The Psychological Challenge of Raising Children on Real Food
The Psychology of The Real Food Revolution and Children
I am turning 40 this year and I’ll admit that even at this age, I often battle with the fact that I’m a person challenging convention which means I’m often the more ‘abnormal’ in a group.
Despite undoubtedly being classified as proper grown-up now with a pocket full of competencies and coping skill to call on in difficult situations, I still often find it uncomfortable that I’m just not the same and face the wrath of people whom I irritate because the information I disperse about food challenges the norm, makes people have to look at their attitude to nutrition and it can and does sometimes make people defensive. Which is often a huge pity because it is meant to be an empowering journey toward claiming greater health but that’s a story for another day.
The point is that you’ve got to be quite powerfully connected to your own internal compass to face the rejection you risk when you challenge convention in order to lead the change you believe in and stand for.
You’ve also got to be mindful that the modern day mother’s context particularly is pretty heavy and complex.
Woman are fed up in spades of feeling inadequate on some level and carry guilt as a matter of course, they’re guilty if they work, they’re guilty if they don’t, they face a juggling act between home and work and a busy modern day world, self esteem can run pretty thin, most woman are not up for anymore messages that say that they aren’t good enough or that make any further demands on their time. Most woman I meet, somewhere, don’t feel like that they quite measure up to some virtual ideal out there of what a modern day successful woman should be.
You can see then why having to deliver the message that the convenience that they get from being relieved of having to spend time in the kitchen, through industrial and refined foods, isn’t actually as convenient as it appears isn’t an easy message to deliver.
The convenience of outsourcing your pantry to big food, is going to end up in less energy, more trips to the Doctor ultimately and the inconvenience of disease down the line. This is no exaggeration – the global stats show rising levels of cancer, heart disease and diabetes in more affluent societies.
This generation faces the most industrial and toxic environment yet – what our immune systems have to contend with now compared to even 50 years ago – isn’t the same.
We know how rare ‘real food’ has become when we try to source organically grown, untainted fresh farm produce and find it scarce. We know how rare naturally raised meat is to find because we see how difficult it is to find farms that can afford to raise animals in a true free-range environment on a diet they are most naturally to.
I know this only too well because I have tried to build up a business selling organic food and still battle to create a shop with anywhere near enough in, the produce is scarce. If I wanted to sell industrially which now also means conventionally farmed produce with artificial fertilizers, pesticides and in a way that harms the environment, erodes biodiversity and pollutes the soil – I could fill a shop in a tick. In a heartbeat. The difficulty would be service and establishing a brand and a store people want to head to, my difficulty would not be with supply. There is an abundance of conveyor belt and conventionally farmed toxic food out there – it is our normal.
If it is this difficult as an adult to be abnormal and go against the grain by eating real food, we need to be mindful of what our children are put through when we assert their right to proper nutrition amongst a ‘norm’ that has somewhere between 50 and 100 tsp. of refined sugar a day, chemicals, additives and preservatives laying the foundation for diabetes and ailing immune systems in adulthood, as a daily matter of course in their lives.
If this is the ‘norm’ and we know it is and we know how much courage it can take to challenge convention and stand out, what is it like for children who are eating healthy food who have radically different lunch boxes in the classroom?
Do they get ostracized for being different? Do they find it difficult to manage the contradictions they see and hear? If we tell them that we aren’t feeding them unhealthy food because we love them, does that mean in their little minds those children who eat refined junk foods have parents who don’t love them? Do we mean to tell them that when we know this isn’t true. Might it confuse them mightily? They know their friends are loved and yet some of their friends are eating foods we demonize because we are aware of the strain these food burdens their systems with. What are little brains and hearts to make of this? What happens when they go to parties and want to eat the sweets and rubbish that the other ‘normal’ children are eating, food they have been told is ‘bad for them’ – what are they to do with the guilt? It’s a tough enough minefield to manage as an adult; do we need to think about how our children are managing this? I know we do because of the challenges I face navigating through this with my daughter.
When I want to see my friends, there’s a fair amount of very non-organic food and alcohol flowing, friendship means the world to me and is a large part of my emotional health, I am adamant that to not spend good time with them – including eating what they are eating and stay home with my organic green juice alone – would not be healthy. I have that t-shirt and I won’t ever be putting that one back on.
We have to talk very seriously about children. As much as we talk about the impact of refined food, chemicals, sugar and preservative on their health – we have to cast a lens at the emotional landscape of eating with them – particularly when we know that rightly or wrongly – eating healthy food in our current landscape is actually not normal. That’s how severely dysfunctional our nutritional world is right now.
I’ve really been worried about this lately and had to find a way to navigate myself and my daughter through a difficult issue but just yesterday morning we had a break through. I’m going to share this with you because it’s a vital part of the Jozi Real Food conversation with regards to children.
My daughter is the daughter of a food activist really, for all of her life; she has had the experience of eating food very different to what her friends eat. I can’t divorce her from this reality any more than I can get her a new mother. It’s a part of our household and I’ve walked some interesting paths on this topic and it has not been easy and remains challenging.
Along the way, I have had to adapt and throw some of my most informed principles down the toilet in order to allow her breathing room to be normal and to reduce the tension around food that can crop up when her friends are running around with blue fizzers and I’m offering blueberries.
This surprises people, but I am not one of those people anymore who will stick to a principle if it causes too much tension for my loved ones. I used to be. Nowadays, I don’t attach half as much weight to my need to be right and principled as my need to be flexible and open enough to give others the space to be regardless of what I believe. I guess that’s another great topic actually for another day- but let’s just say we live in a more relaxed household nowadays. I still only buy organic food from farms I know but I’m far less rigid, far more flexible and when Kiara is in scenes where my friend’s children are eating rubbish that she wants to eat too, I breathe, let go, relax. That doesn’t mean I let go of the principle, it means I love my family more than my principles.
But there are lines in the sand, there is a point beyond which I can’t relax without compromising myself too much and there must always be boundaries around that. That’s a very delicate tightrope to walk at times.
Anyhow – to the heart of the story – finally. I’ve been worried about my daughter’s lunch-boxes. She doesn’t get lunch-boxes like the rest of the class. White bread doesn’t enter our house. Actually we don’t do bread at all because I just don’t see any great nutritional reason to do so and far too many great reasons to avoid it, unless it’s sourdough. But that’s not soft, white, fluffy bread with softeners in, it’s real bread, it’s different.
She does not get chocolates and packets of anything off a conveyor belt in her lunch-box. She gets fruit and dried fruit and chopped up bits of peppers, tomatoes, cheese or cucumbers as additions to her main lunch, which is always leftovers from the night before. We always have an abundance of great organic cooked dishes around our supper table and we always cook enough and make enough salads that they can fill lunch-boxes the next day so that there is no need for sandwiches.
The thing is, this automatically makes her different. It is not cool for a 7 year old to be different. At 7, you’re trying your level best to fit in, not stand out.
So when I found out recently that Kiara gets teased sometimes for her lunches and has children mock the smell that comes out of her lunchbox with cooked food in, I found myself back on that delicate tight-rope feeling quite miserable.
I have a line in the sand about sandwiches and bread that isn’t negotiable. I am not having my daughter eating a mouthful of preservatives and chemicals in a fluff of dead industrial wheat containing additives linked to ADHD that are banned in other countries. That’s a line. Having her teased though and feeling embarrassed about her lunch-box, is another line. Over my dead body am I going to be let her go through that either so we’re making some adjustments.
Yesterday morning though, we were chatting about it in the kitchen and we came up with this breakthrough together.
We were chatting about this lunch-box issue because I was packing cottage pie for her and we were thinking about how we can handle the kids that tease her because she isn’t eating sandwiches and has meals for lunch. I wasn’t lecturing her; it was a real sort of chat where both her and I were exploring how we can handle this. So I asked her whether there are other children who have different lunches, so she said ‘yes, a girl called Nosipho has chicken and mielies and gravy and salad for lunch.’ So I said to her the thing is Kiara, we can’t start giving you unhealthy food that we know isn’t good for you just because the other kids are eating it and are teasing you. We have to teach them, we can’t let them make you unhealthy, what do you think? She was happy with this idea. So I said ‘what if, you start making a fuss about Nosipho’s lunch?’. Whenever Nosipho opens her lunch-box why don’t you say something like ‘oh wow Nosipho, that looks really delicious, what a great lunch, it looks so much tastier than sandwiches, you’re so lucky’! The child was beside herself with amusement at this idea. Then she got all comical and dramatic and we started dramatizing this idea into something ludicrous until we were both in hysterics. We had her yelling ‘OH WOW NOSIPHO, YOU HAVE THE MOST AMAZING LUNCH, EVERYBODY COME SMELL IT’, we then took it too far as 7 year olds just love doing – and we were sketching scenes of teachers and the whole class coming to see Kiara and Nosipho’s lunch – it got very funny, the tension of the topic is eased and now Kiara has a new strategy to help her deal with the fact that her lunch is different that actually empowers her and better still – if she can find the courage to pull this off, can make space for new norms in the class-room.
We need to be mindful, this taught me, that if we are going to be out there challenging convention – which is what the Jozi Real Food Revolution is all about – we must equip our children with the skills they need to manage it. We need to be sensitive to the burden it places on them to be different and to empower them in these conversations and we need to know when to relax a principle in the name of love. We need to know where our boundaries are, white bread and coke are 2 of mine that come to mind – and we need to keep open dialogue with our children and help them creatively manage the spaces they find themselves in. My daughter is particularly feisty and can assert herself but what about children who can’t, they may need more support.
It might sound dramatic to be putting it like this – but it really is – in my experience – that serious out there – that if your child eats healthy food and has real food in their lunch-boxes – they are in the minority. The majority of lunch-boxes contain food out of packets – they just might be taking some strain about this. Let’s take care with our children.
Whilst their physical health is mightily important and affects their cognitive ability, their energy levels throughout the day, the strength of their immune systems, their ability to focus and participate – their social health is equally as important. Their ability to integrate into society is paramount to their relationship with their world. Even if society is wrong, and we know this is true when it comes to the food that has become normal – the value of being right is negligible if it cause social harm and disease and if you’re sitting too far removed from society, you’re going to battle with emotional health – I’m adamant about this.
Let’s be mindful that the energy around food must be joyful and nourishing, once it gets too tense, let that be your guideline that something needs to be adjusted and let’s be very, very kind to our children and help them stand up and for real and healthy food in a way that empowers them and provide open arms and ears to the challenge that being different can bring to them.