From the start is the best way to approach all of it- we were often asked, when our kids were little, how we ‘got them’ to eat stuff like homemade whole wheat pizza with squash on top, or spinach lasagna, or oatmeal, or whole wheat bread, or their vegetables instead of french fries. Well, that’s what they’d always eaten. I’d never assumed that my kids would hate healthy, natural, whole foods. I assumed they’d like them, and they did.
Oats, regular oats, not instant, for instance, are generally much cheaper than boxed cereals at the grocery store. This is true even of organic oats if you buy them from a bulk bin or a co-op (check out the health food stores, especially the bulk section for the best prices).
So gradually replace boxed cereals with oats to improve your diet without breaking the budget. Make 3 minute skillet granola if nobody wants to eat oats at your house.
Nobody likes oats? You and your kids can change here. This is how I know. We adopted two children who were almost 4 and almost 6. They had never had oats. They didn’t recognize broccoli at all. In fact, they only recognized about half a dozen fruits and vegetables. While the almost 4 year old is now a woman grown and still my pickiest eater, before the first year was out she loved oats- all my children have thought a bowl of oats and milk (uncooked, even) is one of life’s grandest treats.
Blynken and Nod are used to highly sweetened cereals and poptarts for breakfast at their house, and they eat out at McDonald’s at least once a week when at their Mother’s (that I know of for a fact, it may well be more). Nearly all their food is highly processed (lunchables, chips, store bought cookies, flavored rice from a package, chocolate milk, kool-ade, pop-tarts, protein bars, etc). While we have food issues of our own, we do not eat their particular sorts of processed foods much (we have our own food vices).
A few years ago, they started spending weekends here. At the beginning of the weekend stays, they hated oats. Now they love them and ask for them as a treat. Nod supposedly hates salad and will not eat it for his mother, but he eats salads here. So add some oats to your diet, and use them to supplant sugary breakfast foods.
Fruits: There are at least four goals I have in mind here for all healthy eating. One is to have healthy foods take the place of unhealthy foods in our diet. Another is to expand our taste buds so that we are open to trying a variety of different foods. A third is that we have a healthy variety in our diet, and all of this has to fit in our budget. So here are some ideas- you probably will think of others.
I don’t buy store-bought cookies or baked goods very often- never would be better, but I will look at the marked down stack of bakery stuff occasionally for a treat, and once in a while we like Oreos and ice-cream. This is no more than once a month, but it could be much better. Still, I don’t normally even look at the cookies aisle at the grocery store, and this way I am not tempted by the cheapness of cookies.
I look at fruit for day to day snacks instead of candy or cookies- If kids do not have access to cookies but do have access to fruit, they will learn to eat fruit. It also helps to learn some ways to use up fruit before it goes bad- if a kid doesn’t finish an apple, cut off a slice of where he’s been chewing it, wash it, and finish it yourself OR make a small apple crisp (slice the apple, sprinkle with brown sugar, butter, oats, and cinnamon and microwave a minute or bake with something else for about ten minutes). Make a fruit salad with dinner with the last few grapes, berries, and a diced plum/nectarine/peach/apple/banana. Put grapes in the freezer for kids to suck on (kids old enough not to choke), make fruit smoothies.
I have some baseline prices for fruit. What this essentially means is that we eat fruit seasonally. I might buy some cherries as a treat in the summer. I never buy them any other time of year. I buy fresh blueberries by pounds and pounds in July (we live near a you-pick farm), but I never buy them any other time of year. Seasonal fruits and veggies will help your budget.
Keep your eyes open for free fruits- we ate a lot of blackberries in Washington because they were free, growing wild in empty lots. In Nebraska we ate a lot of free apples because our piano teacher didn’t care to eat the apples on her apple tree. I noticed the yard full of apples fallen from the tree, asked if we could have them, and she said yes, and told us to pick the ripes ones from the tree as well. We fed the soft ones to our chickens, but you could put them in a compost pile. With the rest, we ate them fresh, made applesauce (for the freezer) and apple butter and I dried some. If you see a fruit tree where the fruit is falling to the ground, gather your courage and go to the door of the owner and ask if you can gather the windfalls. Usually they will tell you to pick them as well. Share the bounty, too, and eventually you’ll have a small group of friends opening their eyes to what is available and sharing it.
Add the local farmer’s market and organic grocery store to your rounds. While you may sometimes end up leaving empty handed, I have been amazed at the sales I have been able to find sometimes- and oats are cheaper there in most cases.
Remember that you don’t have to buy a lot of stuff to work towards the goal of opening your child’s mind and tastebuds to new foods. Some parents give their kids a treat of a cookie or a quarter ride on the mechanical pony at the end of a grocery store trip. I bought strange, exotic new fruits- and because we had no spare money to speak of, this means I bought one star fruit to share between nine people on one trip, one fresh pineapple for nine of us to share on another, one bag of about five tiny kumquats to share on a different trip, and three kiwi fruit to share amongst nine of us another time (they were three for a dollar, so I splurged, but I could have bought just one for .33 and it would have been fine for our purposes). There have been other things we’ve shared this way over the years. I think this limitation was actually a blessing. For one thing, that meant if we didn’t like something, it didn’t really go to waste. For another, having to have just a bite of starfruit made it less overwhelming and also more of an exciting treat. This forced scarcity made it seem all the more exciting and valuable, and because, I started this when the children were too tiny to know they were being brainwashed, they saw picking out one new fruit or vegetable (mostly fruits, though) to sample at the grocery store as an exciting adventure, a treat. It’s okay to go to the grocery store and buy a single banana, one nectarine, or one kiwi fruit, even if they are 3 for a dollar.
Grow your own- No matter where you live, apartment, yurt, tent, cardboard box- with access to water, you can grow sprouts. Grow a variety of them. I like wheat berries, lentil, and hmong best for ease of growing and flavor. Fenugreek is good, too. I love sunflower sprouts, but have never had success with growing them.
Don’t let your kids watch television. If you don’t want to go that far, do not let them watch commercials. Commercials will introduce them to a lot of junk food they would never see otherwise.
Let them drink water from the start. At most, add a few drops of lemon juice to the water. If they never have anything else, they get used to drinking water.
add a few wild foods to your diet- this doesn’t have to be scary like mushrooms. Pick a handful of things- every little big helps add variety and helps your tastebuds adjust to more ‘exotic’ foods. Lambsquarters, purslane, day lilies, garlic mustard, violet petals, rose petals, nasturtiums, chamomile, and dandelion are all things I have found growing freely that we’ve tried eating (depending on where live- where I live violets grow wild and plentifully, but that isn’t true everywhere).
When we lived in Japan, we saw kids snacking on simple foods like steamed sweet potatoes, baked potatoes, seaweed, and dried fish. My grandson and my son love to snack on steamed potatoes, and these are cheap.
Popcorn is a great, healthy snack for kids (providing you pop it from scratch, not the packaged microwave chemical-laden version)
Be smart. Just because it’s at the healthfood store, that doesn’t mean it’s really healthy. I don’t believe the goldfish crackers, mac n cheese in a package, or the candy there is all that much better for us than the stuff at the conventional store. It can’t improve upon the one or two ingredient snacks you can get at home.
At the risk of sounding like a hippy, choose food that nourishes your family, not the corporations. Consider this interview of Michael Pollan by Alternet’s Onnesha Roychoudouri:
OR: In some ways, this book seemed to make the case for the “shock doctrine” of the food industry. There’s this notion that what’s bad for us is good for the industry.
MP: There is a disconnect between the economic imperatives of the food industry and the biological imperatives of the human eater. You make money in the food industry by processing food as much as possible. It’s very hard to make money selling whole foods as they grow. They’re too cheap and common; farmers are too productive. The price of commodities is always falling.
But if you process food, you then have a way to add value to it. For example, it’s very hard to make money selling oats. Very simple grain, really good for you. I can buy organic oats for .79 cents a pound. That’s a big bag of oats. But there’s little money in it for anyone. If you turn those oats into Cheerios, there’s a lot more money in it. Suddenly, you have your intellectual property, your little design, donut-shaped cereal, you have a convenience food, you just have to add milk, you don’t have to cook it anymore and you can charge about four or five dollars for much less than a pound of oats. So that’s a good business.
But in fact, over time, those Cheerios will turn into a commodity, too, and all the supermarkets will have their store brand and it will be hard to expand your market and grow. So what do you do? You go up the next level of processing, and you make honey nut Cheerios cereal bars. These new bars that have a layer of synthetic milk through the middle and the idea is that it’s a bowl of cereal that you could eat dry in the school bus or in the car.
OR: You have a way of making that sound really unappealing.
MP: They really are. Look at the ingredients on the label — it will say “made with real milk.” Check out what the real milk is. It’s ten ingredients that include some powdered milk and a lot of other strange things. But then you’re selling a few ounces of oats for a great many dollars. By the pound, you’ve taken that 79 cents, and my guess is you’re up to 10 or 20 dollars a pound for your oats because you’ve added all of this excitement and novelty.
And then you go up another level: Now you have these cereal straws. You take that oat material, and you extrude it through some machine that turns it into a straw and then you line that with that fake milk product. Then your children sip milk through it and you feel virtuous because you’re increasing their milk consumption. But at every step of the way, this food has gotten less nutritious. None of them are as healthy as that bowl of oatmeal, and the reason is, the more you process food, the less nutrients it has unless you add them back in. And even if you try to add them back in, you’re only going to add in the stuff you know is missing. There are other things you don’t know about because nutrition science doesn’t see them yet.
So that’s the capitalist imperative behind food. The fact is we would be better off with the oatmeal. The industry has many tricks to make sure we don’t eat the oatmeal. One is to market the wonders of these processed products. The other is to convince us we’re too busy to cook. And they’re very good at that. If you look at the picture of American life, family life on view in food commercials for television, you would think it’s this frenetic madhouse in every household in America, where the idea of cooking is absolutely inconceivable.
Yet, at the same time, there are images of people lounging in front of the television, doing their email and doing all sorts of other things, but there’s simply no time to cook. I think we’ve been sold this bill of goods that cooking is this heroic thing that only happens on special occasions.
OR: I think you refer to a related phenomenon in our relationship with food — this Puritan bias that “bad things happen to people who eat bad things.”
MP: We moralize our food choices. This as an example of how science is more influenced by ideology than perhaps we realize. We’ve tended to focus on the evil nutrients as the cause of our problems, but of course, it’s just as possible that it’s the lack of beneficial nutrients. In other words, it may be the problem with meat is not the saturated fat, i.e., the evil nutrient, but the fact that the meat is pushing other foods out of the diet, such as vegetables, fruit and whole grain. You see, that’s the complexity of nutritional science: There’s always a zero sum relationship. If you’re eating more of something, you’ve got to be eating less of something else. Our tendency has been to focus on the bad nutrients, because we do assume if you get sick, you did something wrong by eating a bad thing, but in fact, maybe you just didn’t eat enough good things.
*The garden consists of five gallon buckets of home-grown compost, planted with a tomato or pepper plant, then the buckets are places in parts of the property where they get plenty of sun and protection from the wind.