We are what we eat.
What I ate when I was a young kid was what the government gave us–and that included such goodies as peanut butter with hydrogenated oils, milk that no one wanted to buy (now that’s the stuff with artificial growth hormones added), and this bouncy, bright-orange “cheese product.” Now, what I–and my family–eats is quite different. I’m trying to get us closer to what my Grandma describes having eaten when she was young. In short, we eat “real” food. Food like what my Grandma–or someone’s Grandma–ate when they were young. (I took that definition from the food guru Michael Pollan.)
Why? Because the research suggests it is one thing parents can do to positively impact your child’s health. Here’s how to start.
Green Your Family’s Diet (and Not Go Crazy in the Process)
Here are a series of action steps listed from biggest impact, and possibly more work to the quick and easy to get your family eating greener.
- Feed your family like your great grandma did. In my experience it’s easier to focus on real foods rather than trying to find packaged or prepared foods that are truly healthy. In my house we eat lentils, a grain, and lots of veggies for at least a thousand meals a week, and breakfast is almost always porridge or eggs. Simple.
- Plant a garden. Even if it’s just one pot of herbs, it’s amazing to eat something you’ve grown yourself, and your kids won’t grow up believing that food is grown in grocery stores. Even if you don’t garden, try to compost. It will cut your garbage almost in half, reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, and you can show your kids where soil comes from.
- Shop your local farmers’ market or join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group. CSA boxes come from farms where consumers buy a share of the farm’s yield for the season. Typically you pay at the begin- ning of the growing season for a weekly box of fresh produce delivered to the city. CSAs can be a great bargain, providing farm-fresh, organic produce for about the same price as conventional grocery store produce. And it supports local farmers.
- Buy local, bulk, and direct. When we buy from independent, locally owned businesses, the money we spend translates into double the local economic impact and almost three times the local job creation compared to buying from big box retailers or from restaurant chains. It can also save us money. When buying in bulk or direct from the farmer, the mid- dleman (or three) is cut out, so you and the farmer both benefit.
- Buy organic. When making trade-offs between your budget and organic, prioritize meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, soy, grains, oils, all the fruits and veggies on the Dirty Dozen list, and any foods you and your family eat a lot of. The organic label is a handy way to help avoid cloned animal products, irradiation, and GMOs. The organic label also helps to steer us away from products that may contain pesticide residue, artificial growth hormone, or antibiotics (antibiotic resistance is associated with conventional animal products).
- Know when to look beyond the label. Fish can be great for kids, but you need to ensure that it is low in mercury (not canned tuna) and antibiotics (not farmed salmon) and that it is harvested or raised ecologically. Kidsafeseafood.org gives the best ratings to anchovies, farmed arctic char, farmed oysters, farmed rainbow trout, wild Alaskan salmon (chum, coho, and sockeye), wild Atlantic mackerel, and wild sardines. As well, be wary of processed meats, such as hotdogs, salami, and lunch meats, even if they are labelled “natural.” High levels of nitrates can still be found in meat products claiming to have “all natural ingredients” and “no added preservatives.” There is research linking processed meat consumption to pancreatic cancer, brain tumours in children (even when eaten by mom during pregnancy), and a 700 percent increase in the chance of developing leukemia.
- Serve good-quality fats. Brains are composed of 60 percent fat, more than a third of which is the essential fatty acid DHA. If the brain doesn’t have enough of this high quality fat, it will substitute a lesser quality fat. Essential fatty acids are fats that the body can’t make on its own and must be consumed. EFAs are found in fish, fish oil, seaweed, olive oil, seeds, and nuts. Two of the most important EFAs are omega-3 and omega-6. Most people have an excess of omega-6s (which can come from vegetable oils) and don’t have enough omega-3s. This imbalance can cause inflammation in the body and lead to heart disease and other issues. The best oils for all people, especially children, include animal fats, coconut oil, butter, olive oil, and oils containing omega-3s (such as cod liver or krill oil). Remember fats should always be from the high- est quality source possible: organic and free-range. Avoid margarines, palm oil, canola oil, corn oil, and other vegetable and seed oils, which may lead to inflammation, arterial damage, and are inadequate for the important work of brain development.
- Filter your water. An average glass of tap water can contain residue from 44 or more pesticides. A lot of tap water also contains lead from old pipes. The CBC reported that “even sophisticated water treatment systems are helpless when it comes to removing pesticides, pharmaceuticals, antibiotics and hormones.” But please don’t take this information and go running to the open arms of the bottled water industry. Bottled water has fewer regulations protecting it than tap water, and, in addition, it devastates the environment, using 1.5 million barrels of oil a year. Plasticizers can leach from some bottles, further polluting the water. Buying bottled water would cost a family of four over $1,200 year. Instead, invest in a good water filtration system for your home and carry either a glass or stainless steel bottle for drinking.
- Invest in your kitchen. It will be easier to cook for yourself if you have a few good-quality essentials. These include: a slow-cooker (ceramic, not non-stick, interior); cast iron, stainless steel, ceramic-coated, or titanium pots and pans; stainless steel and wooden kitchen utensils; storage containers made from glass and or stainless steel; and a small, energy-efficient deep freezer so you can stockpile your abundance. Avoid all non-stick cookware, it uses the “likely carcinogenic” PFC (new “green” non-stick cookware options simply uses a less-tested, but structurally similar chemical).
- Learn a few cooking and food saving tricks. For instance, you can freeze all sorts of foods. Make a huge pot of chili and then freeze half of it. It’s not much more work and it’s twice the meals. You can use this trick to take advantage of sales and seasonal favourites. You can even freeze dairy products. Learn to make your own stock: bone broth in particular is a great source of calcium and other minerals and you can make it from the parts that are usually considered “left-over.” You can make a vegetarian version from vegetable scraps, too. It’s much healthier than the prepared concentrate, powder, or cubes. Try freezing your broth in stainless steel ice-cube trays to make a healthy alternative to a bouillon cube. You can throw all of this in your freezer along with other essentials like containers of pre-soaked beans, sticks of butter, and waffles you made yourself.
- Pack your kids’ lunches. This is particularly important in the U.S., where the USDA sources food for the national school lunch program with items that consumers wouldn’t otherwise buy. They also consider french fries, the tomato paste on pizza, and pickle relish to meet the required vegetable servings. See if you can make her lunch waste-free with reusable sandwich bags, a stainless steel thermos, and a cloth napkin.
- Don’t keep junk food around. If you don’t have crackers in your cup- board, you won’t feed them to your children. The same goes for all processed foods. Skip the interior of the grocery store where most of the packaged food is sold. This strategy has turned me into a person who reaches for the fresh apple instead of the bag of chips.
- Don’t routinely drink juice, soda, or sports drinks. Drinks, even the kinds without added sugar, are basically empty calories and usually loaded with fructose. Fructose triggers the body to make fat and blocks its ability to burn fat. It also depletes energy and triggers hunger. Most people today eat or drink about 600 more sugar calories daily than when I was young: an average child consumes 34 teaspoons of sugar every day. The more we eat — or drink — the more our bodies crave, says researcher Dr. Robert Ludwig, author of Fat Chance. He suggests this addictive behaviour can start before kids are even born, crossing the placenta and programming the unborn baby to crave sugar. He specifically warns against infant formula, juices, and sweetened milks, all of which can make kids fat. Even no-sugar-added juice can contain as much sugar as a cola, he says. Juice is not the same as eating fresh fruit. Not only do you drink more of the sugar because it is concentrated, but you also take the fibre away, which slows the absorption.
- Eat out less. Eating out just once less a week can save the average American one eighth of their food budget. It is also harder to eat out well. Restaurant food is less likely to be organic, more like to contain GMOs, and it’s harder to avoid the food additives. Meals from restaurants and fast food sources also tend to be less nutritious because they rely less on fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid food in packages. Packaging increases chemical exposure in what might otherwise be healthy food: this includes food and drinks that come in cans or plastic and restaurant takeout that has been placed into Styrofoam or plastic containers or wrapped in non-stick paper. Foods eaten from Styrofoam or melamine plates or microwaved in plastic or non-stick wrappers can be contaminated by their packaging. There is evidence to suggest that even your potato chip bag, candy wrapper, and that paper cup for hot beverages can leach toxins.
- Follow your intuition. Our grandmothers had less education, but they fed their children healthy foods. Cut through the confusion by channelling grandma and by getting educated. According to Kelly Dorfman, author of How to Cure Your Child with Food, “The key is to get clear. I never fought with my kids about this because for me it was clear and thus they were comfortable. We fought about stuff that I wasn’t sure about, like when do you get your ears pierced.”