Real food for kids matters — it’s not only for adults!
As a nutritionist (and a mom), I’m a big believer in cooking nutrient-rich meals for the whole family to enjoy together. But I realize that this can feel like an impossibility if you have…
- Picky eaters
- Kids who are used to eating “kid-food”
- And hectic schedules
In this article we are going to dive into what it means to follow a real food diet as a family, and the benefits your kids will experience when real food is part of their day.
Read on to learn how you can overcome the challenges of providing real food for your kids, and the best way to get them on board. By getting them involved in the kitchen with kid-friendly kitchen tools and fun nutrition activities for kids, and making tasty, healthy, kid-friendly meals, you can win over even the pickiest eater.
What it means “to real-food” as a family
Instead of saying, “We eat real food,” I like to turn this phrase into a verb. “To real-food” is a powerful action — it means that you’ve committed to health, vitality, and peak performance for yourself and your family.
Come along and learn how simple it can be “to real food” with your family, and introduce them to the joys of clean eating for kids.
What real food is
Real food is food that is found in nature; growing and living on a farm, in the forest, in the grasslands, in the ocean, in rivers, or in your backyard garden.
Real food is whole, unprocessed (or minimally processed) and we recognize exactly where it came from. For example, you can picture a banana hanging from a banana tree. What about a box of Oreos?
In the purest sense, nothing’s been added or taken away. It doesn’t need a package or a label because it contains ONE ingredient!
Consider the simplicity of colorful vegetables, roots and tubers, quality meats, poultry, fish, seafood, nuts, seeds, and fruit.
What real food is not
Real food is NOT made in a factory. It does not contain added sugars or artificial sweeteners. It does not need a long ingredient list containing industrialized oils, or chemical additives.
Ditch the soda, candy, packaged snack foods, pastries, and the overconsumption of pasta, cereals, and breads.
With some foods it is blatantly obvious that they are factory produced. Others require you and your kids to put on your detective hats.
Teaching kids about real food: KISS (keep it simple, silly)
Making the distinction between real food and factory food can take the slightly-short-of-torture experience of bringing your kids to the grocery store and turn it into a fun and educational game.
Ask your kids these questions:
- Could this food be hunted or caught?
- Could this food be gathered or picked in the wild?
- Could this food be naturally grown in a garden or on a farm?
It can take practice to quickly answer these questions, but if they answer yes to any of them, they can feel good about putting that food in the grocery cart.
If they answered no, continue on with these questions:
- Have parts of the food been taken away, or have chemicals and artificial ingredients been added?
- Does it have a long ingredient list?
- Are there ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce?
- Does the bag or box contain health claims or eye-catching buzz words?
If they answered yes to most of these questions, it’s probably a food-product, not real food.
Benefits of eating real food
While putting this article together I asked my own boys what they thought the benefits of eating real food are. My nine-year-old looked at me and said, “You feel better, play better, and do better in school.”
Kids feel better
It’s hard to define “feel better,” but when kids have an overall sense of health they are generally happy, content, confident, comfortable, and relaxed! They are ready to take on the day.
Kids play better
Having plenty of energy is what first comes to mind, but play is also an important opportunity to socially engage in a cooperative way. When kids eat well, they have the strength, mobility, stamina, and developmental skills at a healthy weight to be able to play well.
Kids focus better
“Doing better in school” can relate to many factors, but focusing well is at the top of the list. Thinking clearly, concentrating, and maintaining attention to the task at hand are critical for success in the classroom.
We all want our kids to feel great, play hard, and love learning. Keeping high sugar, processed foods off their plate can reduce headaches, stomachaches, skin rashes, anxiety, excess weight, and ADHD symptoms that can leave them feeling less than their best.
Building and enjoying balanced meals full of real food proteins, fats, and carbohydrates fills our children with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and nutrient dense calories to support their rapidly growing bodies and minds.
These foods help boost their mood, lead to quality sleep, support a healthy gut, stabilize blood sugar, and keep systemic inflammation low. The result — they will “feel better, play better, and do better in school.”
Challenges of eating real food
Real food nutrition for children should be a top priority. But putting it into practice has a set of challenges that can deter us from taking action. According to my nine-year-old, the challenges are … “real food is not always available, it can be more expensive, and it can take more time to prepare.”
Healthy food options are not always available
Whether you live in a food desert, travel frequently, or rely on the convenience of processed goods, real food may not always be at your fingertips.
From my son’s perspective, he sees the lack of real food availability in the cafeteria at school, at some of his friends’ homes, and as we travel.
Taking simple steps such as planning ahead, and packing healthy lunches for teens and children, is a great way to boost your real food access. While your on the road, it’s okay to give yourself a pass and aim to make the best choice you can with what’s in front of you.
It can be more expensive
Food policy has largely focused on supporting the production of corn, soy, and wheat — commodities used for the sale of “highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.” This mentality keeps junk food cheap and real food less accessible.
Supporting local farmers and “creating a similar infrastructure to support production of healthier foods” could help keep costs down.
It is also argued that by eliminating empty, addicting, and high-calorie processed foods, a real food diet can less expensive. A “DIY” (or get in the kitchen and make it yourself) approach can certainly keep the cost down, and the extra time and expense is a small price to pay compared to the cost of diet-related chronic disease.
It can take more time to prepare food at home
There’s no denying that providing your family with healthy meals at home is more time consuming than grabbing take-out or microwaving TV dinners.
But with a little family involvement, and time saving strategies, preparing your food at home does lead to healthier eating.
For helpful tips and ideas, check out Food Prep: Healthy Balanced Meals Made Simple.
It can be an adjustment for some children
Hopefully you are convinced that the real food benefits outweigh the potential challenges. But, actually getting your kids to eat healthy meals may still seem like an obstacle with a deadend. I get it!
The good news is… your kids will adjust faster than you think, and with parental confidence, gradual introduction, and child involvement, you will be celebrating real food wins in no time.
5 Tips for getting kids on board with real food
Let’s jump into five ideas to help make this real food transition smooth and enjoyable.
1. Be a role model
Like it or not, children pick up behaviors more through observing than listening. If they see that you consistently create a winning plate of colorful veggies, quality proteins, and natural fats, and enjoy such tasty meals, they will eventually follow suit.
Adapting a healthier diet yourself — whether it’s the primal diet, or a different approach to good nutrition — can help motivate your kids to do the same.
2. Overhaul the pantry
If the junk food is not in the house, you and your children have to turn to alternative choices. This step can be one of the hardest, but I recommend throwing out (or donating) the processed foods that live in your pantry (or refrigerator) and replacing them with real ingredients for homemade creations.
3. Start with real foods they already love
Chances are your kids enjoy multiple items on the real food list already. Start building meals around those familiar ingredients and then swap out new foods to try.
Prepare foods in different ways, start with small portions (they can always come back for more), and instill the one bite of each food rule.
4. Involve your kids in the process
Speaking from personal experience, kids are far more likely to eat foods that they are connected to through growing, selecting, and cooking.
- Bring your kids to a local farm, farmers market, community garden, or start a small garden in your own backyard so that they can see where food actually comes from — it doesn’t grow in the supermarket.
- Take your children with you to the grocery store and allow them to pick two vegetables of their choice to include with dinner. When they have a voice, their minds open up.
- Encourage your kids to be in the kitchen preparing and cooking with you. Teach your kids about kitchen safety, and basic cooking skills.
To whatever extent their interest and skill level allows, their participation in food prep will increase the chances they will eat it.
5. Have fun!
Lastly, real kids want to have fun, and fun with real food is important for a successful transition.
- Play games at the market, like who can find the most unusual vegetable and what can we make with it?
- Have a funny food face plate contest with a vegetable and fruit platter and hummus, guacamole, or nut butter.
- Or, blindfold each other and experience foods through taste, texture, and smell.
Real Food Recipes for Kids
Here we share some of our family’s favorite recipes for healthy breakfasts, primal and gluten free lunch ideas, and nutritious, satisfying family dinners to help give you ideas and direction. These are real food meals that I feel nutritionally confident in, and the kids love to help prepare.
Now it’s your turn
Convenience, cost, time, and picky-eaters lead many parents to the boxed mac n’ cheese or drive-through window. (For kids that refuse to eat anything too different, check out these crockpot recipes for picky eaters.)
With a look at what real food is, the benefits it brings to healthy kids, and my favorite tips for making the transition, I hope this article motivates you to skip the drive-thru.
Which recipes are you going to add to your family meal plan this week and how will you involve your kiddos in the process?
If you are looking for more guidance and recipe ideas, I encourage you to check out the 4 Weeks of Real Food eBook!