By Mandi, Contributing Writer
Are you working to ditch processed foods and put more real food on the table? This month we're running a series called Real Food Made Simple: A Beginner's Guide to Eating Better. Our goal is to answer the questions you might have and make the transition a whole lot easier!
I've always wanted to feed my family well, but in recent years, my definition of healthy has changed, and I've slowly but surely been moving my family from a standard American diet built around things like boxed macaroni and cheese and meals that come out of a can to a real food diet made from scratch with fresh food and basic ingredients.
I say slowly but surely because I've met some resistance along the way from my husband and girls, and I've decided that transitioning our diet gradually is more important than making our kitchen a battleground.
If you find yourself in the same place -- ready to jump in with both feet but finding that your spouse or children are not quite as enthusiastic -- here are a few lessons I've learned over the past few years.
1. Make healthy food fun.
This one works better on my children than it does my husband, but it's been an important part of breaking them out of their pickyness.
First, when I say fun, I'm not talking about crazy character sandwiches and themed lunches. If you have time for that, more power to you...but I don't. For us, fun is about the process of choosing, preparing and eating food. It means picking out a special "treat" in the produce section, sliding pieces of fruit and veggies on a kabob or helping Mom in the kitchen.
My favorite illustration of this happened a few years ago, shortly after we'd moved into our current home. Our oldest daughter was three-and-a-half and had always been a good eater, but she still refused most veggies. Then our new neighbors brought us an overflowing box of veggies from their garden -- cherry tomatoes, regular tomatoes, green beans, etc. Our daughter's eyes got wide with the realization that they'd grown them in their backyard, and she went to town eating the tiny tomatoes as quickly as I could wash them. To this day, she loves veggies.
Similarly, my girls will eat almost anything if we discover it while foraging. I'm by no means an expert forager, but I do know that the dandelion, plantain, lemon clover, onion grass and dewberries that grow in our yard are edible. These things don't all taste that great when plucked fresh from the ground, but they'll try them because it's adventurous and exciting.
2. Try, try & try again.
I used to resent the advice that you have to present a new food up 20 times or more before giving up. That is a lot of wasted food! However, I've had to admit that repeated exposure really does work, although for most of my children, it doesn't take 20 times for them to admit they like something. (And if I'm honest, I had to teach myself to like raw pepper sticks through this same method!)
Although it's tempting to limit our menu to the things I know they'll eat, I try to serve a few dishes each week that may not be as popular with everybody, and I was pleasantly surprised to realize a few weeks ago that almost all of the meals I served that week were met with enthusiasm from everyone, even though some of them had been repeatedly rejected in the past.
For us, the key to this method is to serve something they love alongside a new recipe. We serve them a small portion of each dish (about 3-5 bites of each), and they must try everything on their plate.
They don't have to eat everything...unless they want more of the dish they like, in which case they have to clear their plates first. This method is surprisingly effective at getting them to eat those few bites without argument or fight, and I'm counting on repeated exposure to work from there!
3. Don't expect an overnight change.
I'm an all-or-nothing kind of girl, and often that lands me on the "nothing" end of the spectrum because I give up if I can't do something perfectly from the start. Throughout this process, though, I've had to admit that making incremental changes toward a real food diet is better than just giving up altogether, which means that box of mac and cheese -- one of our favorites -- hung around for quite a while (although we now have a homemade recipe that we all love!).
Similarly, we use white whole wheat flour much more often than whole wheat flour because my family hasn't quite accepted the texture change.
4. Acknowledge That It's Not a Moral Issue
If you've read my past posts here at Keeper of the Home, you know that I feel pretty strongly that other people's food choices aren't a moral issue and that our personal convictions should be our guiding light.
For my husband, the moral issues surrounding child slave labor in the production of coffee and chocolate is a no-brainer, and he agreed with my conviction that we should only buy fair-trade without a second thought.
When it comes to veggies, though, he doesn't want any part of them, and while it's tempting to declare myself his personal Holy Spirit and nag him about it, that's really not my job. I continue to make and serve healthy food and encourage him to try it, but at the end of the day, if he wants to eat Pop-Tarts for breakfast every day (which he does...), that's his prerogative.
5. Don't Turn Food into a Battle
One thing I've always appreciated about Stephanie's approach to real food and natural living is that she isn't prone to extremes. She prioritizes relationships over food choices and enjoys an occasional unhealthy treat with her family. Not only does this make her lifestyle more appealing to someone like me who is still trying to learn and make changes, but it also means her kids are less likely to rebel or feel like they're missing out!
Transitioning to a real food diet isn't an easy process, and it's even tougher when it's being foisted upon you by someone else.
Although I want my family to eat better because I love them and want them to be healthy, I don't want to be a dictator or a fight with them over every little choice. It'd be much easier if they'd instantly accept every change I make, but it's not always that simple, and it's important to me to make these changes in a way that takes their feelings and tastes into consideration.
In what ways have you helped your husband and kids transition to real food?
*Editor's Note: Mandi is being pretty humble about her real food transition here in this post! She has written a fabulous book chock full of homemade pantry staples called Easy.Homemade.! Check it out here.