Years ago, when my boys were small (our youngest is now 12 years old), I juggled my full-time job as an IT executive with cooking and other household responsibilities. I was determined to cook healthy, fresh meals by batch cooking on the weekends. As a child growing up in Cameroon, I was fed only the freshest organic foods from my family's gardens and local markets. So I was accustomed to homemade food, and I wanted the same for my family.
Following my youngest child's birth in 2004, I realized that I could not find pure, made-from-scratch baby food. Baby food in the market was highly processed, often using additives and preservatives so that it could easily sit on grocery shelves for two to three years without refrigeration.
So I cooked my own. It was important to me that the food I made for my young son was always vibrant in color, fresh, aromatic and chock-full of nutrients. And it had to taste delicious, with no additives or preservatives. This eventually turned into a full-time business, and I founded Yummy Spoonfuls Organic Baby Food 10 years ago.
Today, my kids are older, and I still stick to healthy foods for them. I know this isn't easy, because our children sit in school cafeterias filled with treats, salty preservative-laden snacks and junk food. Because of the lack of options and peer pressure, healthy eating at home is more important than ever – especially if you can't control what they eat at school by packing their lunches and snacks.
Parents have tremendous influence over kids' habits. It is worth the effort to give them a healthy start. Here are some of my suggestions.
• Find the best food around the perimeter. The perimeter of the store is where fresh food is found: Produce, dairy, meat and fish. Be sure to look for items that have only one ingredient, and choose organic as much as possible to be sure the food is free from harmful chemicals. I like to pack leaves of lettuce, carrot sticks, slices of cucumber and red bell pepper with a dip, like hummus or yogurt dressing. Whole, fresh fruit is always quick and easy. For sandwiches, roast your own poultry or grass-fed meat. You can do this in advance, freeze in portions and use as needed. Roasting your own food is best because you can avoid the additives in processed lunch meats. • Read the labels, especially on food marketed toward kids. Nutritional labels reveal a lot. The main thing to avoid, of course, is sugar. It's in most kids' foods in various forms – fructose, corn syrup, cane sugar, glucose, etc. Added sugar is found in flavored yogurt, kids' breakfast cereal and granola bars, things you'd otherwise think were healthy. Sugar, preservatives, fillers – the things you can't pronounce or find in your own kitchen – can aggravate allergies and harm kids' health.
I choose plain yogurt and add my own berries, dried fruit, honey, fruit purees, or maple syrup to sweeten. It's fun to let your kids pick the toppings. We choose cooked whole rolled oats, cracked wheat or quinoa instead of kids' breakfast cereal, which is typically packed with sugar, both hidden and not. Good bread topped with nut butter, avocado, honey, organic butter, veggies or fresh fruit makes a better snack than packaged bars. Don't let yourself be tricked by large words printed on labels that lead you to believe it's a healthy choice. Take time to learn which labels really mean something and read all of the ingredients on the label (even those in fine print).
• Consider value, not just price. There are some products that are expensive for good reason, like quality fats and superfoods. Things like hemp seed, nuts and nut butters, matcha, chia seeds, nut oils, flax seeds and dried berries are so easy to use and pack a ton of nutrition into every bite – important for kid-sized portions – while bumping up flavor, color and texture. What I like to pack: Apple or banana slices with a dab of almond butter, rolled in hemp seed and raisins for a power snack; nuts, seeds, coconut chips and berries in a baggie make a quick-energy trail mix. Matcha and hemp seeds amp up fruit smoothies for breakfast or after-school snacks; and a dressing of walnut oil and lemon juice makes spring mix into something special. • Rethink the sandwich. Hungry little tummies love sandwiches, and they're a quick and easy solution for parents, so it's important to make them count, nutritionally speaking. Good bread is the foundation. Be sure to check ingredients – good clean bread only requires about five basics: whole grain flour, water, yeast, oil and a touch of salt. Check the freezer section and the natural foods aisle for quality bread. Fillings can be hard-boiled egg mashed down with avocado; minced or shredded veggies with cream cheese; and nut butter with fresh or dried fruit. Thinly sliced roasted meats left over from dinner are also a great choice to avoid lunch meats, which are full of nitrates, salt and additives. Try to steer clear of condiments and jams that have added sugar, salt, preservatives and artificial flavorings. Simple is good! • Don't forget to teach as you go. Kids are never too young to start learning how to make healthy food choices. Our youngest had his first green spinach smoothie when he was 9 months old, and it is still his favorite drink. Be sure to involve your kids in the shopping trip, starting with the shopping list. Lay out some ground rules ahead of time, and make it a game. Have your child find a new vegetable or fruit from the produce department to try, or send her on a mission to find yellow vegetables. Explain why some foods are healthier than others. Show your kids how to read labels. Test their math skills in the aisles. Once your child learns to enjoy the process of choosing, preparing and eating good food, good health is the natural result.
It gets better when they grow older – I see it with my boys. It warms my heart to see our boys reading labels and questioning unknown ingredients. It wasn't always this easy.
Remember when it comes to helping our kids grow healthy and happy, it's worth taking the time to do it right. After all, we only get one chance.