raising healthy eaters: part 1

I’m not the most clueless person in the world. I know that the pesto tortelinni that I ate for dinner last night was one of the worst possible food choices I could have made. I felt guilty for days after I fed my daughter a McDonald’s cheeseburger when we were on the road and in a rush. But feeling guilty about my food decisions doesn’t always translate into preventing bad ones. And when it comes to raising my daughter, I don’t want my poor decisions to set a bad example. I need to start with improving my own diet and work outwards.

So when heathy family eating guru Cynthia Lair was speaking in my neighborhood, I had to show up and hijack all the info that I could. She’s a nutrition professor at a local university, a mom, a fellow blogger, a published cookbook author, and a seriously funny lady. I was scribbling notes like a madwoman, and because I wanted to give a recap for all of you moms out there interested in what she had to say, I’m going to give you a summary in two parts (one today, one next week). I’ll try not to butcher her words, and keep in mind this is what I gleaned from her talk—others may have interpreted her advice differently and scribbled an entirely different 5 pages of notes. Her approach to healthy eating involves the whole family: one dinner cooked, one dinner eaten for everyone. No special meals for kids, no begging, no fighting, and no McDonald’s cheeseburgers.

I’m just kidding. That’s my own rule from now on. Cynthia is not one to banish foods from your diet. She’s an “in moderation” type ‘o gal.

So how do you get there? How do you achieve domestic culinary bliss for both kids and parents? I was dying to find out, and this spunky, petitie brunette, Power Point at-the-ready, didn’t disappoint.

She began with a simple question: how do we choose what we eat?

When you open your fridge, what’s going on in your head while you’re deciding what you feel like munching on? It may be a nagging, “I seriously have to eat three more servings of vegetables today?” Or it may be a justification: “I went to the gym. Therefore I can eat a gallon of ice cream.” Whatever you decide, and whatever logic takes you there, Cynthia explained that it’s seldom in touch with what your body really needs. That turkey sandwich may seem like a good choice, and it may very well be. But is your body in need of those particular foods? Would you be better off with a tuna salad? Pasta? Beans? Yogurt? Listening to your body, she explained, is nearly impossible given all of the preconceived notions we have about food, which are only multiplied and reinforced by media messages. But if you can try to shut off that mental chatter and listen to what your body is really asking for, you’ll be one step in the right direction.

Mine often tells me that I need to eat an entire bag of Cadbury Mini-Eggs. Luckily they’re only available once a year.

The conversation then inevitably turned to the question at hand: what should you eat? She explained from the get-go that she doesn’t label foods “good” or “bad”—in some cases the food that is the worst nutritionally might be the best choice. But she does advocate a diet full of “whole foods.” No, not the supermarket chain. Although maybe she shops there.

What she means by a “whole food” is one that meets the following general criteria:

  • A food that you can imagine growing. Froot Loops? Not so much. Unless there is a magical Froot Loop tree somewhere in the Yucatan. Toucan Sam is hangin’ out there as we speak.
  • A food that has one ingredient. Cool Whip is not one of these, much to my dismay.
  • A food that has not had much done to it since harvesting. Something that has been chopped up, purified, liquified, mixed together with a bunch of other chopped up, purified, liquified junk, and then packaged, shipped, unloaded, and finally placed on a supermarket shelf is not a whole food.
  • A food that has all of it’s original edible parts present. Hence the word whole.
  • A food that has been known to nourish humans on this planet for a long time. Like Splenda. It’s nourished me since 2006.

So, a family’s diet should consist of foods that are mostly whole. But if you’re anything like me, at this point you were on the verge of panic. We can eat…vegetables? Beans? Eggs? And….I’m out of ideas. Just as I was about to write Ms. Lair off as some Houdini trying to steal my delicious cooking mojo, she further explained what a diet full of whole foods would actually look like. And here’s what it would include:

  • Whole grains. Barley, brown rice, corn, oats, and whole wheat flour just to name a few. Phew. I may not be able to have Funyuns, but I can eat the heck out of some millet. Booyah.
  • Beans. Which are, as Cynthia explained, a complete protein when combined with whole grains. To demonstrate: black beans + corn = yummy and pretty darn good for you, especially when slathered in sour cream. I have problems.
  • Animal Protein in portions per day the size of your fist. That means for a kiddo, it’s a tiny amount and for an adult it can be larger. And I was pleased as pie to discover that Cynthia is on my hippie meat bandwagon: organic, ethically raised, properly fed, and hormone and antibiotic-free. RDG is so popular and widely-read that I have created a movement. And if you believe any part of that sentence you’re not as savvy as I thought you were.
  • Dairy. Preferably organic, especially when it comes to milk. And milk, contrary to popular belief, Cynthia explains, is not a drink. It’s a food and part of a food group. Although the ADA would lead you to believe otherwise, it’s not essential to a child’s growth and they don’t need as much as we’re told they do. So when my pediatrician tells me that Lucy should be drinking 24 ounces (?!?!) of whole milk per day, I can tell her to take the proverbial hike.
  • Nuts and seeds. You know, when they’re old enough for them not to be a choking hazard.

Whew. Got all that? Me neither. But I’m trying. I’m torn between jumping on the Cynthia Lair bandwagon and writing the whole thing off as “that hippie lecture I went to one time…remember?” I want to incorporate some of these ideas into our lives, but to put all my chips on the table would sacrifice a lot of what makes me happy (cooking unhealthy junk and blogging about it).

That’s all for today. I’m off to stock my cupboards with spelt, garbanzos and animal proteins the size of my fist. At least that’s what you should tell Cynthia if she asks.

Tune in next week for part deux of the lecture. Miss Lair has got a lot more tricks up her sleeves, as well as some practical tips for dealing with picky eaters and how to maintain sanity around mealtimes.



  1. Can I go ahead and be honest? I feel like a champ if I provide one meal a week that fits the “whole food” bill.

    But keep us posted on how it works out for you…if you find a way to make it work in a real family, I might be inclined to make a bigger effort myself! 🙂

    • Becki, I’m the same way. It’s incredibly hard to do as a crazy busy mom. Right now I’m still trying to wrap my head around the whole thing! I think it’s great in principle, but in practice I don’t know how manageable it is.

  2. Thank you so much for this – I have a little boy just a tad bit older than your Bear … just glad to see I’m not the only one who wavers between thinking we should only be eating greens and grains and really wanting something unhealthy yet comforting and yummy. Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one!

  3. Sister-in-law says:

    we’ve gone through waves of eating really healthy and not so healthy in our house. for the most part, we eat whole foods and have dinner all together eating the same dish. sometimes the kids eat separately if mike started cooking late. food habits start young, though. my comfort foods are tuna casserole and shake and bake pork chops because that’s what i ate growing up. i think our kids will love black beans and rice and all the other really delicious and healthy meals mike makes. it’s a constant battle to stay on the right track, though, especially in our land of convenient junk food.

    • rainyd01 says:

      Rassarole! Shake n Bake! If Dave had his way that’s what we would eat every night 🙂

      It’s totally a battle to stay on the healthy side. When you have kids and you’re always on the move, it’s hard not to feed them whatever is around. We’re slowly, slowly making changes. In an ideal world, the foods that are cheap and easily available would be the healthy ones. Bass-ackwards, I say!

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