Conscious eating (take II)

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I want my child to grow up to love food. When I think of people who love food I think of Italy and France, of large families eating together, outside under the vines and overlooking green fields. They are gathered together sharing stories, laughter and food made from homecooked, fresh, whole ingredients. I don’t think of people who guzzle their food at such a speed that it needs to be hyped up with artificial flavouring and frankly it doesn’t matter what else is in it ‘cos nobody is going to take the time to enjoy it let alone think about what it is doing to their innards.

But I don’t live in rural Italy and my family is nowhere near by to come join me at the table for a long afternoon lunch every week. What is more, I don’t live to cook, I cook to live. So how to do this? How can I impart a real, deep love for food to my child in this hectic, modern, urban lifestyle I live?

Honestly I don’t know the answer fully, yet. I have a sense that it starts with me. I need to re-find my own love for food, as I was saying. Knowing too much about nutrition can kill your love for food almost as quickly as not knowing enough about it, I find. Not that I am that knowledgeable but I have studied it a bit and lived and worked with people who know a great deal about this stuff and consequently I have been thinking a lot about these issues, oh, all my life, really. So, while for some the journey is one of learning, of re-gaining some control over what comes onto their plate (rather than handing over those decisions to multi-national food corporations, marketing industrials and supermarket conglomerates) for me the journey may start with letting go a little, relaxing, letting my hair down in the kitchen (metaphorically only, of course).

I need to infuse my own relationship with food with real joy and hope that feeling is contagious. I don’t want to ‘teach’ Anya how to eat but I’d love to inspire her or perhaps better still, I’d love us both to enjoy making and eating food together in the years ahead. Now, that feels like a good start to me. And, in truth, there is a whispering in me that reminds me that you don’t need to make a kid love food, I mean she clearly already does. It is just a question of not standing in the way of that.

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Is my toddler’s gluten-free, dairy-free diet ‘restrictive’?… or a start to a life of passionate, conscious, healthy eating?

I wonder what other people think when I tell them what my daughter eats. Please don’t give her (*deep breath in*): wheat, milk, yogurt, cheese, sugar, sweet treats, citrus, apples, tomatoes, meat…

I grew up eating differently. I was certainly made to feel that I was weird because I didn’t eat what other people were eating – this in conservative, Catholic Portugal in the 1980s where conformity was all there was, it seemed. Eating a diet of ‘brown rice and veg’ was not mainstream – far from it. I remember, poignantly, being laughed at for eating brown bread at school; or kids turning their noses up at the homemade, whole-wheat carrot cake served for my 7th birthday party. That was then. The world, the mainstream of it even, has come a long way. What is more, I live in California now where consuming a diet of whole foods is positively de rigeur. Even in Portugal, when I go back now, I have to chuckle when some friend (easily one of the ones that would have laughed at me when I was young and made me feel ‘different”) invites me to go to the hip new macrobiotic restaurant, like it is the new ‘in’ thing… ‘you are joking, right?!

Yet perhaps it was not what I ate but what I didn’t eat that most made me (makes me?) stand out. Today, my eating has gravitated much to the healthy diet my parents (blessedly) gave me when I was a kid – thanks for that again, by the way. I eat whole-grains, veg (salad, soups, stir-frys, etc), legumes (beans, chickpeas, peanuts, soy), nuts and seeds, some fruit and some fish. I don’t eat gluten (especially wheat – save on rare occasions), dairy or meat.

Anya is eating very similarly to me nowadays for various reasons – even though her dad was brought up on a traditional Chinese diet (lots of fresh, home cooked veggies, rice, fish and, notably, meat) and he certainly makes more ‘exceptions’ for things like fun-food (read junk food) than I do – although less and less so, it has to be said. One of the reasons Anya’s diet was originally so selective was due to the fact that she was clearly reacting to things in my milk – according to what I ate. Eggs, soya, tomatoes were all things that made her less than 100% well. Eggs made her come out in a pimply-rash on her face; soya made her spit up, tomatoes gave her diaper rash. Other foods, like apples, were put on a suspect list – to be watched.

I also chose to keep Anya away from such challenging foods as wheat and dairy which are known to be very acid forming, harsh on the gut and mucus producing – I want to let her digestive and immune system mature fully before introducing these, which means waiting until she is at least two. I am not a super-crazy-stickler about this. She has had little tastes of bread if somebody else was eating it and she wanted to try it, I just  make sure I don’t stock these foods at home or rely on them as a mainstay of her diet.

Now, a good nine months into eating solids, I think Anya is an amazing eater. She likes everything – really, everything – we have given her so far. Some things need to be introduced a couple of times, but even that is pretty rare. Things she has been eating, include (among others):

  • whole grains: rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa (technically a seed but treated for all intents and purposes like a grain), etc.
  • vegetables including: chard, spinach, carrots, asparagus, onion, garlic, sprouts (like radish or broccoli sprouts), corn
  • legumes including: peas, kidney, white and pinto beans, chickpeas (garbanzos), broad beans, lentils and, her absolute favourite: peas
  • root vegetables: sweet potato, yam (which she loves!), potato, ginger (this could be in a spice section instead… she does love all kinds of spices, too)
  • some fish: she has only really had little tastes of fish – white and dark – but has enjoyed it all
  • tofu: she seems to be fine (now, at least) with traditionally prepared soya (a legume, in fact) and really likes it
  • Some fruit: avocado (another big fave), pomegranate, blueberries, blackberries, pears, papaya, etc. We steer clear from the acidic stuff (tomatoes, apples, citrus) as they seem to produce a rash. We do try and eat local and seasonal, especially when it comes to fruit as it is very clear the body likes it better this way and can handle, for example, bananas better when we are in hot a climate (challenging, I know, unless we move to Ecuador!). But again, the occasional banana is a great treat for Anya.
  • Dried fruits: raisins, mango, etc.
  • Gluten-free alternatives to wheat-based products, including: rice cakes, rice, quinoa or corn pasta, gluten-free bread, crackers, etc.
  • Good fats: olive oil, flax seed oil, coconut fat and the like
  • Seaweeds: Anya loves, loves, loves nori and also eats other seaweeds like hijiki or wakame when cooked into rice, etc. These are great sources of many minerals including iron, iodine and calcium.

She gets most of her protein from combining whole grains with legumes, at the moment, as you can see. Her iron comes from leafy greens, sea vegetables, avocados and beans, mainly – and fingers crossed her hemoglobin levels will still be nice and high when we next get them tested, following the anemia episode (I was anemic during pregnancy, with low iron stores so why, oh, why did I think my breastmilk alone would get her own iron stores up??).

So, here is my question to you, is Anya’s diet ‘restrictive’? I mean she appears to be happy enough with it, by and large – as I say she is a pretty good eater. We are lucky and blessed with that, I know! I am not worried about it from that angle. I also think nutritionally speaking she has a pretty good diet (well, even if you disagree with some of my food-beliefs, we will doubtless agree that her diet is all the richer and healthier because of what it does not contain: sugar, processed foods, hydrogenated fats, etc). But here is the crux: I suspect, actually, that her diet may be considerably wider than many-a-toddler. I mean she eats quinoa and buckwheat quite regularly and soup and…

My thought is that the very people who may be moved to feeling her diet is restricted are people whose kids’ (or their own) sustenance relies arguably too much on wheat/gluten based products and dairy. So for them, a diet without those things would appear ‘lacking’, somehow. Perhaps their kids eat sandwiches nearly every day… and/or pasta, and/or cakes, cookies, crackers, pizza, bread, pastries, pies, cherios or any of the other other gluten-filled goodies we find so easy to load up on, often unthinkingly. Is that good for the body? And what about dairy? Are they loading up on yogurt, cheesy goods and milk everyday?

I know dairy is a controversial one. It goes like this, you either buy wholesale the ‘got milk’ type campaigns that tell you milk is a life-giving source of easily utilisable Calcium or… you don’t. Do your own reading on this, please. And hey, I am not unsympathetic to the movement for organic, whole, raw milk – yes if you gotta do it that is a better way to go, for sure – but for many people (depending on your constitution and all) milk just means trouble – gut trouble, skin trouble, sinus trouble and on and on. And, fyi, the calcium from milk isn’t that easy for the body to use because milk also contains casein, a protein that (… wait for it) inhibits the absorption of calcium. You gotta laugh, right? But again, the point is, if their kids eat dairy based products every day, then to them, they might be left wondering what they would give their kids if two of their mainstays were taken away (wheat and dairy) and maybe within some people’s food knowledge and repertoire a diet without milk and bread stuffs would just be barren. I don’t find it so. On the contrary, I think we have a vibrant, diverse and colourful diet… but still, I find myself wondering (and sometimes even caring) what others think.

And, yes, there are days I wish I could cook my full repertoire of recipes for Anya and introduce her to the stuff all the ‘normal’ kids are eating and though that would be the easy option and probably would make her happy (hey who doesn’t like cake or ice cream) I am most likely going to continue doing the best I can with the knowledge I have, sticking to basics like ‘fresh is better than processed’, ‘whole is better than refined’, and ‘home-cooked is better than store-bought’. A little bit of me will still wonder also, at times, whether those kids with their bags of cherios and cheese sticks are, at home, getting a wider, healthier and more varied diet than my kid (and I am guessing the answer is some do, some don’t) but I don’t think I’ll be seduced into thinking that different is necessarily bad. I am making strong, conscious choices for my child’s health and wellbeing, laying down a blueprint of flavours she will probably enjoy for life based mainly on traditional ways of eating in pre-industrialised societies. I, the mother am guiding this process – not the ‘food’ manufacturing companies, the marketing agencies or the media. I am not perfect. I am learning new things about diet – which sometimes contradict everything I thought I knew, all the time, but I am trying and I am going into it consciously, rather than walking supermarket isles like a zombie (well, okay… sometimes I am part-zombie, but most days not).

And a cute little upside of this is… Kai and I have been looking forward to blowing Anya’s mind and her taste buds by introducing her to her first taste of ice-cream – an experience she might even be able to remember when she grows up! Incredible. So the idea is not to restrict, but to eat consciously and yes, still have fun. Indeed, we want her relationship with food  to be natural and effortless; for food to be viewed not just as fuel or comfort but as health-giving, nourishing, uplifting and for her to value the opportunity for social connection that comes with it.

Still, a healthy relationship with food is at least as important as a healthy diet, per se, in my view.  I hope Anya’s nutritional life will be driven by the heart, by a passion for fresh, home cooked food; not just by a rational understanding of what is good for you or a fear of what is bad for the body. Hmm… perhaps I need to do some work on this myself, after all she will learn first about food by watching us, so I need not to preach this stuff but to live it. I want to eat foods which make me feel alive, full of vitality and rearing to go and to re-kindle the joy of cooking. Lived like this, motherhood is good for your health.

NB The photos are vintage Anya… but convey the whole ‘happy eater thing’ quite well, no?

Weak… my child has anemia

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I just found out my daughter is anemic. This sucks. Okay, it is only mild anemia (10.1 where normal is 11 and 10.5 is considered on the low end of ‘normal’). Worst is she probably got it from me, I mean I was anemic through pregnancy and try as I might to correct it I kept being slightly bellow optimum. Actually at the hospital when I was ready to deliver they said my level was 11, so perhaps I just got there, in the end but all through the pregnancy it was a bit dodgy.

So here I am, having studied Nutrition, with a Naturopath for a dad and with an anemic daughter. It is pretty serious stuff in kids, too, or it can be so you gotta watch out if you think your kid is at risk.

I am already looking out to make sure I/we get enough protein, vitamin D, water, I avoid all the stuff either of us in sensitive to (which includes dairy, gluten, eggs and soy!) and now I got to build iron back in, re-doubled. I love people who just eat naturally, in both senses: from nature and intuitively, without over-thinking it. Yet for me it is clearly not to be.

The first thing anyone says if I say Anya is anemic is ‘give her beef’. Okay… first, beef has less iron in it than red beans according to the shiny new sheet I have from our pediatrician. But I know, though one can do it without meat by eating plenty of green veg and legumes the question is am I doing it? The answer so far is no. It is hard to eat a super green, alkalising diet with plenty of raw foods, water and whole grains when I am at home chasing after a wanna-be-toddler (ie she wants to toddle but is more at the crawling stage for now). I am beat by the end of the day with little energy to prepare super foods.

All veteran mums give the same tip: cook batches both for you and the baby, live on leftovers essentially. Yet even this takes great organisation and commitment and I am still working my way up to doing it all the time. I have salads or grains and greens for lunch, usually (with seeds and beans tossed in for protein and some yummy oils for good fats). For dinner we do quite well, too… but often I am tired and go for the easy route. Today I had chips and a veggie burger with salad. That probably happens once a week or so (not necessarily this meal, but something equally lazy). Anya often eats roughly what I eat, although she always has iron-fortified cereal in the morning, then I’ll often give her some of whatever grain I am doing mixed in with some veg like squash or peas. She also has avocados, sweet potatoes and the like.

Man, this is tough. Not rocket-science-tough, more daily-trek-up-the-mountain-to-get-water-tough… but without the hardship or the poverty. Hmm…

For now Anya is on an iron supplement. I put her on that (well, technically the doctor did) while I investigate other options, as I don’t at all like the ingredients in this. Gonna find a kid-friendly naturally derived one (probably something like Floradix) and look at the green food supplements again.

I am a bit frustrated with it all and I was quite shaken by it (when I started reading and reminding myself of possible consequences and worst case scenarios) but hopefully this will serve as a gentle reminder to stay green and clean, to have fun with food while keeping it light and natural. Phew…