by Robin Strathdee, who much prefers Jeopardy to Let’s Make a Deal.
When last we chatted about your kiddos, we talked about three different strategies for implementing a Good Food policy in your kitchen. Today, we’re gonna talk a little bit about what to expect once you begin to make those changes. While they can’t always articulate how they feel, our kids go through the same anxieties and discomforts as we adults do when we change the food on our family’s plates. The timing and outcome of these phases will absolutely vary based on your food-shift strategy, your kids’ ages and personalities, and how you (as the grown-up) handle each phase.
Phase I: Anxiety
There is a level of anxiety associated with the complete dietary revolution that is Good Food. We often hear new Whole30ers comment that they’re “frexcited” (frightened + excited) to kick off their 30 days. They’re excited for the positive changes they know are coming, but they’re terrified of giving up the foods they’ve come to depend on for nourishment and comfort.
Imagine things from your kids’ perspective, though. I mean, we know that we’re making better choices, but all they know is that foods that were okay to eat yesterday are nowhere to be found today. In fact, the anxiety level may actually be higher for our kids because until they’re earning their own money, they have almost no control over what food makes it into the cart and onto their plates.
During this first phase, expect your kids to be a little more “sensitive” around meal times. They may fuss about seemingly unimportant things, like the placement of each food on the plate, the amount of sauce or dressing on an item, or portion size. They may look at foods they’ve eaten happily in the past with a newfound suspicion. For example, broccoli was okay every once in awhile, but now that macaroni and cheese is no longer an option, how much broccoli will we have to eat?
This anxiety may spill over into other areas of their lives as well. Younger kids may be more emotional than usual at morning drop-off or at bedtime; older kids may stress out over school work, sports or troubles with their friends. In their minds, if one area of their lives is up for grabs, everything is. Teenagers may very well skip this phase – they’re generally old enough to understand the what’s and why’s of what you’re doing (even if they don’t like it much).
If and when this phase strikes, reassure your kids. Let them know that you understand how they’re feeling, and that you’ll do as much as you can to help them make the adjustment. Explain (in whatever terms are appropriate) that you’re making changes in your lives so that you will be healthier as a family – that means more playtime and less sick time, more outings and less time-outs. Give your kids the chance to participate in meal time by choosing one part of the meal, helping to prepare dishes, and even choosing their own portion sizes (again, when appropriate).
Phase II: Rebellion
As your kids move past the anxiety of this change, you can expect a little – or a lot – of push-back. Children are on a continual quest to establish their autonomy, and when you remove some of their favorite foods from their daily diet, many kids will see that as an encroachment on their ability to decide what they eat. Most kids, however, will not be able to articulate that in any logical form. Enter the food tantrum.
Most parents, regardless of the makeup of their family’s diet, will find themselves on the wrong side of a food tantrum at least once. Just about anything can cause them, really, but they’re more likely to occur when you make a big change in the diet of your little (or not so little) one. Your kids’ rebellion may take many forms, but the most common are: refusal to eat – even foods they once enjoyed, demanding one food (or type of food), and sneaking food.
One event that stands out in my mind happened shortly after we made the transition to a paleo-type diet: My daughter Sophia, who was 2 ½, has never been too keen on eggs. We do, however, have a rule that if you choose to have a food on your plate, you have to eat at least one bite. One morning, she asked for eggs with her breakfast and took a bite willingly, but then refused to swallow it. She carried around a single bite of scrambled egg in her mouth for more than 30 minutes. She drooled, she cried, she whined, she tried to spit it out. Eventually, she tripped and fell, sending that little piece of egg tumbling. I didn’t have the heart to make her eat it after that (even though my floors weren’t that dirty), but the experience showed me that the will of a two year old is truly a force to be reckoned with.
When your kids try to stage their own food revolution, remember that they’re not doing this just to be difficult. They key to diffusing these situations is patience. Keep offering your kids the chance to participate in menu planning and meal prep, keep reminding them that the changes you’re making are helping them stay healthy. But more importantly, stick to your guns. Do not give in to the tantrums. Let your kids know that you believe in these choices enough that you won’t give up on them.
Phase III: Negotiation
Once you’ve established that these lifestyle changes are here to stay, you can expect U.N-level negotiations to begin. This phase of adjustment is akin to the bargaining stage of the Five Stages of Food Grief. This stage is a really important one, because it’s where you and your family come to an agreement about what is and isn’t acceptable in your context, and you discover where (if anywhere) you’re willing to make compromises.
If your kids are old enough to bargain, you can bet they’ll pull out their best Wayne Brady impression in an attempt to make a deal for some of their favorite forbidden foods. They may try to trade broccoli bites for dessert after dinner, chores for weekend snacks, or good grades for a fun food feast. At this point, the power is in your hands. Your kiddos know that these foods no longer have a regular place at your table (or on your couch, or in your car…), so they’re curious as to what they can do to bring some of their old faves back into play.
Now, you could use these negotiations as an opportunity to test your kids’ reactions to foods you think might be acceptable on occasion. This will win you points for not being completely made of stone, but I would caution you to be very careful with this approach as it can very quickly place you in a pattern of rewarding desirable behavior with food – in many cases, less healthy food. This can create unhealthy relationships with food that your kids will battle for the rest of their lives. Proceed with caution.
Or, you can draw a hard line. You can continue to say no to those less healthy foods at home, at school or on social occasions. Choosing not to compromise will again reinforce the idea that you’re confident in your choice and let your kids know that you aren’t easily swayed. This also keeps you from falling into the food-as-reward cycle that we all know is just plain unhealthy for everyone. However, this approach will also increase the temptation for your kids to eat those less healthy foods when you aren’t around to say no (at school, friends’ houses, etc.) – you know, that whole forbidden fruit thing.
The healthiest way to approach these conversations, though, is to acknowledge what your kids are telling you – that they really miss eating this or that food – and to let them know that a) that food is really not healthy enough to be considered acceptable any more; b) you’ll consider how that food might affect them and then you can talk about your decision at another time, or; c) you’d be willing to find an appropriate, but occasional, time to enjoy that food again.
This is a win-win approach, if you ask me, because it reminds your kids that you are sticking to your choices about what foods are and aren’t okay for every day, it keeps you from falling into a food-reward pattern, and it gives you room to reintroduce foods that your kids genuinely miss at a time that’s appropriate for you and them (read: not right before their school musical production).
Phase IV: Contentment
Adjusting to a new food routine can be stressful for the whole family. If you’ve been removing the less healthy foods slowly, you may be repeating the above phases into what seems like eternity. But eventually you’ll come to the place where everyone knows the food rules and you can all relax into a comfortable pattern. Requests of “eat this, don’t eat that” are met with much less grumbling and everyone understands when it’s okay to ask for a compromise. This is where the real magic happens.
When you push past all the uncertainty and negotiation, and establish what foods are and definitely are NOT going to find a home in your kitchen, you find a place where everyone is more willing to explore and discover new foods. New favorites are discovered, new memories are made, sometimes even new traditions are born. And, since we know that choosing good food can have a positive effect on behavior, and you are fighting fewer food battles, you may even have a bit more time to enjoy your kids!
If you’re walking through these phases with your family right now, share some of your trials and triumphs with us in comments below! And if you need more support and advice, check out our Whole30 For Kids section on the Whole30 Forum.