finds things like Trail mix packs, mini Nut butter tubs, Dried fruit sticks etc to include in her parcel. They are always received with much delight!

PARTIES

With so many recipes easily available for healthy party treats or sugar free alternatives, I am surprised at the predictability of party menus- especially for toddlers. I would be pleasantly surprised to find myself at a kiddie’s party where for a change, store-filled party packs are replaced instead by homemade treats! For my daughter’s second birthday party, everything on the table was made by hand, suitable for both adults and kids and sugar free (one or two snacks had honey). I did it mainly for her sake, but also to show that it can be done. It DOES take more time, but can also be a lot of fun and where one can rope in the help of family; it can make for a fun afternoon!

Homemade party treats for my child’s second birthday party

A packed lunch and snack for my 9 month old
Butternut, Patty pans with Steak, and Fruit

TIPS

These are by no means the best ideas or the only way to do things, simply hacks that I used to make the real food challenge slightly easier!

1. Pack you own snack of Real Food WHEREVER you go

Yes EVERYWHERE!

For her first year, I would even pack my child’s own snack to a party! Sometimes I would give her something from the adults’ table like a meatball or quiche as there were often better choices for her there. While she was still so little; it was easy to keep her away from the party table. She still had a fun time, interacting with everybody and didn’t know she was missing out on anything.

Some ideas for snacks (from as young as 7 months) that I used were things like: Boiled/scrambled eggs, different kinds of cheese, rice cakes or any other gluten-free crackers, raw veggies, meat or cooked bacon cut into small pieces and fresh fruit, especially berries (generally no dried fruit until after a year because of the sulphur and sugar, though I did eventually introduce raisins and prunes – always looking for sulphur-free if I could). I also made a lot of my own food like courgette fritters, gluten free flapjacks or different flavoured muffins.

In other words, I tried to use real food as much as possible – even for “snack time”- and although I am more relaxed with certain ingredients now that she’s older, where I am able, I will always try giving her a real food item over a processed item. When travelling or eating out, I may still pack some food from home for her, to avoid having to resort to junk food.

(Note: At times it is inevitable that you will need to buy kids’ snacks, but be mindful of ingredients – many “healthy” kids’ foods are filled with sugar and presevatives)

2. Be creative when eating out

When eating out, if by some chance I didn’t have food with me, I would either order a breakfast (scrambled eggs and bacon) and share it with my daughter, or I would look at the “Side Orders” and order one or two things from there, instead of looking at the “Kiddies section” on a menu (which are often very limited in what they offer).

For example, one can order a sausage and cut it up, and in some restaurants, I’ve even been able to order, pineapple slices and fried banana! Or I’d order a fruit smoothie and ask them to leave out the honey and then share it with her. Obviously, this worked best while she did not need a lot to eat, but as she has grown, I have had to be more creative and admittedly there are those times, now where a toasted sandwich is the easiest choice available! Generally though, I will first look at the adult menu for her before resorting to the kiddies’ option.

Recently, while on holiday in Jeffrey’s Bay, I was happily surprised by one restaurant’s Kid’s Menu – with any of their “Main” options for children, instead of just chips, one could choose a side order of apple slices, carrot sticks, or yogurt. I praised them for their creativity and I am sure we are going to see more eating venues making the same changes. Another tip is to always have an extra empty Tupperware or Sippy cup/bottle in your bag for takeaways or to decant larger portions into for them to eat later. I have found this to be very useful.

3. Be careful how you label/talk about food

My husband and I have never intimated that sweets were “better” or “nicer” than the food on her plate. This is a tip I got from the “Raising Superheroes” book – to not “reward” with sweets or to refer to them as “treats” in any way. When I started weaning on to solids, I would place the juicy sweet strawberry on the same plate as her meat and vegetables, and if she chose to eat the fruit first, that was her choice. I never tried to bribe her by saying, “IF you eat the veg you can have the strawberry”. All food had the same value.

Even when I started allowing her to have biscuits or other refined food, I tried not to make a big deal out of it, so that she wouldn’t learn that that food was more “special” than other food. Now that she’s a bit older, she has learnt that some foods just do taste nicer than others, (it is totally natural for anyone to be drawn to sweetness), but overall I have not had to battle with her eating much in any way.

4. Don’t withhold sweetness completely

Just because I wasn’t giving sweets and chocolate, didn’t mean that I completely withheld everything that was sweet. I just didn’t want those things to be the first sweet things she tasted and so I tried to introduce her to naturally sweet flavours first. However, I did delay the introduction of sweetness as long as I could.

After she turned one, I made sweet home snacks for her like ‘Icies‘ (Plain yogurt and fresh fruit moulds), delicious Date Balls and my own ‘Chocolate’ (Nut butter, Coconut Oil and Organic Cacao, with optional Honey)

Homemade Chocolate and Berry Yogurt ‘Icies’

5. Set an example

This is not always easy, but it is worth it. As my daughter has got older and more aware of what we were eating, my husband and I would sometimes have to make the choice to forgo a dessert we might have ordered or say no to a biscuit we were offered at teatime. (Of course this was beneficial for us too!) As I’ve said, it’s not always easy, but I have found that the more we make and stick to our changes, the easier they become.

6. Lastly, Persevere!

Don’t give up and resort to junk when you child is not showing interest in the food in front of him/her. For two years, my child would not touch Avocado or Pawpaw (Papaya), but one day out of the blue, ate both! Persevere!

I have no guarantee as to what benefit these choices will have on my two daughters in the future. What I do know so far is that my first born has hardly been sick. In spite of only being breast fed until 5 months old, she has not been on any antibiotic or other ‘serious’ medication. Is this linked to her diet? I have a feeling , but I cannot be sure. She appears to be happy, healthy and developing perfectly on track. She enjoys a wide range of food and flavours, and yes, still has moments of fussiness like any kid, but will always try something before choosing not to eat it.

I am raising my second daughter in the same way and my hope and prayer is that both my girls will grow up with a healthy relationship to food and find it easier to make healthy choices for their bodies in the future. .

( I will write a follow- on article to this one in a year or two about any new tips, effects on my kids, how my second one has fared etc.)

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