A growing number of families are turning to the principles of the paleo diet, aka the paleolithic or caveman diet, for wellness. At their most basic, paleo meal plans aim to coax our eating habits away from the carbohydrate-rich and processed food-heavy standard American diet and toward those of our primal ancestors: whole, unprocessed foods; mostly meat, eggs, seafood, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. Gluten, grains, sugar, dairy, and legumes are generally excluded. Adults often come to the diet after struggling with weight loss on other diets or suffering from dietary intolerances. And they're often introducing the entire family to paleo foods, kids included.
Michelle Tam, author of the New York Times best-selling cookbook Nom Nom Paleo: Food For Humans, and publisher of the blog by the same name, adopted the paleo diet plan after years of feeling subpar despite an active lifestyle and what she considered a healthful diet. At the encouragement of her husband, who had already adopted a paleo lifestyle, she tried it and discovered what she calls a better version of herself. Gastrointestinal troubles lifted, crankiness faded, energy surged, and aches subsided. "I was a more patient mommy, too," Tam adds. Now she and her husband cook paleo recipes, enjoying them right along with their thriving 7- and 10-year-old boys.
"We choose to eat whole, unprocessed foods that are more healthful than harmful," Tam says.
But first, is going paleo even good for kids? Pediatric dietitian Natalia Stasenko advises caution, especially if one of your children is a baby or toddler. "If your child is younger than 6 months, the best food for him is breast milk or formula. The paleo diet encourages consumption of broth and other beverages that do not provide the nutrition babies need at this point." If you'd prefer not to use a cow's milk-based formula, talk to your pediatrician about other options. Stasenko continues, "No plant milk alternatives are appropriate for children under 12 months, and the only ones providing adequate nutrition for kids between 12 and 24 months are breast milk, cow's milk, formula and fortified soy milk. Rice, almond, oat and all other milk alternatives are too low in calories, fat and/or protein."
Stasenko also recommends that families going on a restricted diet enlist the help of a dietitian or other health professional because most kids get the bulk of their calories from carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, cereals, and legumes. They also need enough calcium found in dairy to build lifelong bone health. "The paleo diet excludes too many foods to be safe for kids whose parents are doing it alone."
On the plus side, most people living a paleo lifestyle eat less sugar and other processed foods, and the result can be very healthy for kids (and adults). Stasenko adds, "Families are also sure to get enough fiber as they typically replace grains with fruits and vegetables. Another benefit is high consumption of nuts and seeds that are a staple of the paleo diet."
If going paleo sounds right for your family, Tam offers a few tips for embracing paleo as a family.
If your family is eating breakfast, dinner, and snacks at home or packed at home, the majority of what you and your kids eat is accounted for. Focus your energies on offering the best you can from there, and let go of worrying about foods eaten elsewhere. Keep the kitchen stocked with whole foods and devoid of processed snacks so it's easy to grab something nutritious and satisfying. Cook bigger batches so leftovers become convenience foods later and combat the oft-cited hindrance to eating well: "I don't have time."
Tam points out that the switch to paleo has actually made her family far less obsessed with food. "Before we went paleo, a looming snack deficit was crippling," she says, recalling the need for the kitchen to be stocked with kids' snack favorites at all times to prevent mood swings and hunger jags. Now, though, her paleo kids, fueled up with a hearty, protein-rich breakfast, can usually make it straight through to lunch and then on to dinner. If hunger does strike, a handful of nuts or a few slices of organic salami usually take the edge off.
As with any lifestyle change, a transition to a paleo diet plan will probably have ups and downs. Teach your family how this food and lifestyle can help everyone stay healthy and strong. Tam tells her boys, "I want you to be the healthiest you," and arms them with understanding so they can choose for themselves when the time comes. She helps them recognize how their bodies respond to different types of food so they make correlations on their own. Her youngest son is gluten-intolerant and knows by now that eating gluten usually leads to canker sores and an icky stomach. He'll opt out of the cupcake at birthday parties in favor of feeling better.
Like any diet, paleo leaves room for riffing to meet your family's needs and preferences. Though strict disciples of paleo strike dairy, Tam's growing boys drink whole-fat raw milk, and everyone enjoys potatoes and white rice now and then. Tam says, "We're eating more nutrient-dense things than we were before," and she waves off any notion about paleo being too restrictive for developing children. "The boys' diet is balanced with quality protein, tons of vegetables, good fats, and fruit."
Major changes are best made slowly, and transitioning to the paleo diet is no exception. Most people experience crashes and withdrawal as their bodies initially adjust to being without foods like sugar and grains. It's important to ease into the newness, especially for kids who will rebel against feeling lousy. Take setbacks in stride. "Just because you fell face-first into a big plate of pizza one day, it doesn't mean you fell off a cliff. Start again," Tam says.
Break out of the standard definitions of each meal. Erasing unchallenged lines will help free you of dependence on boxed cereal and loaves of bread every morning. Eat chicken and broccoli for breakfast. Have eggs and bacon for dinner. Snack on crispy prosciutto and crunchy carrots (sweet and salty!) mid-morning. Skip the bread, and roll up veggies, avocado, and mayo inside turkey slices any time of day.
Under too much pressure about avoidance and choices, kids may become uptight about food and develop issues around it for the long term. Embracing a new approach to food should be about feeling healthy and better, not stressed and paralyzed by limitations. Aim for mealtimes to foster happy family memories and enjoyment of great food.
Some realism takes the anxiety out of adopting paleo, too. You're most likely living among friends, family and neighbors who are not living within paleo parameters, and that shouldn't cause undue stress for you or your children. Help your kids navigate splurges and manage the consequences so they can decide for themselves which treats are worthwhile. Eat ahead of time if you know a party won't have food you can eat. Most of the time kids are too busy having fun at social gatherings to care about the food anyway. Have a conversation with people who are regularly part of your lives and ask them to respect and support your choices. And be sure to speak to your pediatrician or a dietitian to make sure your kids are still getting adequate nutrition to grow up healthy and strong.
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