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What The WHAT Did I Just Feed My Kid?!

Taylor Hengen Newman

I know some of you are well-steeped in natural parenting practices, but others may be wondering where to begin. My suggestion? Begin with food! In fact, after clicking, in disgust (can’t... look... away), through Rodale’s recently-released gallery, The 15 Grossest Things You’re Eating, I’m confident the time is right for me to preach the Good Food Gospel-- one of my greatest passions-- here on 100% Natural Parenting. Seat belts fastened? Barf bags handy? Great. Let’s do this thing.

What’s fabulous about Rodale’s gallery is that it delivers, in an easily digestible (so to speak) format, information that’s otherwise not as easy to find. It’s out there-- I’ve spent many years collecting nasty food industry trivia-- but it’s rarely distilled so accessibly. And while the list is by no means complete, this punchy little exposé of what’s between the food label lines is definitely enough to get the unsuspecting consumer’s suspicions raised. And when it comes to hormone-disrupting, cancer-causing chemicals, brain-frying dyes, and beaver anal gland juice (yep, you read that right) in the mainstream food supply, parents in particular will, I hope, take this short list as a sure sign that conscious food choices are a necessity, rather than a luxury, in our country today. What we feed our kids literally affects every cell in their bodies, and, over time, the quality of the food they’re eating makes an enormous difference to the quality of their lives.

Large-scale production, processing, packaging and shipping are not what real food is actually designed for. Agribusiness’s insistence on subjecting it to these functional demands compromises food’s integrity as a source of nourishment-- which, of course, is its primary, natural functional purpose. In reading through the Rodale piece’s text, I find that the 'why' behind some of the nasty ingredients’ inclusion in foodstuffs reflects a surprisingly simple (if inconceivably detrimental) trend. Chemicals are a lot like medications: once you add them to the mix, you wind up with side-effects and need more to keep those in line. It’s a downward spiral from there on out. In terms of food, this cycle occurs with the use of chemicals like BVO. It’s present in popular sodas and sports drinks, and was initially developed to make plastics flame-retardent. (That just... can’t be good). Why add it to beverages, then? To keep the artificial flavoring chemicals properly mixed in with the rest of the ingredients, of course! While medication is sometimes necessary (though not nearly as necessary as the pharmaceutical industry-- which, by the way, is in totally in bed with the FDA via a little corporation you may have heard of called Monsanto-- would like you to believe), chemicals in food really aren’t necessary at all. And, the fewer chemicals our families eat, the fewer medications we’ll need down the road. Because, after all, too much BVO can cause bromide poisoning symptoms, like memory loss, nerve damage and skin lesions. Gross! I’ll take my food and drugs/chemicals separately, thankyouverymuch.

(As a little side, the NRDC shares useful information on their website about toxicity and breast milk. In a nutshell: "Because of the way some chemicals bind to fat in our bodies, measurable concentrations can build up and eventually work their way into mother's milk when the body calls on fat supplies during lactation. It is a phenomenon of the chemical age, something our grandmothers never had to face." Yet another good reason for moms, and moms-to-be, to minimize their intake of processed foods.) 

You’d probably need to drink a lot of soda for a lot of years-- something a lot of Americans do-- to start noticing any nerve damage, but kids are, for better or worse, excellent little canaries in the coal mine when it comes to food’s more immediate effects on behavior and health. I worked, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, for a program in Oregon that carted at-risk youth out to the woods, fields or beaches to do community-service natural preservation work. (Read: pulling up weeds). You know, for character-building and all. My job was to lead three such packs of kids for three weeks at a time. It was a fun and challenging endeavor. The program wasn’t residential, so the kids went home each night and returned the next day with bagged lunches to carry them through to five o’ clock. You would not believe the kind of crap these kids ingested, day in and day out. It was like a sugar, salt and soda orgy out there, and, not surprisingly, the kids’ energy levels, attention spans and attitudes suffered in direct proportion to the garbage they were eating. Many of them were diagnosed with everything from ADHD to mild Autism, and thus also swallowed cocktails of pills with their Kool-Aid right around noon, sending them ping-ponging between hyperactivity and total sloth for the remainder of the day.

I remember one kid who, although among the youngest in the group (he was ten or eleven), had been diagnosed with Autism, but didn’t take any medications. His mom instead approached his management of his condition (under the guidance of many a nutritionist, no doubt) through her son’s diet alone, carefully monitoring the proportions of the various nutrients and supplements he consumed every day. There was nothing artificial in his lunch box. And this kid? He was amazing. He was precocious to the point that I had to remind myself I wasn’t speaking with an adult when in conversation with him. And he didn’t carry around any of the “I-can’t-do-it-because-I-have-such-and-such-disorder” mental baggage that a lot of the others kids did. Now of course some of those other kids definitely needed their pills. But I’d put money on any bet that they’d need fewer of them if they weren’t sucking down six cans of soda each day.

Let’s move on to another not-so-nice chemical: BPA. It’s a biggie. It’s in everything from canned food liners to grocery receipts, and it’s been linked to certain cancers, as well as obesity and heart attacks. Unless you’ve been living in solitude on the side of a mountain for the last several years, you already know that the latter item there is a HUGE issue for American adults, and the first two are rapidly growing afflictions among American kids. Without getting too enmeshed in the politics (read: deets on corporate $) around these issues, I’d like to make a plug for addressing some of our country’s health woes through instituting meaningful regulations on what’s considered safe in our food. In the meantime, some parents are taking matters into their own hands and finding ways to help kids eat better, like this chef/mama I recently wrote about, who runs a local food lunch program for preschoolers. (Have an idea for making positive change? Do it!)

Let's not forget to discuss the stuff that’s in grocery store meats. It's truly scary. Veterinary medicines, heavy metals, staph bacteria-- these things will kill you. Some people can know about this and continue eating it, and that’s totally their choice, but for those of you who are interested in making other choices around meat-eating (without giving it up entirely), check out this post I wrote on what I call Happy Meat, and go for local, grass-fed sources whenever you can. It’s really, really worth the investment... and it tastes better, too!

I prefer to play the role of good-news fairy following harsh reality checks like this one. And I conveniently have some very good news! While mainstream, supermarket-sold food may be on many mamas’ autopilot weekly menus, new habits can be made. And the nasty ingredients on the Rodale list, as well as many more, can be pretty easily avoided. Cooking simple food at home may seem daunting for those accustomed to take-out, but it actually, well, simplifies things (not to mention removes the need for ammonia-cleansed meat products).

Committing to purchasing high-quality (ideally local and organic) food is the first step. Learning how to cook it is the next. Luckily, the internet is a great place to do this! You can find easy, healthy recipes, how-to videos, and every answer to every question you might come across while cooking (I Google constantly while cooking)...You + the internet= dinner's on! Better yet, cooking is about the most naturally social endeavor there is. Find a friend who’s good at it and ask for some lessons. (My friend Jenn, aka Baby Makin’ Mama, and I are trading cooking for sewing lessons this season. Super fun!). I think the real secret to cooking on a daily basis is first getting comfortable with a few recipes, then learning how food works by continually working with it, and finally beginning to improvise so that you can buy whatever’s in season (hello, affordability!) and make fast, delicious meals without batting a lash. What’s it gonna take to make this happen nationwide? For many moms, it’s going to take getting grossed out enough by what’s on the supermarket shelves that they’re willing to commit to the process. Thank you, Rodale, for bringing the gross-out factor on.

Natural food is at the heart of my lifestyle. It’s also a big part of parenting for me, since I literally can’t get lazy and feed Kaspar cheese puffs (he’s allergic to them). Food politics deeply disturb me-- our economy is very invested in pumping American corn products into just about everything our kids might eat-- but I am inspired by food culture. I can’t get enough. Good food offers nothing but rewards to those who seek it out, prepare it, and enjoy it, and I’m certain that raising our kids on the good stuff-- and getting them active in the kitchen from an early age-- is one of the most valuable gifts we can give to them, and will set them up for a lifetime of happiness and health.

Did you know about any of the nastiness detailed in the Rodale list before reading it? Are you passionate about food, too? What kind of food is your family eating? What changes have you made to your general approach to food since having kids? It was challenging for me to figure out how to cook once I had a kid on my hip-- frozen pizza is sometimes tempting, and sometimes Aaron and I do heat one up-- but I did figure it out, and I still cook. What tips and tricks work for you for feeding your kids real food? Alternately, what are your biggest challenges around healthy eating?

We're members of a Community Supported Agriculture program that delivers farm-fresh, organic, local produce to our door once a week. This is the inside of one of their boxes. Makes life easy for a busy mom! Find a CSA near you and get in on this action!