Anyone who has attempted to define healthy food knows how difficult a task it is. It's obviously better to choose vegetables over potato chips or grilled chicken over a Big Mac. But what about organic vs. conventional? How much meat is the right amount? What about fish, eggs, chicken? Is pasta a healthy choice?
Even after considering the endless questions, the prospect of planning a healthy diet (not to be confused with a weight-loss diet) is much more challenging when faced with the obstacles of daily life. Convenience outweighs healthfulness at every corner. It takes a surprising amount of attention and diligence to sustain a healthy meal plan.
Then, applying the healthy diet to a child or family vastly increases the level of complexity and the number of variables. As I discussed in the previous post, add in the child apt to reject food on a regular basis, and healthy food choice becomes, at best, secondary.
The underlying truth is that a healthy food plan is more a philosophy than anything else, and it has to be simple, convenient and easy if it's going to work every day. The best way to start is with a definition followed by a dose of practicality.
As the new FDA food plate suggests, a healthy diet starts with variety. Humans are omnivores which implies certain basic facts about our biological needs. There are many essential nutrients we must ingest since our bodies cannot synthesize them. We need certain building blocks such as the components of protein (amino acids) and fats (fatty acids) to maintain body function. We also need minerals and vitamins in small but finite quantities. In order to satisfy these requirements, a diet needs to be nutritious and varied. Filling your body with less valuable sources of energy such as candy, fast food or snacks neglects our basic biological needs.
Practically, this means that a healthy diet is one that fits our needs both in terms of calories and the building blocks of good health. It is too easy to get caught up in the maelstrom of assessing every morsel of food we eat. The daily chore of weighing the pros and cons of each item of food quickly becomes onerous. Either this approach becomes an obsession or is discarded. Instead, the healthy diet can't hinge on every food choice every day but comprises the entirety of what we eat over weeks and months.
These suggestions stray from the central theme of any popular diet advice: avoid a certain food group combined with calorie restriction. The goal of this type of diet is short-term weight loss. The goal of a healthy meal plan is a balanced, sane approach to food.
Similarly, parents encounter completely impractical ideas such as only organic food or wildly adventurous meals few kids will even tolerate on their plate. Any parent is aware of how impossible these suggestions are, but that doesn't stop the idealistic ones from trying. Even the most ambitious and best intentioned will falter regularly when faced with a hungry, demanding child and an evening schedule gone awry. The end result is a parent making the best choices in the moment but wracked with guilt.
The often ignored but essential piece of a family’s diet is the parent's sanity. The satisfaction of a day of organic, healthy, well-balanced meals is usually commensurate with a day of endless battles about food. But a day with more realistic food choices is generally a copacetic one. This is a perfect moment to use the wise adage, "pick your battles."
The most important concept to remember is that there is no perfect meal plan. Children will eat pizza, chicken fingers and fish sticks for dinner. They will eat chips and french fries and dessert. It isn't ideal to eat these foods constantly, but it's equally problematic to ban them from the family diet. Even if buying organic food is important, no child can possibly eat only organic food in this world. Each food decision is not critical. It is the overall meal plan that adds up to a healthy diet.
And parents have to remember that our own food choices reflect the world we live in, whether we like it or not. This means supermarkets selling products of large food companies, agribusiness and false marketing of food with dubious nutritional value to children. Not only do kids need a healthy diet, but they need to learn how to live in our current world of food.
Armed with the general concepts of variety and practicality, a parent faced with the daily chore of feeding children can keep in mind the bigger picture. A balanced approach to food choice in this cultural climate will both keep children healthy and teach them what they need to know.
The next post will discuss perhaps the question I'm asked most frequently: what do you think about dessert?