We’re very fortunate to be sharing this wonderful guest post from Dylan Emrys with you today. Finding a healthy Real Food balance for your children in a SAD Food world can be a difficult and emotional journey. But, as Dylan says, you’re already one step ahead by being here.   

“I Was Determined To Feed Her ‘Right'”

When my daughter was two she’d go visit our neighbors who always gave her pretzels. We lived in a close community and she would head out the door while I watched, then she’d cross the courtyard, and kick their door with her little Stride Rite hikers because her little fists were so chubby they wouldn’t make any sound when she knocked. When they answered the door she would look up and ask, “Can I wissit?” They’d let her in, and feed her pretzels.

Up till about 18 months old Sidra hadn’t had any wheat, dairy or sugar. I was very strict about that, having developed an extensive knowledge of nutrition several years before when my naturopath identified my dairy allergy. I continued reading up on how the standard diet wasn’t healthy for me and learned so much more.

When I had my daughter, I was determined to feed her “right”. But when she became social, and independently mobile, I had to learn to let go a little.

It wasn’t easy. Like any parent I wanted what was best for my child, and what I knew was best conflicted with the Standard American Diet (SAD). I didn’t want to alienate her from her neighbors and friends, but I wanted her to grow and thrive and not suffer from the consequences of the SAD (Standard American Diet). Learning the balance was a process that took her entire childhood, and took me back to my own as I identified the origins of my own feelings about food.

Her Needs vs. My Needs

The significant thing I learned was how to differentiate between what she needed and what I needed.

This is not easy when you’re a parent striving for a healthy diet for your child. If you are even a little bit educated, the fears of diabetes, allergies, heart disease, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and any number of other things that can go wrong with a poor diet can take over gentle thinking about what goes into our kids’ bodies. As we learn, we want to instill the knowledge and habits into our kids. But we also live in a real world where there are so many choices.

It is very easy to let our own issues with food get mixed up with healthy, balanced guidance for our children.

So how do you determine if what you’re thinking and feeling are your own personal issues? When should a parent be rigid about controlling the food their kids eat, and when should they let go and relax? It depends on how old your children are, and the situation.

The following are some common scenarios parents face when transitioning their family to eating real food/paleo/Whole30 choices, and some deeper ways to think about them.

“I Don’t Want To Deprive Them”

This is a very common feeling. You’re eating a Good Food diet yourself, but you still give your kids mac and cheese, pancakes, or chicken nuggets. Because they love those things and you hate to deprive them. Perhaps you buy them cotton candy at the fair or popcorn at the movies, or bring “real” cupcakes to school for their birthday for that same reason.

Some reasons may be legitimate for your family, and your child. If your son is 12 years old and has had traditional cupcakes every year, that may be a place you can give in a little for his school celebration. However, he may be willing to have a “less bad” non-traditional birthday treat to share. Check with him. Have a reasonable discussion, and choose together.

If you choose traditional cupcakes, please don’t make him feel guilty for wanting them! That kind of emotional layering may make it much harder for your child to make clear choices on his own when he’s an adult. On the other hand, if your child is 3 years old, she won’t know the difference between sweet potato brownies and traditional brownies. She won’t, and her peers won’t, and for this special occasion, perhaps that’s the best choice for both of you.

If you feel a strong desire to give your child less healthy foods because of not wanting to deprive them, this is your clue to really ask yourself who is being deprived here.

Do you have a strong connection with that food from your past linked with great memories? Is that food symbolic of experiences you’ve had that you want for your child? Dig deep and be honest. If the answer is yes, then think about if you feel like you are depriving yourself by choosing a healthier option. What are you feeling deprived of? Is it love, nurturing, connection? Are you projecting on to your own child a part of you who wants something more than the food?

Are You A Good Role Model?

In Sidra’s later preschool and early elementary years, I wasn’t much of a role model. I tried to be, preaching the Good Food sermon, but I gave in to less healthy foods when feeling emotional, lonely or stressed. And even if I sneaked them when Sidra wasn’t around, I felt hypocritical when I told her what she couldn’t have to eat, then I felt guilty, so I gave her some too in order to appease my hypocrisy.

As a result, she learned that some foods were  “bad” foods, to feel very special when she got to eat them but at the same time very guilty because eventually I’d get back on track and be back to lecturing her.

What she ate and was taught about food depended on how her mother felt on any given day.

So as best you can, model for your kids what you are hoping for in them. Without lecturing. If you are craving some delicious less healthy food, do some thinking about why. Is it emotional eating? Is it celebration? Is it just because you feel like it?  Is there another course of action you could take that would benefit you and what you need in that moment – for instance, call a friend and have a good vent? Take a bath to nurture yourself?

If you do decide to have a less-healthy option, find peace in your choices and enjoy it fully. Be aware if you are serving yourself up a heaping plate of guilt with it, and refuse it! Share some with your kids if they’re around, but be relaxed about it. Don’t make it a huge deal and lay a guilt trip on yourself or them. No matter what age your child is, if you aren’t stable with your own food choices, it will be harder for them to follow in your footsteps.

“What About When They Are At Friend’s Houses?”

Are you worried about what your child is going to eat as soon as he or she leaves the house?  If they have healthy options at home, and that is what you’re modeling them as a healthy diet, then you can relax. Once your children are heading to school, or to friends’ homes, riding their bike to the corner store, there isn’t a lot you can do but trust it will be okay.

I was faced with this problem sooner than most parents because Sidra liked to go visiting the neighbors. My acceptance of her eating pretzels came later. At first I attempted to get the neighbors to give her only allowed foods (and I gave them a list) but I found quickly that was stressful for them. They wanted to share themselves, and their home with her. I had to let go and accept and trust she would be okay. And she was. I continued to teach her about nutrition, and how to discuss with her peers as she got older why we don’t have cow’s milk at our house and why sugar is not healthy, but I left what she ate elsewhere up to her and her hosts.

If you find yourself attempting to control what your child eats when she is not with you, this is an opportunity to do some deeper thinking.

It can be terrifying to let your child out into the big bad world of cookies and donuts and dairy and junk food. Remind yourself that once in a while is not going to cause the damage we fear (assuming your child doesn’t have a serious intolerance, allergy, or sensitivity to things like gluten or casein). Remember that bit by bit, your job is to let go and trust that what you’ve taught will stick in there somewhere, and your kids need the opportunity to make their own choices so they have some autonomy. This is truly where they learn to make long-term healthy choices. Control is really about fear. Keep that in mind next time your precious child walks out the door, and choose trust instead.

How We Eat

How we eat is one of the trickiest things to sort through as a parent, so please be gentle with yourself. The fact that you are even here, reading this, means you are way ahead of most of the parents in this country and you should feel really good about that.

It can feel like an uphill battle but if you keep on, steady and relaxed, you’ll reap the rewards of growing a healthy family.

IMG_2115Dylan Emrys, MA, has been educating and supporting families for over 25 years.

She currently resides in Wenatchee, WA working both at the local crisis center as a trauma therapist, and in her private practice using sandtray and play therapy with kids and families.

You can find her on Facebook at Orchard Child & Family Therapy. Sidra is now seventeen, and eats mostly paleo, and is contemplating her first Whole30, with no influence (save healthy modeling) from her mother.