We recently received an email asking for input about how to nourish our children with healthy food, considering the barrage of junk food that children are exposed to on a daily basis. This particular reader had changed her family's diet after a cancer diagnosis, but was having a hard time with all the fake foods given to her children once they entered school.
For those of you with school-aged children (or who have raised children), you know all about the constant "treats" given to our kids at school, sometimes multiple times each week, or even each day. Unfortunately, just like there are harmful conventional cancer treatments, there is "conventional" food, which is chock full of ingredients that are harmful physically and mentally. There might be no better sign as to how brainwashed we've become about bad food than the fact we impair our children's developing bodies, and at school no less, thus putting them at a big disadvantage for focusing and learning.
So we were asked: Given our cancer journey, and given our devotion to food-as-medicine-and-medicine-as-food (to quote Hippocrates), how do we handle this with our own kids?
The answer is multi-faceted. First and foremost, we notify teachers from day one that our children are on a restricted diet. As with any food, the best way to ensure the very best quality is to make it yourself. Packing daily snacks and lunches is fairly easy, especially if you make the lunches more tempting than anything your kid(s) could order at school. We spend a lot of time and energy involving our children in food preparation, and we also put a lot of effort into getting them excited about eating only healthy foods and ingredients. The end result is that our daughters feel like the OTHER kids are shortchanged!
To handle the frequent birthday and holiday parties, as well as treats handed out as rewards, we make sure to provide an ample supply of homemade treats (usually muffins made with healthful grains and natural sweeteners) that we replenish every month or two. For example, when someone passes out cupcakes to celebrate a birthday, my child gets one of my muffins (stored in a school freezer or refrigerator).
If there's ever a situation where one of our girls was not given a muffin (maybe her class was offsite and forgot to bring one along), then we tell her to tell us after school, at which point we go get one of our healthy treats as an extra-special after-school snack. Again, we never want our kids to feel like they are missing out. In our opinion, it's not enough to KNOW that the food is better--kids really have to be excited about it. If they're not, then it's just one more thing they'll feel compelled to rebel against, and this can lead to eating problems/disorders down the road.
We also give our kids some leeway to eat unhealthful foods, in order to counteract the "forbidden fruit" effect, and also to give them a chance to feel the effects of eating bad food. And once a child has eaten only good, whole foods for a while, he/she will feel it quickly and clearly when ingesting fake foods/ingredients. We ask our girls to "check in" with how they feel after they have "regular" cake at a birthday party. Again, after many years of this, our kids consistently express feeling very lucky that they get to enjoy treats that actually help and fuel their body, and they're happy to avoid the stomach aches, headaches, and numerous other effects of "cheap fuel."
It can be challenging enough to provide healthy food to our children every day in a tantalizing way, even with no outside temptations. But it's extra frustrating once we get our children into the habit of eating well, only to be undermined by addictive, destructive junk food offered during school. We recommend starting with your own child(ren), making sure he/she/they is/are on board. Then, we're also fans of working at school-wide levels to improve eating habits. Some schools are implementing policies where food treats are not allowed. Instead, all treats (including birthdays and rewards) are activity-related. For example, a child gets special time with a teacher for her birthday, or kids get to play a game, preferably one involving physical activity. These new programs are being well-received by staff, parents, AND children.
The fact of the matter is that between birthday parties and occasional playdates, parents will often have to loosen the dietary reins. But allowing our children's precious bodies to be fueled by junk food 1-3 times week, or more, during the school year is no longer loosening the reins. It's letting the horse run amuck.
As we noted, now that our oldest is 9 years old, we have lessened our oversight slightly, to give her more control over making her own decisions. Luckily, she is still choosing to say no to junk food just about all of the time. In fact, she recently has begun expressing sadness for the children who eat junk food all the time. This is because she understands, at a visceral level, how important food is for our bodies, and that healthy food can be both good for our bodies AND taste really good. Seeing this mindset on the part of our daughters is easily one of the most gratifying aspects of our cancer journey.