By Sally Kuzemchak
May 19, 2015
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Have lunch with a group of friends and you'll be hard-pressed to find someone around the table who's not following a special diet, whether it's vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, Paleo, or simply "clean" eating. I get it: We're all trying to figure out the way of eating that's best for us, and my own diet has undergone its fair share of tweaking too. But the recent controversy over a Paleo baby food cookbook got me thinking: When we change our diets–whether it's going meat-free or cutting out gluten–should we take our kids along for the ride?

In some cases, your diet could represent moral, religious, or ethical values that you want to pass along to your kids. "Being vegetarian is part of our moral map, similar to being a gay ally or supporting environmental causes," says a vegetarian friend of mine. "We want to teach our son why we believe that having a vegetarian diet is a morally conscious choice." If there's a person in the family with a food allergy, intolerance, or medical issue like celiac disease, that might also mean everyone in the family must abstain from certain foods (at least at home).

But what about diets we follow because that way of eating simply makes us feel (and, let's face it, look) better? A friend of mine switched to a Paleo/Primal diet, avoiding processed foods, grains, refined sugar, and dairy. "I eat this way because my body responds the best to this type of diet," she says. "I have more energy, I'm happier, I sleep more soundly, and it's easy to maintain my weight." Though she now serves fewer grains with dinner and cooks more bacon-and-eggs breakfasts, her son and daughter don't follow her diet (and neither does her husband). "My kids drink milk for protein and simply love bread and cereal. Their bodies seem better able to process those food categories better than mine can," she says. She's also okay with keeping some processed foods in the house, including granola bars for their lunchboxes and chips for her husband.

When changing up the family's way of eating, it's smart to keep these things in mind:

  • Watch out for signs that your child is distressed or negatively impacted by the diet. If your kids seem fixated on foods that aren't allowed or are sneaking or hiding food, it's time to talk with them and think about relaxing the rules. Even "clean" eating, which simply focuses on whole and unprocessed foods, can be hard on children if it's restrictive. Read my post on the topic, "When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far".
  • Avoid using extreme language when talking about any food. Words like "poison", "dangerous", or "fattening" can be alarming for kids and create negative associations with food.
  • Consider giving your child a choice. "We have been clear with our son that once he is old enough to make his own fully formed moral decision, probably age 10-12, he will be allowed to decide if he wants to eat meat," says my vegetarian friend.
  • Allow your kids to learn how foods make them feel. You've had decades to figure out that soda makes you sluggish or that gluten triggers your headaches–but your child is still learning about food and eating. Obviously, medical issues may make certain foods off-limits, no questions asked. But otherwise, letting a child experience, say, a bellyache from too much candy on Halloween isn't the end of the world and is actually an important learning opportunity. "As they age, I'm certain my kids will try different ways of eating and settle on one that they like best," says my Paleo/Primal friend. "I'd rather they experience this for themselves so that they'll make healthier choices because THEY want to, not because mom said so."

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

Image: Family eating together via Shutterstock