Saturday, April 13, 2013

8 [Non-Extreme] Ways to Feed Your Child Healthily

I have more or less rolled my eyes at the organic food movement since I became aware of it. I am a girl that believes in science and loves her real (salted) butter. I also eat cookies that I drop on the sidewalk. And I'm irritated by people who make eating this or that (or not eating this or that, more precisely) into a religiously dogmatic trend. 

In America, I think food can be an opiate of the masses. We are very privileged in the available range and cost of our food, but it can end up costing us more than our cash. Now that I have a child's body and future to care for, I suddenly care and think hi-fructose corn syrup is highly suspicious. I call the struggle to find "good" food to raise a family on "the Mamavore's Dilemma" (though that sounds like I only eat mamas, right?). Below I am going to run through why I finally think this is important and how not to suck at eating healthily. You may have heard most of it before, but I hope there's some gravity in hearing it from someone who isn't a health nut. I used to feel so defeated at the thought of how much energy it would take to comb over every box label, drive out into the fields to get groceries, etc. But if you're not coo-coo about it, it's actually not as hard as it sounds. And to me, any learning curve is worth it when I imagine Ishmael stricken with diseases caused by the unexamined foods I carelessly gave him as a child. 

1. Choose Organic. I don't want to scare you away with this being number one, so let me preface some later points by saying I'm far from adopting an entirely organic diet. However, I do think this is a fundamental issue that, if ignored, renders most of my other points useless. The growing consensus seems to be that the process of growing organic products is actually worse for the environment than conventionally grown products, but I think there is also growing evidence to suggest that the presence of GMOs in our food is a leading contributor to the escalating numbers of allergies and intolerances (gluten, anyone?). The more unnatural stuff we put in our bodies, the more we handicap our bodies from being able to function as they were made to. 

2. Shop Local. When you're closer to the source, there is less opportunity for your food to be messed with by the time it reaches us. Less freezing, less preserving, and perhaps more opportunity for you to observe the entire growing process and be aware of what factors influence your produce. Depending on where you live, it can be pretty hard to get food straight from the source. Here in Santa Maria, there aren't a lot of options for raw dairy or meat bred and butchered nearby. In fact, I heard that Santa Barbara county is in the top 1% of food producing areas in the U.S., but we export 98% of what we grow!  I'm delighted by the fact that fusion cuisine (which can be the ultimate example of non-local food) was invented in California and I can finally point to an "American" food, but it's a total luxury.

3. Cook In Season. As depressing as it can be to find the diversity we're used to on a local level, the Central Coast has a thriving farmer's market scene, which enables us to buy produce that's in season and often locally grown as well. Whatever is in season tends to taste the best too! Here is a list of farmer's markets on the Central Coast. The Santa Maria market is especially well priced. There are also community gardens and co-ops that I haven't looked into as much. Sometimes I want herbs that aren't in season, and at least in California, it's not too hard to grow them indoors, I don't think. Which leads us to the next point...

4. DIY. For some, growing your own food is an option. That's a step beyond where I'm at right now, but I think I will get there some day. One thing to be careful of, if you do decide to plant some stuff, is to get non-modified seeds! Another thing I haven't tried, but know is a possibility, is making your own yogurt from a starter. My parents used to make their own cheese as well. If you can find raw dairy to begin with, that could be a more healthy option than buying dairy products from the grocery store (because the animals that produce that dairy are most likely being fed GM foods, which alters what they produce). Some people even raise their own chickens, but chickens are repulsive to me, so if I ever end up doing that, it will have to be in a living situation in which I can put them far away from the house. One thing I do really like to do is make my own snacks (which handily avoids preservatives!) like lox, kimchi, and hopefully beef jerky, soon. The list is endless on this one - I'm thankful that I enjoy cooking. 

5. Substitute. It takes longer, but cooking from scratch tastes better and is better for you. I'm starting to look into what ingredients (even when cooking from scratch) I can switch out for healthier things that I don't use yet. We decided not to feed Ishmael rice cereal, for example, because it's seeming more and more likely that beginning processed foods at such a young age predispositions the palette for less healthy things later on, like white bread as opposed to whole grains, etc. I do like whole grain breads, but so far I can't bare to make all my smothered-in-fat pastas with whole-wheat noodles. And those green spinach noodles in the multi-colored pasta blends are deplorable. Again, I'm only just starting to research these things myself, but it seems like Agave nectar might be a more healthy sweetener than refined sugar (or even honey, since honey is made by bees who may be pollinated by GM plants). Have you used it? What did you think?

6. Be Informed. A quick Google search informed me that a 9 in front of produce sticker codes means the item is organic (no GMOs). Here is an explanation of what all the numbers mean. I was looking that up because I was so excited to find some miniature bananas for my miniature human at an outdoor Mexican market, but to my dismay, they were run-of-the-mill bananas. Which goes to show that not everything at a farmer's market or other less supermarket-y setting is different than the rest (I made them into a headdress for him instead, and Jonas and I ate them Thai-dessert style). Another easy step is to be aware of the most commonly modified foods, but this list makes me sad. I love my edemame, zucchini, and dairy products. 

7. Meal-Time Habits. At this point, my household doesn't have weight issues, but we do have to be intentional about limiting our sugar intake, for one thing. Forget about a sweet tooth, my husband has a sweet jaw! And somewhere between pregnancy cravings and the habit osmosis that happens in marriage, I too have acquired the need for a sugar fix after almost every meal. This is a problem, my kittens. I've talked before about not wanting to throw around the term "addiction", but when I find myself feeling as if I need sugar, for example, and can't focus on anything else until I have some, I think there's a problem with my habits. I know other people struggle with this when it comes to caffeine. For the record, I think energy drinks are of the devil and they aren't allowed in my home. 

Sugar intake is a self-control issue for both Jonas and I now that we buy our own groceries. I'm privileged to have come from a home where my mom cooked us healthy food from scratch 3 meals a day, but it does make one go crazy in the junk food isle later in life. Oh, how I used to pine over the marshmallows in Erica Jensen's lunchbox in second grade. Instead of marshmallows, my mother made me french onion soup and put it in a plastic canteen that never quite relinquished the smell.

Here are some habits that we have (or will try to) incorporate:

  • Regular meal times; Jonas and I still have our teenage metabolisms, so sometimes we won't eat much for several days and then eat a TON all at once, but that's not very good for you and is definitely not a good practice to teach children. 
  • Portion control; related to the above, it's better to eat several small meals throughout the day than over-eat at any one given time. 
  • Don't reward with food; for both children and adults, food shouldn't be used as positive or negative reinforcement. Good eating habits should be maintained, regardless of other behavior. And just to clarify, rewarding does not equal indulging, which I whole-heartedly believe in on occasion. 
  • Set quantifiable goals for "bad" foods; X amount of fast food, candy, soda, chips, etc. per X amount of time. 
  • Don't add salt or sugar to baby food. 

8. Moderation. The key to healthy (and happy) eating is moderation. Healthy eating can become an obsession in its own right (at which point it's no longer healthy, obvs.). I mean, come one, who are we kidding that kale is always gonna do the trick when what you really want is pasta and shrimp swimming in cream sauce? Diets don't work well because you're denying your body something it actually needs, be it fat or sugar or what have you. You only get one life to live, and sometimes you've gotta just love the junk for it's delicious junkyness. And not to be a downer, but you probably can't get away from all "bad" food, even if you tried. 

Well, that's what I've determined thus far for my own family, but on a related note, this excellent discussion about obesity (worth 40 minutes of your time, especially to liven up a commute or some housework!) in the US gives some good insight and ideas about eating healthily in this glorious land of finger-lickin' goodness, too. 

Good luck, and don't eat all the butter without me. 

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