Cave Babies: Raising Happy, Healthy Paleo Kids

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Most people following Paleo find it as adults, often after a long and frustrating search for a way of eating that won’t cause an endless series of digestive issues, autoimmune flare-ups, or other problems. Switching to a Paleo diet at any age is better than continuing to eat grains, seed oils, and other harmful modern foods, but many of us are left wishing we could have discovered it earlier, avoiding years of illness and frustration. Children of Paleo parents are lucky to have that chance – they can enjoy all the benefits of real, whole foods without enduring years of painful trial and error to get there.

Feeding your children a Paleo diet provides them with an enormous amount of benefits that they simply couldn’t get from standard American “kid foods.” Unlike candy and highly processed snacks, Paleo foods provide all the micronutrients they need to support a healthy growing body. Since children’s immune systems haven’t fully developed yet, the immune benefits of eliminating gut irritants like gluten and lectins are also important (and parents will appreciate less time spent soothing upset stomachs and runny noses). Raising a Paleo family presents challenges of its own, but it’s not impossible, and the healthy eating habits your children learn will help them for the rest of their lives.

Paleo Babies

For the first year of a baby’s life, the benefits of a Paleo diet should ideally come through the mother’s breast milk. Babies grow so rapidly that getting adequate nutrition is crucial: breastfeeding provides a baby with all the nutrients he or she needs to develop, especially fat and cholesterol. Even better, breastfeeding also transfers healthy bacteria from the mother’s digestive tract, providing the baby with gut flora to support healthy digestion later in life.

In traditional hunter-gatherer societies, babies breastfeed for several years, but this is rarely possible for parents living in the modern world of inadequate and often unpaid maternity leave. Most mothers who need to stop breastfeeding before their baby is ready for solid foods turn to formula; unfortunately over-the-counter baby formula is almost as far from Paleo as it’s possible to get: highly processed soy proteins laced with all kinds of problematic chemical compounds. A better alternative is homemade formula, based on raw milk (or goat’s milk, if your baby does not tolerate cow’s milk well) or liver. You can make this in large batches ahead of time, and freeze it for quick defrosting. If you’re absolutely stuck, you can also make standard formula less bad by adding pureed liver or egg yolks. It will still have all the problematic elements, but at least you can give it some extra nutritional heft.

At around 6 months to 1 year, your baby will be ready for something other than milk. Standard nutritional advice for babies beginning to eat solid food is to start them with rice, oatmeal, or barley cereal, thinned with breast milk or formula. Unfortunately, these foods are even worse for babies than for the rest of us. Not only do they contain problematic antinutrients and gut irritants, but babies don’t yet have enough amylase (the enzyme that allows humans to break down starch) to properly digest them. For comparison, breast milk is high in fat, a much more appropriate energy source for a baby’s digestive system.

When your baby is old enough to start eating solid food, nutritious Paleo staples like egg yolks, avocados, or bananas are a much better option than commercial rice cereal. Start with a very runny food (you can mix it with breast milk or coconut milk at first) and slowly thicken the consistency. You can also puree meats, but don’t go overboard with protein – only 7% of the calories in breast milk come from protein, suggesting that infants, like the rest of us, are not well adapted to a protein-heavy diet. Like homemade formula, this baby food can easily be frozen and defrosted for busy parents.

As babies mature, they begin to be capable of handling progressively lumpier food, eventually moving from thicker purees to very soft solid food (such as bananas, steamed vegetables, etc.), and on to classic finger foods.

Transitioning to Paleo with Older Children

Toddlers who were raised Paleo can naturally transition from eating homemade baby food to eating real, nutrient-dense foods at family dinner times. Children who already have their own food preferences, however, can be tough customers when it comes to cutting off their Cheerios. Transitioning to Paleo with children presents a number of hurdles, especially for parents who are also struggling with their own diet.

One challenge is that children often see the new diet as an arbitrary set of restrictions. Adults who choose to adopt a Paleo lifestyle have made the decision that the difficulty is worth the benefits – children whose parents make that choice for them often feel overly restricted by a change that suddenly forbids all of their favorite foods for no apparent reason. This makes it especially important to discuss the change with your children. Younger kids might not be able to follow all the science, but they can understand that some foods will help them grow up healthy and strong, while other foods won’t. Do your best to present your new grocery list in a positive light: an exciting new choice that will help your family stay healthy and active.

The “cold turkey” approach to Paleo is not the ideal way to do this. Toddlers in particular are biologically hardwired to reject new and unfamiliar foods – an overnight switch from Apple Jacks and Easy Mac to liver and broccoli is unlikely to go over well. Instead, ease your kids into their new eating patterns. You might start by just cutting out gluten, or even just one gluten-containing food (such as breakfast cereal). Getting the family used to eating eggs instead of Raisin Bran might be a baby step, but it’s a baby step in the right direction. Slowly replace snacks with Paleo-friendly options, letting your kids get used to each new food rather than bombarding them with a lot of changes at once. For example, try making ants on a log with almond butter instead of peanut butter, or eating banana pancakes instead of regular pancakes for breakfast.

Some people have better results focusing on one meal at a time, rather than one food type. Breakfast is usually a good option for this, for several reasons. First, most people eat it at home, meaning that you have the maximum amount of control over what you eat. Second, it takes advantage of your fresh stores of willpower and determination. Studies show that we all have a finite amount of willpower each day. By the time you get home tired and stressed from a day at the office, you might not have the mental energy to insist on roast beef and spinach for dinner, instead of pizza. Starting with breakfast sets you up to succeed – and a solid Paleo breakfast might even give you more energy to tackle lunch.

Whatever strategy you choose, make sure to stay consistent. If your kids figure out that they can get their old foods back by throwing a tantrum, that’s what they’ll keep doing. For two-parent households, it’s also vital that both adults stay on the same page about what is and isn’t allowed: frustrated kids will be quick to take advantage of any inconsistency. Be gentle and encouraging, but stick to your guns. If your kids refuse to eat their dinner, it won’t hurt them to skip a meal – vegetables have a way of magically becoming less “icky” the hungrier they are.

Involving Children in the Paleo Lifestyle

Paleo in the kitchenOne of the simplest ways to get your kids excited about their new food is to involve them in the process. Encourage them to help you in the kitchen – even young children can do basic tasks like washing veggies; older kids can help chop, peel, and clean up. Teenagers can help in even more substantive ways, like taking charge of the family’s dinner for a night. This is a great way to practice cooking real food, ensuring that your children won’t be stuck with takeout and Lean Cuisine as soon as they leave home. Ask your kids for their input when you plan meals, and then take them to the grocery store to help you pick out the ingredients.

Regular cookbooks are fine to use with children, but Paleo dieters are lucky enough to have not one but two children’s books specifically designed to help children and families adjust to the Paleo lifestyle. Paleo Pals: Jimmy and the Carrot Rocket Ship, by Sarah Fragoso, tells the story of a young boy who isn’t sure quite how happy he is about the new diet, until he meets a trio of superheroes who explain the benefits of Paleo and the drawbacks to other foods that won’t help him stay healthy and strong. Eat Like a Dinosaur, by Elana Amsterdam, is a Paleo children’s recipe book, full of delicious recipes like Shaky Pork Barbecue and Zucchini Latkes. For parents trying to encourage their children to embrace Paleo, these books provide a welcome break from standard kids’ cookbooks.

Kid-Friendly Paleo Foods

The only real difference between a Paleo diet for children and a Paleo diet for everyone else is that children’s growing brains demand slightly higher levels of carbohydrates. This doesn’t mean that they need a big bowl of Wheaties in the morning, though – try sweet potatoes or chestnuts for a delicious, Paleo-friendly source of starch to fuel your kids’ rapid growth.

Children can thrive on the same version of a Paleo diet as adults can – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it more fun every now and again. One way to make almost any food appealing is to create a mini version: mini omelets, mini meatloaves, and mini burgers are quick and easy ways to make dinner kid-sized. If you want to get really fancy, you could even concoct some personal mini-meatzas. Food manufacturers know that kids love bright colors and funky shapes, but exciting food isn’t limited to gummy candies: try having a contest to see who can find the weirdest-looking fruit (and then find a way to actually eat it). You can also cut deli meats with cookie cutters, or use an egg mold to keep Paleo snacks interesting.

Paleo-friendly versions of favorite foods can go a long way towards easing the transition period. Paleo French fries made with sweet potatoes might be a hit; you could also experiment with all kinds of nut-flour based bread recipes, although be careful not to overdo it with these, since nuts do contain high levels of PUFA. Paleo chocolate pudding is a surefire desert hit, as are Paleo “cookies” based on nuts or coconut. These candy cigarettes can be a stumbling block for adults, but replacement foods can be very helpful for Paleo-skeptic kids, because they let you take the transition one step at a time. The addictive properties of the highly processed carb-heavy diet of sugar and corn syrup are both physical and mental. By replacing harmful modern foods with Paleo imitations, you’re tackling the physical addiction first. Then, you can gradually transition away from imitation foods and towards an openly Paleo eating plan.

Snacks are a common concern for new Paleo parents, but there’s no reason to worry. Believe it or not, the world revolved for millions of years without goldfish crackers. Unless your child has fructose intolerance problems, fruit or berries of any kind are a tasty and easy snack. Hard-boiled eggs are another nutritious option that you can easily make ahead of time and store in the fridge for days. Various enterprising cooks have also constructed Paleo crackers from almonds and coconut flour; enjoy them with butter, nut butter, guacamole, or pâté. Jerky of any kind is easy and portable; so is trail mix (if you can’t find any brands without chocolate or pretzels in them, just buy some mixed nuts and dried fruit and make your own!).

School lunches might seem impossibly daunting without the option of PB&J, but Paleo lunches don’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Try a bento box packed with leftover meat, fruit salad, hard-boiled eggs, chopped veggies like carrot or celery sticks, and some strawberries or coconut squares for dessert. You could also pack a hot lunch in a thermos bottle, for a gourmet meal that will put cafeteria pizza to shame.

Paleo lunch and snack options not only help your kids grow up healthy; they also save a lot of money. A 7-ounce bag of Goldfish crackers costs around $4. If your child eats one ounce at a time, that’s seven snacks for $4. Or, you could buy a dozen eggs for $1.50, getting 12 snacks for less than half the money. Even cage-free eggs are often available for around $4/dozen, which still gives you three times as much snack mileage for your money. If money is not so much of an issue as time, one great option is to invest in a slow cooker – throw a tasty roast or a piece of pork shoulder in when you leave for work, and walk through the door to the delicious smell of dinner already cooked.

Social Challenges

Paleo kidsEncouraging your kids to eat meat and vegetables in place of sugar-laden “kid food” can be hard enough at your own dinner table. But your kids also have to leave the house at some point – and unless you’re living in Paleo Utopia, that means a constant parade of cleverly-marketed junk food from every side.

A natural reaction to this is to batten down the hatches and strictly prohibit junk food from darkening your family’s door. This response, however, isn’t particularly useful. In part, this is because extreme restriction cuts your kids off from social life – they have to be the only one who doesn’t get to celebrate Halloween or go to birthday parties.

More importantly, though, this “all or nothing” approach doesn’t work. If you institute an absolute ban on non-Paleo food, you’ll make it into a delicious forbidden fruit that your kids are dying to get their hands on as soon as they get the chance. And the chance will come: as soon as they get to school, it becomes impossible to micromanage every bite of food that goes into their mouths. You might pack a nutritious Paleo lunch every morning, but that won’t stop your child from trading his avocado for a package of jelly beans. You might bring in veggies and almond butter for snack time, but the class will probably get cupcakes or cookies the next day. And once your children have even a little money of their own, all bets are off.

Extreme restriction won’t help your kids develop healthy eating habits in the long run, because it prevents them from learning how to make their own choices in these situations. A better method is to keep communication open about different kinds of foods and their effects: talk to your kids about why you don’t eat junk food; encourage them to notice how they feel when they do. Help them identify less harmful indulgences, and enjoy a moderate amount (for example, savoring one or two squares of really good dark chocolate rather than gorging on a pile of M&Ms).

The everyday milieu of food advertising is hard enough to navigate, but special events are even harder. Social events like birthday parties give you a prime opportunity to teach your kids about what and why we eat. If your child has no serious allergies, you might consider simply allowing them to eat whatever the other children are eating – one serving of cake and ice cream won’t kill them, and gives you a chance to let your child try junk food without needing to bring it into your house. Many parents also find that it helps to feed their children a healthy meal beforehand: if they don’t go into the party hungry, they’re more likely to focus on the social aspect, rather than the food.

Sugar-laden holidays like Easter or Halloween also pose the risk of candy overload. Other social events like sports trips, bake sales, and any kind of celebration pose a whole range of challenges to your children’s health. Try focusing on other aspects of holiday traditions (such as pumpkin carving instead of trick-or-treating), or swapping your kids’ candy for Paleo-friendly alternatives, toys, or other treats. Regardless of the situation, realistic compromises and communication are key. You can only compel your children to eat Paleo for a few years, but if you can persuade them of the benefits, they’ll keep their good habits for life.

Beyond Food: Kids and the Paleo Lifestyle

Paleo is about more than food. Just like adults, kids need regular exercise and enough sleep every night. Many CrossFit boxes have kids’ classes; these are fine if your children enjoy them, but kids don’t need a gym to exercise – go for a family hike or bike ride, or just turn them loose on a jungle gym. Sports teams are another great option, but make sure you aren’t overdoing it. Stress is just as bad for children as for adults: if your kids spend their afternoons rushing from one activity to another, scarfing down dinner in the car between ballet and karate, and come home to collapse in exhaustion in front of the TV, their schedules are probably too overloaded.

Children – and especially babies – are also particularly sensitive to toxic chemicals in the array of detergents, disinfectants, and deodorants populating most of our storage closets. Windex and Krud Kutter are the household cleaning equivalents of “foods” like Oreos and Pop-Tarts; if you haven’t already, try to switch to more human-friendly cleaners (if you have any pets, they’ll thank you as well).

Conclusion

Real food is for everyone – children and adults. Helping your kids switch from a modern American diet to nutritious, whole foods is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Fighting against the relentless food advertising and pervasive social pressures can feel like an endless uphill battle, but the results will be worth the effort (and when your children mature enough to understand delayed gratification, they’ll probably thank you.) You don’t have to be the Perfect Paleo Family from day 1, but facing minor setbacks along the way don’t mean you should give up entirely. Approach the change with a positive attitude, a flexible game plan, and a willingness to communicate – you might be surprised at how well it actually goes.

P.S. Take a look at our Paleo Recipe Book. It's a Cookbook we've created to help you prepare the best Paleo food. It contains 370+ recipes and covers everything you'll need.

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