We recently received a note from Kristin M., who attended our recent Foundations of Nutirtion workshop in Colorado.  Kristin wrote:

“We as a family (including our 11 year old son, and two daughters ages 9 and 5) have been doing the Whole 30 since April 17th.  My son says he feels “powerful and strong”, my older daughter is happy that she is no longer experiencing seasonal allergies and my 5 year old’s favorite food is now “meat and water.”  It is so incredible to see my children learn how to deal with the peer pressure of sugar, milk and the food pyramid… I am so excited for their future to be able to say “no” to things that they don’t believe are good choices for them, food or otherwise.

We as a family do have a question.  My kids and I are enjoying the new benefits that the Whole30 has given us, but my husband says it is the Whole30, not the Whole365! So, now what?  As a family, where do we go from here?

Kristin’s question is a common one from parents doing the Whole30 with their kids.  The idea of a “scientific reintroduction” of potentially problematic food groups is an easy one for us adults to get.  Add one particular food group back into your diet.  Take a few days to honestly evaluate how that food makes you feel, both physically and mentally.  Make a judgment call about how much, when, where and in what quantities those foods might be “worth it” to eat in the future.  But how do you explain those concepts to a five year old?

Kids Need a Different Approach

If you’re doing the Whole30 with your family, just getting your kids off the cereal, bread, yogurt and cheese is difficult enough.  But it can be even more difficult to help your kids understand the consequences of their food-related actions once their Whole30 program is over. See, younger kids can’t rationalize like their big brothers or sisters, or us adults.  Chances are if you give them a piece of cake post-Whole30 and ask them how they feel, they’re going to give you a big, frosting-covered smile and say, “Great!”  Because right then and there, with all that sugar and the excitement of a treat, they sure do feel great!  And when you ask them a few hours later how they feel, they may not want to admit (or be able to identify) that the cake gave them a belly-ache, or made their head hurt, or make them really sleepy.

This is where you, as parents, come in.  The biggest tool you’ve got in this particular Whole30 arsenal?  Awareness.  Ask your kids pointed questions that forces them connect the food choices they made with the effects that food is having – physically and mentally.  The best part?  This tool works at any age, as long as your child is able to understand the basic principles of  cause and effect (or in this case, action and consequences).

Your Awareness Checklist

The key is to be prepared ahead of time – before the “less healthy” food choice makes its way into your child’s hands.  The first step in the “A is for Awareness” plan is to use your parental intuition, based on your observations of their behavior, state of mind and physical status during their Whole30 program.  We bet you’ve already got a good idea of how certain foods will affect your child, based on what you didn’t observe during their Whole30, but here are some questions for you to consider.

Did your child’s daily 3 PM tantrum miraculously disappear?

Did their ability to pay attention during homework dramatically improve?

Did their teachers or playmates’ parents express an observed improvement in behavior?

Did they no longer experience stomach troubles after every meal?

Were they no longer quite so fussy at mealtime?

Did that mysterious rash on their arm clear up?

Were you able to discontinue their asthma inhaler, allergy medicine or acne cream?

These are just some examples our Whole30 parents have reported back to us at the completion of their family’s program, but you may have noticed different results with your children.  So, make a list of things that you noticed improved during your child’s Whole30 program, and have it on hand during the reintroduction period.

The Reintroduction Period

Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to start reintroducing food groups one at a time, carefully and systematically, to evaluate how they might be affecting your child.  (Follow our detailed instructions in your Whole30 Success Guide, or check the “Life after your Whole30” section of our Resources page.)  Try to do this where you have full control over the foods they reintroduce, and can be present for at least the next few hours to evaluate the results.  A family dinner, birthday party or weekend event is the perfect setting, as opposed to sending them off to school with a container of yogurt or piece of cake.  Choose your food group for that particular day, reintroduce, and then refer back to your list and observe.

Watch your child for any signs or symptoms related to the reintroduction of that particular food group – both physically and mentally.  One thing we’ve realized through experience is that “less healthy” food choices affect kids more directly in a mental or behavioral capacity than is obvious in adults.  Fortunately, grown-ups have developed the appropriate social graces that remind us pitching a tantrum in the middle of Target is not acceptable behavior.  Your kids may not yet be that socially savvy.

You may need to ask some casual but direct questions along the way, as your child may be unwilling to admit if that much-anticipated treat isn’t settling well.  Examples of such questions might include:

“Wow, you’re cruising for a time-out tonight. Are you feeling all right?”

“You sound a little wheezy this afternoon – is your breathing tight?”

“You cannot sit still for homework today! What’s going on?”

“You’re not eating much of your dinner. Does your stomach hurt?”

Operation Awareness

If and when you do notice something going on with your child, either immediately, later that day or the following day, it’s time to act. Your children are most likely to link their actions with the resulting consequences when it’s pointed out to them in real-time, as opposed to several hours or a day later.  (For those of you with dogs, this concept should be familiar.) So as soon as you see or suspect something about that treat didn’t settle well with your child, it’s time to bring it to their attention, and put “Operation Awareness” into action.

We recommend using cause-and-effect statements that clearly connect the food-related dots, obtaining buy-in from your child (so you’re all playing on the same team), and arriving at a plan that helps you resolve the situation in your child’s best interest.

And now’s the part where we mention we don’t yet have any children. We understand that the best laid strategies are often no match for a seven-year-old’s cunning intellect and capacity for stubbornness… but you’ve gotta try, don’t you? The strategies we’re outlining here has worked for many parents we’ve spoken with, and with some patience and persistence, we hope it will work for you too. (End disclaimer.)

Our Awareness Template for Whole30 Parents:

Example of previous action/consequence. Example of today’s action/consequence.  Summary of events. Obtain buy-in. Devise a strategy together.

We’ll give examples of each stage of the game, so that you can come up with the perfect awareness template for your child.

Actions, Consequences, Summary of Events

Your opening line should connect the dots of their poor food choices and the consequences you’ve since observed. Be precise in your language, and try to point out things that are factual, not things you are interpreting based on their behavior. (You may think you son was short-tempered with his sister after eating the cookie, but that point could be argued. The fact that you had to put him in time-out after he refused to share, however, is a cold, hard truth.) And after you’ve pointed out the actions and consequences, be sure to wrap it up with the conclusion you’re trying to emphasize – making the poor food choice had a negative effect on your child.

Examples of action/consequence/summary statements are as follows:

“Remember how yesterday, you ate berries with coconut milk for dessert, and played so nicely with your sister all night?  And today, you ate two chocolate chip cookies for dessert and ended up fighting with her and getting punished?  I think the cookies made you cranky.”

“You haven’t had to use your inhaler in two weeks.  Today, you had some yogurt and ice cream and you had to use your inhaler for the first time.  I think the stuff in yogurt and ice cream makes it harder for you to breathe.”

“Last week after a yummy dinner of chicken, green beans and avocado, you did your homework super fast and had extra time to play.  Tonight after you ate spaghetti and meatballs, you couldn’t concentrate and didn’t have any play time left.  I think there’s something in the spaghetti that makes it harder for you to focus.”

“Your belly has been feeling so good the last few days!  But today, as soon as you ate that toast, your belly got all swollen and gurgle-y.   I think your belly is telling us it doesn’t want bread anymore!”

Obtain Buy-In

Once you’ve established some awareness within your child, it’s time to start sealing the deal.  Sure, you created some awareness and connected their dots, but until you get buy-in from your child, chances are things aren’t really going to change. This probably isn’t brand new information – many parents encouraged buy-in with the Whole30 by asking their child to participate in the program actively.  You may have asked your child to help you choose recipes, or cook dinner, or have some say in the daily menu because you know kids are more likely to get on board if they feel like an important part of the process.  The reintroduction of “less healthy” foods is no exception to that concept.

First, you may need to rationalize with your child a whole lot more before they’ll admit that their former favorite food is the one causing all the problems.  So, with your list in hand and your observational studies complete, use your adult powers of persuasion and superior brain power to help your child make the connection between the food choice and the negative consequence.   It’s okay to be sneaky here. It’s for their own good. Just get them saying “yes” a few times and a row and you’re golden.

Here are some examples of buy-in conversations.

“What if you could spend less time in time-outs?  Would you want to do that?”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to play soccer at school or run down the street with your friends without worrying about where your inhaler is all the time?”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to get all your homework done faster so you had more time to play?”

“Wasn’t it nice when your belly didn’t hurt all the time?  Don’t you wish you could have a happy belly every day?”

Keep trying different angles until something you say actually resonates with your child.  If they’re really stubborn or totally in denial, the best you might be able to do is a grudging, “Yeah, I guess that could be it, maybe…” Don’t beat yourself up if that’s as far as you get.  It’s a start – a platform you can build on with future experiences.  (Because we bet if toast made their stomach upset once, it’ll continue to do so going forward.)

Devise A Strategy Together

Once you’ve got some semblance of buy-in (grudging or not), the final step is to come up with a plan togetherPut yourself in their corner, on their side. Ask them to help you come up with a solution that’s best for their health, on their own terms.  Offer them options, always starting with the one you know is best for your health.  Keep it positive, keep it light and help them see the trade-off – what they’re getting for the things they’re giving up.

In the case of kids, you might need to come up with some “less bad” scenarios if you’re trying to transition them out of their old, comfortable way of eating.  While we don’t encourage adults to try to shove old SAD diets into a shiny new Paleo mold, sometimes kids need a little incentive to make those changes.

Here are some examples of strategy conversations.

“If cookies make you cranky, and you really like fruit and coconut milk, why don’t we just make that your dessert from now on?  I bet you’ll go a whole week without a single time-out if we do that! And if you really miss the chocolate chips, we can add some cocoa nibs to your dessert once in a while.  Cocoa won’t make you cranky like those yucky cookies.”

“Let’s have coconut milk ice cream instead of regular ice cream when you want a treat.  I bet you can still enjoy some ice cream in a cone and not have to use your inhaler all the time!  Want to try?”

“Let’s go back to the no spaghetti or cereal rule for a week and see if that helps you concentrate.  I bet it does – and I bet that means you’ll have more time to play, too.  Who cares about boring old spaghetti if you’ve got more time to play outside!”

“Let’s go back to fruit instead of toast for breakfast.  Fruit never made your belly hurt, did it?  And did you know we can make fun sandwiches out of mushroom caps, big lettuce leafs or crispy sushi wraps, too?  That’ll be fun.”

Whole30 Mission Accomplished

So there you have it – how to use awareness to help your child change their behaviors, and embrace this healthy, happy, sustainable way of eating as they grow and mature.   We wish you the best of luck transitioning your family onto the Whole30, and transitioning them out of the program into their Whole9 life.    And if you’re Whole30 veteran with tips, tricks or strategies for helping kids eat better, share them with our readers in comments.

Published by Melissa Urban

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.

Melissa Urban

Co-Founder / CEO

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.