As many of you know, it has been quite a challenge for me to inspire my two younger children to “eat their veggies.”
Chef AJ keeps telling me, “You have to talk to Sharon!”
After last week’s Reader Advice Day on Whole Food Plant Based parenting of young children, I knew I had to get in touch with Sharon and ask her to share her story on Healthy Girl’s Kitchen. Along her journey, Sharon became a Certified Health Coach at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. Her website is Eat Well, Stay Well.
After reading her story, I highly recommend listening to this wonderful podcast interview of Sharon that provides inspiration to all aspiring Nutritarians, with and without kids at home to care for. It’s about half-an- hour and worth every minute of your time.
So now, after reading this guest post and listening to a podcast of Sharon’s story, I finally feel like I know Sharon! Thank you Sharon McRae for sharing your story with us.
How I Transitioned my Kids to a Nutritarian Diet
I’m the Mom of three very unusual kids. Or so I’m told. To me, they’re pretty typical: They love to play computer games, hate to go to bed, and now that my twin daughters are in high school, there’s a lot of eye-rolling and back-talking going on, and lots of silliness and rough-housing from my 11 year old son. The way in which they’re unusual has everything to do with how they’re eating…or more specifically, what they’re eating. Raised as vegetarians, they’ve never eaten meat, but up until 4 years ago, they were highly indulged in dairy-based comfort foods like pizza, macaroni and cheese, cheese ravioli, ice cream, and fruity yogurts, as well as lots of processed vegetarian foods. That all changed when their Mom read “The China Study” and sat them down and told them “No More Dairy” because she didn’t want them to get sick and die like Grandma, who died of breast cancer after a 26-year battle. They all cried, but fast forward 4 years….now they all happily enjoy healthy delights like roasted Brussels sprouts, Cheezy Pizza Kale chips, Creamy Cruciferous Curry, Pizza Hummus, and Black Bean Brownies. Their whole food plant-based diet is based on the concept of “Nutrient Density,” also known as the “Nutritarian” diet, a term coined by Dr. Joel Fuhrman.
(Before I explain how I got my kids to eat and enjoy Nutritarian food, I’d like to explain in a bit more detail the reason why I decided to change their diet. We lost my Mom in April 2009. She had gotten her initial diagnosis in her early 40’s, and that caused me to make some major changes in my own lifestyle. With the limited information I knew, I gradually phased out meat, first red meat in my late teens, then poultry in my 20’s, and seafood in my 30’s. From that time on, I was eating a vegetarian diet, though one heavy in the “fake meats,” as well as dairy and eggs. It wasn’t until the end stages of my Mom’s life, when I was spending long days on the cancer ward at Johns Hopkins and I heard a voice inside my head one particularly stressful day. For a reason that was at the time completely unknown to me, the voice was telling me to stop eating animal protein. I found the notion of becoming a “vegan” quite terrifying; nonetheless, I decided to give it a go for two weeks without committing to anyone else, not even my husband, and see how I did. I very quietly declined whenever the suggestion was made to order a pizza, eat an omelet, have some frozen yogurt….no one sensed anything was up. After the two weeks passed, I knew I was done. I “came out” as a vegan to my husband, my kids, twin daughters then age 10, and son, then age 6, and my Dad….and everyone panicked. The kids cried, fearful this would mean a change for them (they had been raised vegetarian also with a very heavy reliance on dairy). I reassured everyone that this was just about me, I wasn’t going to change anything for anyone else, and I would take care of my own dietary needs. And then I decided to become a health coach and on the journey, I read T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study.” It was then that I knew I needed to take control and protect my kids. )
Give them the “Why.”
Not only did we lose my Mom to cancer, my Dad was a kidney cancer survivor, I lost both grandmothers in their early 60’s to different forms of cancer, and my uncle had also died of cancer. On my husband’s side, his Mom was a colon cancer survivor and his brother had a recent bout with prostate cancer. The writing was on the wall and I knew it. So I sat the kids down and explained all of this to them. They all cried, real tears…they were terrified about losing their favorite foods.
Make it easy for them with comfort foods.
I reassured them that I would make it easy for them. I did my research and found a vegan “cheese” that they really loved, and I continued to prepare their favorite comfort foods: pizza, macaroni and cheese, burritos, grilled cheese. If we were out and they came across samples in our local organic market, I still let them indulge a little in the dairy, but I didn’t bring any of it into the house.
Give them healthy treats.
Keep offering, even if they initially refuse to try.
I made sure that they understood why we were changing out diet to include more fruits and vegetables, and I told them if they tried new things, I would also make new treats. Before long, my son, who had always had a strong dislike for chickpeas eaten whole, any type of nuts/seeds, tomatoes, and avocados, began to ask for them; now, they are all among his favorite foods. And the first time I made roasted balsamic Brussels sprouts, the kids all loved them and asked for seconds! I had them help me pick out recipes that they thought sounded good. And they were encouraged to help me in the kitchen wherever it was appropriate…though they preferred tasks like stirring, adding spices, and spreading sauces much more than cleaning up and washing dishes! I also allowed them to have some choices when it came to how to flavor certain dishes. I have a small Lazy Susan on the table with some spice blends and vinegars and they will often ask to add one or two to their meals. I found that allowing them to have some role in the deciding what they wanted to eat (within my guidelines), some flexibility, and a hand in the preparation, was critical in getting them to the table…not only to eat, but to enjoy the experience of eating food that was truly good for their bodies.
Set a great example.
My husband quickly got on board with the Nutritarian concept once he saw how passionate I was becoming about cooking, and about making certain the kids ate healthfully. And we both knew that we were their role models, and that watching us eat this way consistently would inspire them. We continued to express our excitement over finding new recipes that were a hit, and when the kids saw how much we were enjoying them, they had no hesitation in tasting them too.
Help them navigate social situations gracefully.
Social situations were a bit of a challenge at first, but we gradually made our way to a very comfortable place. We explained to the kids that most people (including most of their friends) were eating the Standard American Diet (SAD), and that the way we eat may seem a bit “extreme” to them. I have enjoyed having my kids’ friends over for play dates and feeding them green smoothies, black bean brownies, healthy nachos, hummus burritos, and frozen banana berry “ice cream”….and then telling their Moms and/or Dads when they came to pick them up that their son/daughter ate black beans, kale, chickpeas, etc. I have also on occasion saved some for the parents to try. When the kids are invited to a friend’s house to play, I call the parents in advance and explain the way that we eat and tell them I will send a snack to share. No one has ever acted offended and we often receive compliments on the treats. And if they go to a party, I explain to the host/hostess in advance and if they don’t offer to make accommodations (which they almost always do), I feed the kids ahead of time. And I always encourage them to explain that they choose to eat this way (because they do)…not that they “can’t have” certain things. They enjoy sharing their kale chips with friends in the cafeteria…when other kids see them, they ask what they are…sadly, many of them have never even heard of kale, let alone tasted it. But they almost always like them. When we go to restaurants with others, we call ahead or look up the menu online to find suitable options, and we almost always come prepared with a small cooler of snacks in the car and a small bag of condiments to take into the restaurant to flavor our veggie choices.
Expose them to like-minded people.
A very important aspect of choosing a lifestyle that is different from the norm is to have social support. I made certain to bring the kids to all of the vegan festivals, vegan meetups, parties, etc. that I could find, and even conferences, like Vegetarian Summerfest in Johnstown PA. They have learned that there are many other people, including kids, who make the decision to eat similar to the way that we do…and they have also watched a number of movies and documentaries on healthy food. They have seen Dr. Fuhrman speak in person and although a lot of it was over their heads, they understand the basic concept that what they eat now has a tremendous role in determining their health later in life. I also made certain to expose them to other issues related to our food choices, such as the impact on the environment and the animals. That way, in case there is peer pressure down the road, they will have a number of reasons for wanting to stay on a healthy path. They have really enjoyed meeting other vegan kids and have learned along the way that some of their teachers and a few classmates are vegetarian or vegan too (although typically not eating a Nutritarian diet)….it’s important to them to know that they are not alone.
Don’t give in; be confident in knowing you are doing the right thing for your kids.
There may come a time when you feel unsure that you are doing the right thing….all of the other kids are chowing down on Halloween candy or holiday cookies and you have sent your son or daughter in with special healthy treats. If you have given your kids a good explanation of why it’s so important to eat healthy food, they will get over any discomfort quickly. Kids are very adaptable and they need to know that you are confident in what you’re doing and that you’re doing it to protect them because you love them. You may feel from time to time as though you’re burned out and it would just be easier to let them eat pizza with their friends instead of preparing a special dish. But remember that they are growing at a rapid rate, and their genetic material is most susceptible to the changes that can lead to cancer in later life during this time. Doesn’t it make sense to take the best care you can of them, especially now, while you have more control? Later, when peer pressure is involved, they may make their own choices and you may not be happy with them. But at least you will be able to feel secure in that when it mattered most, they were not exposed to the foods that can be so injurious to health. The way I look at it, I wouldn’t give my kids crack cocaine, so why would I feed them highly addictive foods that are so bad for them? Also remember that your kids may wish they could have some of the treats they’ve had in the past, like candy, ice cream, etc.…..our brains are hard-wired to desire sugar, fat and salt, after all. But had your kids never been exposed to junk food in the first place, they would be satisfying those desires with real, whole foods, like fruits, nuts and seeds, and vegetables that are higher in sodium like celery. I will be the first to admit that there are days that I feel a little burned out, like I wish I could just pull up at a drive thru and pick up a healthy dinner, instead of having to cook. But I think about how much I love my kids and would do anything to protect them, and then a little time in the kitchen doesn’t seem so bad. I look at it all as a labor of love.
I’ll bet you just can’t get enough Sharon McRae! I uncovered this video of her making her famous Pizza Hummus. Enjoy!
Do you have any questions for Sharon? Comments about her method? Leave a comment here.