July 9, 2024

Can your kids do a Whole30 with you?

Can Kids Do a Whole30?

Many parents consider bringing their kids along on their Whole30 journey in an effort to make meal planning easier, introduce more whole foods into their diets, or identify foods that may be contributing to their health symptoms. However, the Whole30 (or any form of strict dietary restriction) comes with risks, especially for children.

In this article, Whole30 co-founder and CEO Melissa Urban shares how to incorporate the principles of Whole30 eating with your kids without the strict restriction. She also discusses how to use the Original Whole30 to identify your child’s hidden food sensitivities in a way that supports their mental health and relationship with food.

The article was reviewed and edited by Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Johane Filemon. Johane is a gut health and anti-inflammatory therapist with over 18 years of experience, and part of the Health and Development team at Kids Eat In Color.

Note: The Plant-Based Whole30 is not recommended for children. In addition, the Whole30 is not recommended for children with a history of disordered eating, or those predisposed to eating disorders.

Can my kids do the Original Whole30 with me?

I’m about to give the most accurate but least satisfying answer to this question, because as with so many things—it depends. As the Whole30 (or any form of strict dietary restriction) comes with risks, especially for children, this discussion deserves more than a simple “yes” or “no.”  To set the stage, it’s important to discuss the role of “diet culture” in our own lives, and the impact it has on the way our children think, feel, and talk about food and their bodies.

Diet culture has been described as “a set of cultural myths around food, weight, and health” and “a moral hierarchy of bodies based around such myths.” The term encompasses a range of complex concerns, and can vary based on who you ask, I’ll use a definition put forth by the National Eating Disorders Association:

  • Conflates size with health (thin bodies = healthier bodies)
  • Suggests people are more or less good/worthy/moral based on their body size
  • Encourages following external rules about when, what, and how much to eat
  • Normalizes labeling foods as “good” or “bad”

Behaviors associated with diet culture are overwhelmingly shown in studies to promote body dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression, and disordered eating. The effects of diet culture also present a nutritional risk if it leads to purposeful dieting (restricting foods, calories, or meals). The harmful effects of diet culture are especially pronounced and damaging in kids and teens.

The Whole30 provides a framework and community to help you learn about food and your body outside of diet culture. However, any elimination diet does require restriction and strict adherence. And it’s important to note that restriction alone can create negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around food and promote disordered eating—especially in kids.

Don’t do the Whole30 with your child if…

For these reasons, if your child doesn’t have a health condition or a specific reason for doing an elimination diet, I’d recommend against putting them on a strict Whole30. Children and teens are especially susceptible to the negative effects of diet culture, and the prevalence of eating disorders is increasing in children, particularly girls (although boys are susceptible, as well). Exposure to comments about body weight or size, being shamed for their weight, hearing foods labeled as “bad,” or the unnecessary restriction of their diets can lead to disordered eating habits.

Though it might feel easier if everyone in the house does the program with you, you can still make meal planning easier and introduce more whole foods into your child’s diet without requiring them to strictly adhere to every tenet of the Whole30. For example, you could make Whole30 dinners for the whole family (ensuring there is always something on the plate your child will eat), while offering their favorite foods during other meals and snacks, and allowing them to participate in social activities like birthday parties. You can also expand the food environment at home during your program, offering more fruits, veggies, and other whole foods as snack options alongside their favorite or “safe” foods.

It’s okay to phase out certain foods or snacks from the house during your program, as long as your child always has something they will eat. Be sure to frame these changes neutrally, saying “gummy snacks aren’t available today,” instead of “gummy snacks aren’t healthy” or “gummy snacks are bad for you.”

If you decide to do the Whole30 without your kids, parents should get on the same page about how you’ll talk about the program and your goals, especially in front of your kids. Keep your framing positive, and avoid references to diet culture, like calling foods “bad” or aligning the program with your body weight or composition. Frame the Whole30 as a short-term “self-experiment” (or with older kids, “elimination program”), leaving the word “diet” and all of the corresponding associations out of the discussion. With older kids, you might say, “My allergies have been awful this year, and I’m curious if some of the foods I’m eating could be making them worse.” For young children, keep it even more simple: “This is what I want to eat. Everyone can choose the foods that look good to them today.” 

If you do believe your child would benefit from the Whole30…

If your child does have a health condition or symptoms you hope could be alleviated with a dietary intervention like the Whole30, first discuss the program with your pediatrician or family doctor. Ideally, you’d want your child’s elimination protocol to be designed and monitored by a doctor or registered dietitian. For many families, however, this requires a level of privilege (money, time, and resources) that is simply not available. 

Although the Whole30 also requires a level of privilege, many parents have found the program offers an accessible way to identify the food sensitivities that were contributing to their child’s acne or eczema, allergies, asthma, attention deficits, digestive distress, or behavioral issues. Your child’s healthcare provider can then monitor their health along the way, or incorporate any learnings into their future treatment plans.

The Original Whole30 is safe for children as a short-term elimination protocol. Elimination diets can come with nutritional risk if the child is not replacing the eliminated foods with other nutrient dense foods. However, that should not be an issue on the Whole30, as foods like bread, cereal, and rice can be replaced with carbohydrate-dense vegetables and fruits, like potatoes, beets, green peas, cassava, winter squashes, and plantains. Pairing these foods with non-starchy fruits and veggies will provide the child with meals that are filling and nutrient-dense. 

The Whole30 meal template offers a healthy balance of macronutrients, and the elimination phase is only 30 days. However, if your child has any form of picky eating, you must ensure they will be able to eat enough of the foods on the Whole30 to meet their nutrition needs.

Talking about the Whole30 with your kids

If your child will be doing the Whole30 with you, it’s even more important to approach the program in a positive way. Do not align the program with your child’s body weight or composition—or your own, even if you think they’re not listening! A parent’s body-talk, diet-talk, and the modeling of dieting behaviors (like skipping meals) have a huge impact on your child’s body satisfaction, eating habits, and mental health. Use this as an opportunity to reinforce your own healthy mindset around the Whole30.

Emphasize that the foods you’re eliminating aren’t “bad” or “unhealthy,” because no food is bad or unhealthy. If your older child has a condition like acne, allergies, or digestive issues they hope to resolve, share that sometimes food can contribute to these issues, and this experiment can help you see if that’s true for them. With young children, experts recommend avoiding discussions of the negative effects of food, and instead keeping communications simple and positive. When my son was 2 years old and experiencing eczema flares, I removed a few foods from his diet to see if that would help. At dinnertime, I’d simply say,  “Pasta isn’t available tonight. Would you like chicken sausage and sweet potato, or short ribs and strawberries?” (Turns out tomatoes were triggering his skin condition, and short ribs with strawberries is a surprisingly delicious combination.)

For young children, you may be able to restrict as part of their elimination diet without the child realizing they’re being restricted. I never told my son, “We’re not eating pasta for a few weeks,” I just kept offering other foods that I know he enjoyed (without the gluten or tomatoes). I also limited his exposure to other people’s food during this phase, again in a covert way. We hosted play dates at our house, where I could control the snacks offered, and invited my parents for dinner at our house instead of going to theirs. This allowed me to test these foods without triggering the “forbidden fruit effect,” where my son wanted them more just because he couldn’t have them. The language you use here is very important—again, it’s not “we’re not eating X,” but “X isn’t on the menu tonight” or “X isn’t a choice for dinner, would you like Y or Z?”

For older kids who go to school, have after-school activities, or play with friends, you’ll have to involve them in the elimination and reintroduction. However, continue to emphasize the self-experimental nature of the Whole30, and the benefits you know will help them buy in. Make sure your child understands that the Whole30 is only a short-term experiment, and that at the end of the month, you’ll bring all of these foods back into your meals. Share your non-scale goals for the program, and if they’re old enough, ask them to create a list of their own. Help them discover the motivations that will be important for them.

  • Generically: “We’re experimenting with how we feel if we don’t eat that for a month. At the end of the month, we’ll test it again and see how we feel when we eat it.”
  • If your child loves playing sports, you might say, “Some kids who try this self-experiment have more energy for soccer.” 
  • If your child loves to swim, try, “We’re going to see if any foods are making your belly hurt—if we can figure that out, you can spend more time in the pool.” 
  • If your child has ADHD, try, “Some kids with ADHD find they can concentrate better at school once they figure out the foods that are tricky for their body.” 
  • If your child has a skin condition, try, “The mom who wrote this book figured out the foods that were making her son’s skin itchy. Let’s see if we can do that, too, because I know how much it hurts.”

Incentivizing your child’s dietary choices

Incentivizing your kids to complete the Whole30 is a tricky subject. For some children, incentivizing the experiment part of it may be helpful. You may encourage them to track their symptoms throughout the elimination period, or meet regularly to discuss their observations and yours and celebrate non-scale victories together. For others, simply crossing Whole30 days off a calendar (perhaps with a prize at the end of each week, like a family outing) could be motivating and helpful. Dietitians and psychologists who work with kids acknowledge that incentives around specific foods or eating can be both useful and not useful—you know your child best. 

One small study in 2017, which corroborated existing studies’ findings, reported that incentivizing kids induced large increases in the number of children choosing the “healthy” dessert options—but that the impact of these incentives diminished over time. (The effect of the incentives declined by 37% between Weeks 2 and 3.) The first 10-11 days of the Whole30 are by far the most challenging. Participants need to establish a new routine around meal planning, figure out what to eat if they’re not eating cereal for breakfast or pizza for lunch, and navigate cravings or emotional attachments to certain foods they’re no longer eating. Perhaps using incentives for the first week or two of the program, then transitioning your focus more into the benefits you and your child are observing (and the ways those benefits positively impact your child’s life, like better soccer practices, fewer belly aches, or better grades in school) could be a good mix-and-match motivational strategy.

Timing your child’s Whole30

Ideally, choose a time period without a lot of planned social gatherings or holidays for your Whole30. Requesting that your young child skip the cake and pizza at a birthday party might feel stressful and isolating, unless they themselves are deeply invested in the experiment and feel empowered by that decision. (This sense of isolation or feeling “othered” tends to be more pronounced with older kids, as they are more aware of their peers’ behaviors.) 

Ask them to share any concerns they have around the program (school lunches, Friday movie nights, Sunday breakfasts) and come up with a plan to maintain your child’s social habits and family traditions together. Doing the program with your kids can lead to a feeling of camaraderie and inclusion with the family unit, which can be helpful and reassuring. Including the child in recipe selection, age-appropriate meal prep, and cooking can increase their satisfaction with the meal, and further a sense of belonging. Finally, connecting your child to other kids doing something similar (like a child in the same class who also eats gluten-free) can improve those feelings of inclusion.

Your kids may be excited about finishing all 30 days of elimination with mom and dad, and with younger kids who don’t realize they’re on a restricted diet, it may be easier to continue to make one meal for all family members for the full 30 days. However, you may also feel comfortable reducing your child’s elimination period to 10-14 days if you’re seeing clear results quickly. With my son, his eczema started clearing up within just a few days of his elimination period. After about 10 days, we tried reintroducing tomato sauce with his ground meat, and over the next day or two, he flared again. (He did not have the same reaction to gluten, but did to a more mild degree with dairy.) That gave us all the information we needed to seriously limit the tomatoes in his diet, such that he could still enjoy a little ketchup or small serving of pasta without flaring his skin condition.

If your child experiences behavioral improvements, a reduction in allergies or breakouts, fewer digestive issues, better sleep, or more energy quickly, you could continue the elimination period (pointing to the benefits—”you’re already feeling so much better, let’s see what happens if we keep going”), or you could reintroduce sooner than planned, to limit the amount of time your child is on a restrictive program. In all cases, you must follow a carefully planned reintroduction schedule, reintroducing just one food group at a time, then returning to the elimination phase for 2-3 days. This phase is just as important as elimination, and where you and your child will be able to best observe how these foods impact their physical and mental health.

Finally, keep a close eye out for any concerning behaviors or symptoms during their program, such as changes in mental health, preoccupation with body weight, food sneaking, obsession with perfection, lethargy, under-eating, or social anxiety. If you believe your child’s Whole30 is creating stress or negative feelings around food, eating, or their bodies, discontinue the program immediately and speak with a qualified pediatrician or child therapist.

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