A few months ago, I was having a discussion with a co-worker who has a daughter the about the same age as mine. We were talking about health, wellness, and nutrition. Normally I don’t engage in a conversation of this type with co-workers, as I find that my opinions are about as popular as my political opinions and opinions on sports teams. However, I know that while this particular co-worker doesn’t follow the Paleo lifestyle, I know that she follows a clean eating plan and limits her intake of items such as refined sugar. She typically limits her food intake to whole foods from their direct sources, and when it comes from a package she attempts to have that pre-packaged food contain no more than 5-ingredients. If it exceeds that number of ingredients, she has to be able to pronounce said ingredient, and it cannot be a chemical of any form. One day in particular we managed to get into a discussion about our children and what we allow and do not allow them to eat. She told me that before her daughter eats a pre-packaged food she reads the label out loud to her and asks her where each ingredient comes from—Q: “Baby, where does corn come from?” A: “A plant”; Q: “Where does beef come from?” A: “A cow” … and so on and so forth. She went on to tell me that her husband did the food shopping one day and came home with something that didn’t pass the 5-ingredient muster test. Not only did it not pass that test, it didn’t pass the chemical test either. She looked at her daughter and said, “Baby where does Red Dye #40 come from” A: “…(silence)…” Q: “where does Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil come from?” A: “…(silence)…” Q: “How about artificial flavors?” A: “Mommy is that even food?!” PRICELESS! Out of the mouths of babes as the saying goes.
I keep coming back to this conversation with my co-worker every time I pick up a pre-packaged item at the grocery store. I’m no Paleo Perfectionist. Heck, most days I’m not any kind of a perfectionist, never mind a Paleo one. I eat about 80/20 Paleo. My family has not, after 3-years, fully transitioned to a Paleo lifestyle. I do my best to put quality food on the table for my family, though from time to time when I haven’t planned well enough in advance we rely on organic rice pasta and homemade red sauce for dinner with some raw veggies on the side. While I try to buy as much fresh fruits and veggies as possible, I do have prepackaged items in my cabinet. Most, like my friend, fall into the category of 5-ingredients or less. The kids most recent obsession in the snack food realm are what we call “shark snacks”—they are rice and seaweed crisps that come in a package that has an image of a shark on the front (the brand is SeaSnax – the Chompers line). And despite having “picky kids,” I was able to get my oldest (5-yr old Lil One) to eat an ExoBar, which she thought was a total treat.
When it comes to meal time however, all bets are off on if they will actually eat that meal in total. I have one who refuses to touch eggs with a 10-foot pole and one who refuses to eat vegetables, raw or cooked. We used to play a game of word with my kids and call most proteins that they ate chicken—because we knew that chicken was something that they ate with no questions asked. Salmon for dinner? Nope—that was pink chicken. Homemade kielbasa? Heck no! That was Polish chicken. And what did those pesky leprechauns bring for St. Patrick’s Day? Was that Corned Beef? Totally wrong there too—Irish chicken! Before we knew it everything was some form of chicken. So back to the initial story that I told you about my co-worker’s daughter…I asked my own daughter one day where beef came from and she said, “I don’t know.”
I told her it came from a cow. And she was shocked—“you mean like the ones in our back yard?” (Our backdoor neighbor is a cattle farm). Yes Lil One…beef is from cow. Pork is from pigs…and that pink chicken, yeah well that’s a fish called salmon. I realized quickly how important it was to begin to teach my children not only where their food comes from literally (the animal or plant), but to also help them make a connection to truly WHERE their food comes from. Beef doesn’t come from Whole Foods. Beef comes from the cow that the farmer raised with care and compassion and then allowed it to become our food. The eggs that my daughter doesn’t like? Well she knows the two farmers that I buy them from and has seen pictures of the hens that lay the eggs.
We have been blessed since moving to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina to be exposed to a vast network of local farmers and members of the local agricultural community. As I mentioned above, our backdoor neighbors are a herd of cows that will on hot summer days, wander into the creek that separates our properties. There is a small farm on our way to daycare that some mornings, if we time our departure for school properly we will see the farmer bringing a fresh batch of hay to the feed lot for the calves to eat. We have a fantastic farmer’s market that has an amazing selection of beautiful produce, meat, and honey. I allow my children to look at the stalls and help select the produce that I’m planning to purchase and also to pay the farmer that is at his stand. I believe strongly in allowing our children to make that connection—the closer we can be to our food, the more we can be assured that we are in fact consuming quality produce with a greater nutrient value than those from large, commercial farms that are likely government subsidized and laden with GMO plants. They learn the value of food, and they also learn the value of the hard work that the farmer, who hands back the change with dirt under their fingernails, has gone through to produce the food we just bought.
When we lived in Rhode Island, we had a small raised bed that we made from cinder blocks—now that we’re in North Carolina, I already have plans to have 3 larger planting beds and have been researching natural pest control, as well as deer control measures. This spring we began to peruse the stalls at the NC State Farmer’s Market in Raleigh to see if there were any seedlings available to purchase so that we can start our home garden. The kids were very excited as they began to toss around the names of various plants they would like to try and cultivate next summer (most of which they would likely not eat), however, there is a strong relationship between getting children to try new foods when they have a connection to that food—when they grew it. If you’ve ever grown your own tomatoes then you know exactly what I’m referring to.
Recently, my multiple social media feeds have been inundated by various “diets” that promote some kind of supplement, vitamin, pill, shake, wrap, etc. all promising health, weight loss, and other miraculous results. I typically keep my opinions to myself (except on the blog). However, it’s hard not to get worked up when some of those same products also market a line specifically geared towards kids. It’s also easy to see how, as a parent you can be fooled by those labels I originally spoke about when they advertise things such as “17 essential vitamins and minerals” and “an excellent source of calcium, B-complex vitamins and antioxidant Vitamins A.” However when you really look at the ingredients, you see the following as the first three ingredients: soy protein isolate, fructose, sugar. A bit further down the line you also see maize dextrin (another name for corn starch). Food Label Reading 101 tells us that the first ingredients are of the highest percentage of ingredients in that particular “food” in question. So, if two of the first three ingredients are essentially sugar, and the first is a soy product that is not noted to be non-GMO, to me it looks like something I personally wouldn’t even think of giving to my kid no matter if it touts 17 essential vitamins and minerals or not. The fact is that close to 90% of all soy grown in the United States is genetically modified or engineered[i], [ii], [iii]. Why would you purposefully want to give you child that? Never mind the fact that this wouldn’t pass the 5-ingredient test, among other rule of thumb tests.
The importance of teaching children to read labels goes beyond just the ingredients list—it speaks to marketing as well. Recently we were at Costco and Lil One knew we needed maple syrup. I couldn’t find my usual container of 100% pure maple syrup and saw a big end-cap of syrup. It read “organic” and “gluten free”. I picked it up out of curiosity and said out loud “organic” and Lil One said, “Oh Ok, is it gluten free too?” I read over the ingredients—while they were indeed “organic” in nature there was not a single ingredient that had anything to do with what maple syrup is (and I have to note it did say pancake syrup…not maple syrup). But with ingredients such as invert cane syrup, natural flavor, organic caramel color…just because something is noted as “organic” or “gluten free” doesn’t mean it’s good for you. While you could likely say to me “sugar is sugar” and maple syrup does fall into that category of sugar, there is research that shows certain kinds of sugar are better than others. Grade B maple syrup (which is what we just switched to) is known to have more antioxidants than agave and white sugar.[iv] Another such example—“vegetarian fed/raised chicken or egg.” The marketing companies know that people are looking for healthier options, so they focus on some key buzzwords. They are implying that vegetarian raised chickens will lay eggs that are healthier. Did you know that chickens are NOT supposed to be vegetarians? When left to their own devices in pasture, the chickens are eating bugs AND grasses and seeds. They are in fact omnivores like we are. So why would we buy eggs that were laid from hens that were not fed their natural diet? The Washington Post had a great article on this topic earlier this year—you should all read it. [v] I digress—the message is that not only do we need to teach our kids the importance of avoiding marketing techniques, but we also must understand them just the same.
As a fulltime working mom of two small children I can understand the desire to get fast “nutrients” into your child, especially if you don’t really know what the ingredients are or where they came from yourself. I go back to my own kids and the fact that I’m NOT perfect. There are many mornings were we rely on a slice of Udi’s gluten free toast (more than 5-ingredients and processed) and some homemade almond butter for breakfast before running out the door. And since my children don’t appear to have an issue with high-quality dairy, sometimes breakfast is a smoothie or even a parfait—but made with fresh, organic fruit and grass-fed whole milk yogurt. Or often we will make fruit and nuts bars—knowing they are good on the go snacks; let them help you make them! Again, getting the kids involved in the creation of the food they eat will help to educate them on what goes into the food we consume, both from a literal ingredient standpoint, but also from a quality standpoint. Instead of continuing to fund the large conglomerate companies that rely on gimmicks and questionable food ethics standards, never mind even more questionable food sources, we should be focusing our efforts on supporting our small local farmers. Focusing our efforts on items that contain 5-ingredients or less. Focusing our efforts on educating our children on the chain of custody of our food supply—on ethical farming practices, on the hard work and care that goes into growing you own food and utilizing the freshest of ingredients in a true farm to table manner.
The amazing Joel Salatin said, in the book Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World, “The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.” As parents, we are the educators of our children. We lead by example. We teach by the things we do, and do not do. I was doing my children a great disservice when I decided to call everything chicken for the sake of peace and calm at the dinner table—there are no pink chickens (unless it’s raw). And sure there may be chickens in Poland or Ireland, but they certainly do not look like kielbasa or corned beef. As parents we owe it to our children and ourselves to be educated on where our food comes from and to be mindful of the ingredients in our food when it does come from a supermarket shelf. We should all be asking the same question that my friend’s 5-year old did, “Is that even food?” If a 5-year old can grasp the magnitude of what is in our food then so should we as parents.
So the question is then posed, what can we do as parents to instill in our children a better understanding of food quality and a general understanding of where our food comes from? Here are five ways we can better educate our children on food quality and our food supply:
- Discuss where your food comes from. Just this morning at breakfast we discussed that baby chicks are NOT inside the eggs we eat, as well as how we get to eat chickens in the first place. We discussed that a farmer raised their flock with a good life and treated them well and then humanely and with respect, killed the chicken so we could eat it.
- Meet your farmers. If you have a Farmer’s Market go to them and let your child ask them questions. Maybe kohlrabi is in season and your child wants to know what it is and how we can use it in our meals. Some farmers also have Farm Days where they invite their patrons to visit the farm. Research to see if there is one in your area. It will ive your children a better appreciation for the hard work that goes into growing and raising the food you eat.
- Grow some of your own food at home. Whether you buy established plants or grow them from seed, raising your own food will also give your children a better appreciation for our farmer’s and their hard work. It will help our children to understand what being a good steward of the land means.
- Read Labels. Don’t be afraid to read the labels with your kids. Helping them understand that the fewer the ingredients in something from the center aisles at the grocery store the better. Help them to determine what is a good food choice and a bad food choice. Is there a way to do get a similar product but making it from scratch with quality ingredients at home? Help them to understand that just because a package says something is good for you doesn’t mean it is.
- Cook with your children. Let your kids help in the kitchen. Maybe they can measure the ingredients out if you’re baking. Or if you’re cooking green beans for dinner maybe they can snap off the ends. Allowing our kids to see the entire process of how the food we eat gets to our tables is just as important as how the food is grown. Focus on quality ingredients. Answer their questions. And potentially work out ways to recreate some of their favorite processed treats in a healthier manner—let them be a part of the proce.
[i] According to the Institute for Responsible Techonology the statistic is 94% GM soy: http://www.responsibletechnology.org/gmo-basics/gmos-in-food
[ii] According to the Huffington Post the statistic is 93% GM soy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margie-kelly/genetically-modified-food_b_2039455.html
[iii] According to an article on Mother Jones, it is reported that according to the USDA that more than 90% of soy is GM: http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2014/04/superweeds-arent-only-trouble-gmo-soy
[iv] Mark Sisson has some thoughts on the benefits of maple syrup: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-paleo-cod-liver-oil-sunflower-butter-mead-maple-syrup-pectin/#axzz3iyob8uIw
[v] Washington Post article: “People love chickens that are ‘vegetarian fed.’ But chickens are not vegetarians. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/29/consumers-love-chickens-that-are-vegetarian-fed-never-mind-what-the-birds-want-to-eat/