By Emily Ventura, MPH, PhD
I know what you might be thinking: you have enough to worry about. As a widow/single mom of two boys ages 5 and 8, I get it. I often feel like there is way too much on my plate and I have to allow myself to do a mediocre job on some things just to get by.
But I wanted tell you why I choose to put energy into what I feed my kids and what I eat as well. It actually makes my life easier, above and beyond the long-term health benefits.
First let me say that if you are new to this single parenting journey, don’t be too hard on yourself. For the first few months after my husband died in a motorcycle accident, I was so devasted that I didn’t really feel like eating at all, let alone cooking. And I am a nutrition educator and cook! It seemed like things like nachos and ice cream might cheer us up, but the comfort that those type of “comfort foods” bring is really short lived.
In reality, what ended up comforting us was finding a “new normal” healthy routine. All three of us started to feel better and more like ourselves. I started to want to cook again and put love into it, both as a form of self-love and of love for my boys.
As time has gone on, I have realized just how much easier my life as a single parent is on a daily basis when we eat well. I am a more patient, even-tempered parent and my kids are easier to parent too. Here’s a run-down of what I find to be most effective. Many of these tips are also ones that we talk about in more detail in Sugarproof, a book I co-authored with Dr. Michael Goran.
–Make sure breakfast is Sugarproof. By this I mean a breakfast that is low in added sugars and includes protein and fiber. This will help you avoid the sugar roller coaster, or the highs and lows that come from spikes and dips in blood sugar. When kids have things like juice, toast with jam, or sweetened cereal at breakfast, their blood sugar levels quickly rise and then fall, leaving them hungry, irritable, and craving more sweets. This ride can easily continue all day if they board the roller coaster first thing. Are your kids “hangry” mid-morning? Do they have a hard time concentrating? Are they moody and prone to tantrums? Are they constantly asking for snacks? Serving them a more substantial, balanced breakfast that includes protein and fiber can fix all of these issues and make everyone’s day easier. We give many ideas for Sugarproof breakfasts in the book.
–Choose snacks that actually add nutritional value. Snacks can be a major missed window of opportunity. Giving kids things like packaged cookies, crackers, or fruit snacks just adds calories and sugar/refined carbohydrates and gives them very little actual nutrition. What’s more, they can often leave them unsatisfied, still hungry, prone to ask for even more snacks, and then no longer hungry at dinner, which can be so frustrating. Instead offer things like nuts, cut fruit or vegetables, olives, a simple piece of whole grain toast with a healthy topping like avocado or nut/seed butter, or any of the snacks from Sugarproof like Crispy Chickpea Snacks, Tamari Roasted Sesame Seeds, No-Bake Energy Bites, Flax Thin Crackers, or Chocolate Sesame Squares.
–Skip the liquid sugar. The quick, concentrated dose of sugars that come with beverages like juice, soda, and sports drinks gives kids an immediate sugar high and an extreme crash, leaving them feeling unwell and making them harder to parent. (That’s not to mention all of the many potential long term health consequences associated with them like obesity, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and even Alzheimer’s.) Enough said.
–Double up on vegetables. When possible, I make the effort to serve not just one but two vegetables at meals. The reason is two-fold. One is that especially for younger children and picky eaters, they do better when they have a choice, and you avoid a power struggle. Kids respond much better to “would you like to have broccoli or cucumber, or both?” instead of “eat your broccoli.” The second reason is that research shows that when two vegetables are offered, kids eat more vegetables total. To save time in pulling this off, I often cook big batches of vegetables in advance and serve them for a few days afterward. Our Roasted Vegetable Master Recipe is great for this.
–Stick to one treat a day. I let my kids have treats and I never want them to feel overly restricted. We are just careful to not overdo it in a given day. I have raised them with the loose rule of “one treat a day” and they help decide what that is. If we are at a party and there are cookies, brownies ,and cake, I encourage them to pick one and we can have another one of those things on a different day. Because they are used to this guideline, we don’t argue over sweets.
–Involve kids in planning, shopping, and cooking. When kids are involved in these things, you get their buy in. So if you ask them to help you come up with a few dinner ideas for the week, or let them pick out some vegetables at the store, or involve them in preparing them, they will be more likely to eat them, and meal time becomes more enjoyable. One caveat: I am careful to find cooking tasks for my kids that actually help me out. At my kids’ ages, they are great with things like picking herbs off stems, snapping ends off of green beans or asparagus, scrubbing potatoes, or peeling carrots. They also like to operate the food processor and blender. Older kids can start making whole recipes by themselves. Very little ones may not be able to help but you can always put them on a mat in the kitchen or in their high chair and let them play with some of the vegetable to start getting them familiar with them. When my kids were babies/toddlers they liked to roll big vegetables like eggplants peppers, and cabbages around, and that would keep them entertained while I cooked.
It may seem like extra work at first, but trust me that it will make your life easier in the long run. You and your kids will feel better and be healthier as a result as well!