I know I make this whole Real Food thing seem simple but I appreciate that it can be a bit overwhelming at times. Especially if you have kids who are picky eaters – isn’t is just easier to give them what they like rather than worry about whether or not it is Real Food?”
But here’s the thing – a Real Food lifestyle doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Of course, the more Real Food you and your family eat, the better. However, this is always going to be a work in progress – even for me. There are always going to be new things you can be doing to ensure that your family eats less of the processed stuff and more of the real stuff.
The intention of this blog (and as a nutritionist) is to help you and your family make small changes over time in order to support the development of healthy eating habits for the long-term. With these small changes you will start to notice that you are gradually eating more Real Food. And this leaves less room for the other stuff!
Today I want to give you a few ideas of small swaps or substitutions that you can make to continue inching your kids towards more Real Food in their diet. Don’t try them all at once – you just might have a rebellion on your hands! Instead, incorporate them over time and let your kids get used to each one before you move on to the next one.
It may take some time for them to accept the “less-processed” options (especially if they are used to eating sugar and refined foods) but over time taste buds change and they will start to appreciate the subtle sweetness and robust flavour found in Real Food. Remember, it takes time to make something a habit but eventually these changes will become automatic and won’t seem so daunting.
1. Unsweetened Yogurt (instead of sweetened yogurt)
Most people see yogurt as a healthy and high-protein snack or breakfast food. And it can be – if you buy plain, unsweetened yogurt.
Did you know that most brands of sweetened yogurt contain anywhere from 15-29g of sugar per serving? This is around the same amount of sugar found in a Snickers Bar (27g). Not exactly breakfast material. Especially taking into consideration the known dangers of sugar and the World Health Organization’s recent recommendation to limit sugar intake to less than 5% of daily calories (and this includes fruit sugars!)
Another concern with the level of sugar in yogurt is that by the actual flavour of the yogurt is masked by the sweetness, so kids think that this is what yogurt is supposed to taste like.
They get used to so much sugar in their diet that they start to dislike anything that isn’t super sweet.
So an easy and much healthier swap is to start buying unsweetened, plain yogurt. Start by sweetening with some honey, maple syrup or date paste. I find that just a drizzle is enough to really bring out the natural sweetness in yogurt but you may have to start with more and decrease over time. If you are buying high-quality, full fat yogurt, the creaminess and flavour is SO amazing that soon your kids will eat it with just some fresh fruit or fruit puree mixed in or even on its own (this is currently my favourite brand). And don’t forget the other fun add-ins like coconut flakes, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, cinnamon and granola.
For pregnant moms or parents with infants, this is something you should start with when introducing yogurt. Most kids under 2 will readily accept delicious full-fat plain yogurt (especially mixed with a little fruit puree) so why give them the sweetened stuff? You have the opportunity to help them see Real Food as the norm, right from the beginning.
2. Natural Nut Butters (instead of sweetened nut butters)
My peanut butter exposure growing up was limited to Kraft Light Peanut Butter – and boy did I love the stuff. My mom was pretty restrictive with our sugar intake, so I just assumed this had to be healthy. I remember buying it by the tub in University and eating it by the spoonful!
It wasn’t until much later in life that I learned how many “other” ingredients are in most peanut butter (besides peanuts). For example, regular Kraft Peanut Butter contains: soybean oil, corn maltodextrin, sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil, salt and diglycerides (oh yeah, and there are some peanuts in there too!) Sure, it’s high in protein (which is why most parents think of it as a “healthy food”), but kids don’t need all the extra garbage it contains.
Try switching out for an “all-natural” version. You’ll know you have the right stuff when you look at the ingredient list and see one ingredient – peanuts. This is as real as it gets (aside from actually grinding the nuts yourself – which is actually pretty easy.)
Or better yet, switch to another type of natural nut or seed butter – almond, hazelnut, cashew, sunflower seed. We do eat peanut butter once in a while (always making sure it’s organic) but it’s not my nut butter of choice. Not only are peanuts one of the most highly pesticide-contaminated crops out there due to the conditions in which they are grown but they typically contain something called aflotoxin, which is linked to a number of health problems, including cancer. Plus, I’m a big advocate of variety in our kids’ diet so it’s beneficial to change it up once in a while.
3. Fresh or Frozen Vegetables (instead of canned)
I try to buy fresh and local produce as often as I can, but I always like to have an easier option on hand in case I run out or am pressed for time. I’m sure most of you out there feel the same way.
So I totally understand the appeal of vegetables in a can – just open, heat and serve. However, when looking for convenience, frozen veggies are a better choice.
Canned vegetables are heated at really high temperatures during processing in order to kill bacteria, and this can decrease the nutrient content of the vegetables. Also, most canned vegetables come in cans lined with BPA (which has a ton of health implications and was recently banned from baby bottles in Canada because of its toxicity) and may contain added, salt, sugar or preservatives.
Not to mention the fact that canned vegetables taste…well, canned. And frozen vegetables actually taste like the real thing. If we want our kids to love and appreciate Real Food we need to serve them vegetables that taste like Real Food.
Choosing frozen vegetables is not a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. Recent studies have shown that because frozen veggies are frozen at the peak of freshness, their nutrient content remains really high. In fact, frozen vegetables often contain more nutrients than the fresh ones that have travelled far distances or are stored for long periods of time. So stock up!
4. Homemade Oatmeal or Granola (instead of packaged/processed cereal)
Again, let’s talk sugar here. Why oh why do children’s cereal companies market their suger-laden creations as a healthy choice for breakfast? It makes our job as parents very difficult!
An interesting statistic: If a child eats a bowl a day of the average children’s cereal for a year, they will end up consuming 10 pounds of sugar in that year. Ridiculous! Not only is that WAY too much sugar in general (see above) but a huge injection of sugar first thing in the morning is just about the worst way to start the day if we want our kids to learn and behave well.
I won’t get into the statistics as to how much sugar these processed brands contain, but let’s just say it is a lot. Even cereals marketed as “healthy” contain more sugar than I think is necessary. Make sure to read labels before falling for these marketing tactics.
An easy switch to start weaning your kids off that sugary cereal is to make homemade oatmeal and granola. Not only can you control the amount of sugar, but you can use healthier alternatives like honey, maple syrup or date paste that contain some nutrients alongside that sweetness. And, similar to my suggestions with yogurt above, simply adding fruit or fruit puree can add enough sweetness eventually.
The other benefit is that with these homemade alternatives you can bump up the fibre and protein content to off-set the spike in blood sugar, resulting in a happier, more even-keeled kid throughout the day (who won’t be hungry an hour later).
Of course I also like to advocate “ditching the idea of breakfast foods” sometimes, so make sure to alternate the sweet breakfast with a savoury one.
So which of these swaps are you going to try first? Let me know in the comments, and better yet, let me know how it goes!