I became a vegan about three years ago, following the birth of my youngest child, Everett. Although it goes against my fairly disorganized nature to systematically remove something from my diet to see if my heath improved –especially my beloved organic vanilla bean yogurt from Trader Joe’s — I did, and it did. As I have read more about nutrition, food history, and the meat and dairy industry it has only confirmed my path. That said, I am not a “militant” vegan; I occasionally indulge in a few bites of pizza, ice cream, or a favorite dessert that encompasses and flaunts almost every ingredient I try to avoid, or at least limit: bread pudding. With its white bread, sugar, eggs, and milk, the only redeeming antioxidant is cinnamon, and perhaps berries, which only slightly eases my conscience. Really, though, life is about pleasure, and food is one of the greatest joys. I am on a path to eat well, to eat healthy, and to create delicious meals for my family and friends.
When I consider my childhood and young adult diet, I shudder. .. lots of fast food, cheesy, salty casseroles with bread and iceberg lettuce coated with ranch dressing, and daily (helmet-less) bike rides to acquire candy from the local 7-11. Yes, those were the days. . the days of bad skin, bad hair, bad teeth, and bad clothes! Would I have somehow skipped my 10-year awkward phase had I eaten more whole foods and sipped lemon and mint-infused water? Doubtful. And nobody knew better, honestly. It was the age of TV dinners, drive-thru windows, and convenience. My college years were no better. I was always trying to lose weight, always hungry, and somehow thought my daily consumption of low-fat, high-sugar treats (remember Snackwells, anyone? TCBY?) were key. Bread and mochas were my constant companions.
One of the most misleading – and most dangerous — dietary teachings of the 1980s and 1990s was that fat is bad in all its forms, an idea that is tattooed on our psyches. I have learned that this simply is not true, but I still catch myself noticing fat grams and calculating calories. Overall, I’ve been so much happier and more satisfied since I quit paying attention to fat and focused more on real food.
So, have you been wondering what to eat? What to feed your kids so they grow up not only physically healthy, but with a healthy attitude towards food? Here are a few suggestions if, like me, you’ve struggled with how to answer these questions.
First of all, don’t stress so much about providing “balanced” meals for yourself or your kids. Eat as many fresh foods as possible, of course, but make it easy. Serve your children vegetables first at a meal so they’ll eat them when they’re hungriest, for example, or offer them cashews or almonds as a mid-afternoon snack. I used to think I always had to have a protein, a vegetable, and a starch for every meal, and while we still often do, we also eat a lot of “one-pot” meals, such as vegan bowls of quinoa, beans, sweet potatoes, greens, avocado and salsa, an udon noodle stir-fry with veggies and fresh herbs, or a hearty soup. Skip the bread and the salad; put greens on top of your other food, or add grains and nuts to your salad bowl to make it a meal. It’s easy to feel defeated and give in to your children’s desire for bland, sugary, processed foods, but keep putting your creations out there. My rule is that Genevieve and Everett have to at least take two bites of anything I make; then they can have second helpings of something else. I never force them to clean their plate! I want them to have a healthy sense of when they are hungry, and when they are full. One of the effects of my diet early in life was that I lost all sense of my appetite; I often ate when I was not hungry, and snacked much of the day. Now that I eat more natural fats and regular meals, I rarely crave unhealthy late-night snacks. That said, if I am (or one of my kids are) truly hungry at 10 pm, we eat. The key is to listen to your body and figure out what foods make you feel good. Also remember: your kids can – and should – eat almost everything you eat. Not all children hate tomatoes, bread crust, mushrooms, and broccoli; in fact, these are some of my kids’ favorites! This week I’ve had some success and several failures in this arena. I made black bean-chipolte burgers one evening. Ryan thought they were incredible, but G and Ev literally gagged. They still had to try a few bites if they wanted to get to an alternative. Yesterday I made a lentil soup with spinach and onions. Both kids actually ended up eating most of their servings as I watched them nervously, sure they would reject it because of the unsightly spinach. Be bold or go home. Oh, you’re in your kitchen. . . well, be bold! Be brave and proud of your cooking.
Which brings me to . . . cook your own food! Don’t be thrown off if you don’t have all the ingredients for a particular recipe – just find a substitute and have fun experimenting. So you don’t know what kombu is? Who cares? Just leave it out, or look up a similar ingredient and go for it. One of my favorite things to do is try out new dishes on unsuspecting company; for some reason it takes the pressure off, because if it’s a failure I a) don’t have to throw it away or eat it out of guilt, and b) I constantly remind my guests that it is a new recipe, and one that won’t be repeated. Get your kids involved in the cooking process as much- and as early – as possible. This teaches them patience and they feel more invested in the meal, and more appreciative of your efforts to prepare good food for them. Do they make a mess and do you want to pull out a bottle of wine while cooking with young children? Yes, and yes. But it’s worth it.
Be patient. If you’re trying to go vegetarian, or vegan, or simply cook more and eat less processed foods, be compassionate with yourself. Food is not only sustenance, but it can be –should be — a beautiful, satisfying way to connect with the people around you. So, as Michael Pollen has said, eat mainly plants, and not too much.