Food Challenge 2013: kids, food and health.

When I think of my kids and food and health, I think that the most important thing in 13 years of parenting has been to impart in them a sense of self love, and learning how to take care of themselves.

I know from my own experience that the foods we grow up with are the foods that we turn to for comfort when we are adults. So it is important as a mother, as a parent, that I provide them with foods that will nourish them as children and keep them healthy as adults. I am responsible for their safety and well being. That includes what they eat, as that will determine how healthy they will be their entire lives. Health is vital for our well being and happiness. I know for myself that it is hard to be content when my body is hurting or not feeling well. Keeping our bodies happy is our responsibility, and it is important to learn to care for ourselves as a daily habit of life.

As a single mother, parenting takes on a new meaning. Especially as a new divorcée, many times I am tempted to let my children have what they want and like, and not insist that they eat and learn to eat what they need for their bodies to be healthy, happy. I may be too tired, or fear that they will not like me, or want to spoil them and make them instantly satisfied. One less battle to fight.

But I am their parent, not their friend. That comes first and foremost. And that means that they may not love me all the time; as a parent, I need to accept that. Because it does take a deep breath and a sense of the big picture when I insist that they eat a food they are not familiar with. 

Dark leafy greens (kale, collards, turnip, beet and mustard greens), beets, cabbage, sweet potatoes, eggplant, arugula, radicchio, radishes, bok choi, chine cabbage, spinach, white beans, pinto beans, black beans, lentils, red lentils, onions, garlic, bean soups, polenta, bulghur, quinoa... none of those are foods that we find at the local next door fast food joint. All of those are foods that I have had to slowly teach them to eat at home throughout the years, one by one. 

How? Insisting that they try one piece, one bite. Insisting that they wait for 15 or 20 minutes to eat dinner when they say they are hungry, instead of immediately giving them a snack just because they say they are dying of hunger. They will not die of hunger even if they wait for an hour. What they will do is eat really well, because they will be, in fact, really hungry. And when we are hungry, food tastes great. Real food. Not pizza, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, chips, french fries... ''kid's food,'' as they call it.

There is no place for junk when it comes to our children's health. Yes, we do eat pizza, burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches... but those foods are special foods, that we eat once in a while, to celebrate. Not every day. Not every other day. Not every week. Once in while. Every day, we need real nourishment. And that is our responsibility as parents. Yes, we do have long work days, yes we are tired and overwhelmed, yes the fridge is empty... but you know what? We have a freezer. And we do have brains. We can plan ahead. Cook and freeze.

Stock the fridge with fruits, whole grain sliced breads, boiled eggs, olives, plain yogurt, milk... so that when our kids feel hungry, or bored... and open the fridge for happiness... they grab fruit or yogurt. Or left overs from dinner- rice, beans, roasted chicken, a piece of meat, a bite of quinoa or bulghur salad, carrots, celery, butter, almond butter, peanut butter, hummus... real food.

Stock the pantry wisely. If the cabinets have no chips, gold fish, tortillas, M&M's, chocolate, and Captain Crunch cereal... they will not eat those ''snacks'' wen they are hungry. If the cabinets have nothing but almonds, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, rice cakes, flat bread, pita bread, fresh bread... that is what they will eat when they really are "starving."

That doesn't mean that daily meals and life have to be sheer misery. Insisting can always be done with a smile and a sense of humor. And there is always dessert, as long as they eat, and finish, the food that is on their plate. And consistency is magic. Kids are smart: just as they know that I would never let them stay up until 11pm on a school day to watch a movie, and know better than to ask for it... they know that the answer will always equally be ''no way'' to junk food… and they will know better than to ask for it.

Of course they will ask for treats, dessert, ice cream, chocolate, candy. But if they know that a small amount of it comes only after they eat a good meal that includes vegetables and whole grains (no, pizza does not count as a whole grain and vegetable), yes then they may have their treat. It is on us parents to set those boundaries.

My own personal boundaries may seem harsh to some; but as I grew up in a third world country with no easy access to those foods, I didn't crave or find them necessary in my diet. Those foods are harsh on my body- and if they are hard on my grown-up body, I can imagine what they do to the growing, developing body and mind of a child. These are my limits, both for myself and my children:

No fast food whatsoever. That is not food, that is junk. Junk food that destroys our bodies and taste buds, that we become used to and crave. You can be sure that if our children grow up eating french fries, that is what they will crave when they are stressed in college and as adults. And no matter how much the doctor may tell them later in life that their cholesterol is high, that they have diabetes and hypertension, and that fries, pizza, burgers and soda will kill them, they will continue to eat it. Because that is their emotional comfort and security. It will take a lot of will and self re-education to change habits set during childhood. Is that what we parents want for our children? 

No soda. Soda is liquid junk, and it will destroy their bones. It will not do it immediately, but it will contribute to obesity and osteoporosis later in life. Surprisingly, water doesn't have any of those effects. And when I say water, I mean just water, not sugar water. If runners can log in miles in the heat of a Florida summer on simple water, our kids can do just fine with plain water to do homework in an air-conditioned room, or to simply play outside.

No processed foods. No cereals, no "mac and cheese" cans, or "luncheables." I do have a few granola or raw bars for emergencies, and I do have chocolate; but no store-bought cookies, crackers and chips, canned foods of any type or kind, or pre-made meals. Most processed foods are not only costly, they are laden with all types and kids of chemicals, hidden sugars, and poor-quality (hydrogenated) fats. 

We want our children to be happy, healthy and succeed. So then, let us do everything we can to help them achieve their dreams- not only emotionally and mentally, but physically as well.

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