Originally posted on SeeKidsThrive.com; Written by Dr. Sina McCullough
While at the grocery store last week, I came across a new organic fruit called Cotton Candy grapes. The name sounded fun, so I brought them home for my 7-year old son, Hunter. However, when I offered him the Cotton Candy grapes, Hunter looked at me with a questioning eye and said, “Those grapes sound like they are GMO.” He wouldn’t eat them until we verified that the grapes were, in fact, not genetically modified.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. Hunter has demonstrated similar behaviors on other occasions – even turning down free chocolate chip cookies in the classroom. Hunter doesn’t blindly trust our food supply. He questions the food he eats and makes choices based on his principles, which include: no GMOs, grains, additives, preservatives, or artificial/natural colorings or flavors. In fact, his behavior has prompted fellow moms and even strangers to ask me: How did you get your son to choose “healthy” food?
That’s the crazy part; I didn’t.
He made the decision on his own, by utilizing my guidance and experience with food. Hunter watched me battle an autoimmune disease that was caused by food. He saw me at rock bottom when my body hurt so badly that Hunter had to hold a cup to my mouth so I could drink. But, he also witnessed God reverse my disease through diet and lifestyle changes. That experience helped shape his relationship with food – he saw that food can kill and food can heal.
While my illness helped guide Hunter, so did my childhood experiences. For example, as a child, I never thought about the GMOs, pesticides, or synthetic additives that were in my food. In fact, I used to sneak junk food all the time. I wasn’t allowed to have sugar – not even the typical kid’s cereal. We didn’t even have sugary foods in our house, except for table sugar. Consequently, I became obsessed with finding and eating sugar. I used to sneak downstairs in the middle of the night and lick sugar from the sugar jar. At school, I routinely got in trouble for trading my sandwiches for my friends’ cookies. And, when I was older, my sister and I would steal money from my Dad’s coin jar and walk to the local gas station to buy candy bars. We’d hide in the tall weeds behind the store and eat the candy before anyone could catch us.
Because of my defiant behavior around food, I took a different approach with Hunter. I never told him “you have to eat your veggies” or “no dessert until you eat your broccoli.” I knew that if I forced Hunter to eat the foods I wanted him to eat, or restricted him from eating the foods he wanted to eat, one day he would rebel – just like I did. Instead, I chose to educate him so he could make informed decisions, even when I’m not around.
I armed him with knowledge and gave him the freedom to make his own choices.
I encouraged Hunter to walk beside me on our journey by creating an environment that promotes “healthy” living, but doesn’t demand it. I modeled the behaviors I wanted him to follow and stood for the principles I hoped he would adopt. By allowing him to opt-in to the lifestyle I was trying to create, Hunter felt empowered. He could exercise his right to choose his own path:
He decided what constitutes “healthy” food.He chose to align himself with my dietary principles.
My approach is not perfect. It takes effort, time, and won’t work for everyone. But, so far, it’s working for us. For example, I used to worry that Hunter would make “bad” choices when I’m not around or that he would cave into peer pressure. But, then I saw him turn down a cookie in front of his entire class, and he didn’t know I was there. Plus, Hunter is surrounded by “unhealthy” foods every day – at grocery stores, restaurants, church, class, and birthday parties – and he hasn’t caved into the temptation. In fact, Hunter is challenged with tempting foods every day in our own home.
Most of our kitchen pantry contains the foods Hunter and I eat – foods that are aligned with our principles. But, roughly a third of our pantry looks like an organic version of the typical American diet, including: cookies, chips, pizza, toaster pastries, and cereals containing synthetic chemicals. There are also candies containing dyes and artificial ingredients. That food belongs to my husband, whose diet is almost the exact opposite of Hunter’s diet, and mine. And, that’s okay. That’s his choice. In fact, my husband’s diet has provided an excellent learning opportunity for Hunter.
We don’t have to agree on which foods are “healthy.”Discover your principles and stand by them.
By encouraging Hunter to discover his principles and teaching him to stand by them, he developed great resolve. Hunter can be surrounded by “unhealthy” foods in our own home and not cave into the temptation, even at the age of seven. He knows what’s in those foods. He has decided they are not aligned with his principles. So, he doesn’t eat them. In fact, when my 3-year old son wants to “eat the food that Daddy eats,” Hunter teaches him why he believes those foods aren’t good for his body.
Hunter’s perspective on food and his desire to stay true to his principles didn’t happen over night. It took work and patience. We still occasionally have challenging moments. That’s when I practice grace by changing my approach to meet Hunter where he’s at, and I remind myself of the goal:
To create an environment that fosters “healthy” living while allowing Hunter the freedom to discover his own path.
The journey looks different for every family. Here are a few strategies that have worked for us:
I model the lifestyle I want him to follow: I set an example by eating the way I want him to eat. I still have issues with sugar, so I occasionally eat too many cookies and feel sick to my stomach. When that happens, I acknowledge my mistake and demonstrate grace in front of Hunter.
I value relationships above food: Food is no longer the center of our holidays. Instead, we focus on the meaning of the day. For example, on Thanksgiving, our family practices gratitude by participating in a service project. Then, I cook a simple, traditional meal of fish that takes no longer to prepare than a non-holiday meal. Since I’m not exhausted from spending hours in the kitchen, I’m able to spend quality time with my family.
During the school year, I host “Simple Gatherings” for Hunter’s friends, which are kid’s holiday parties without food. We focus on games, crafts, and enjoying our time together. His friends love the parties and have never complained that there is no food.
I tell him the truth: I teach Hunter about what’s in our food, how it got there, how our bodies process that food, how food can lead to disease, and how food can heal our bodies from disease. I explain the information at an adult level, but I use analogies that Hunter relates to. For example, Hunter recently told me he didn’t want to eat a second cookie because sugar “helps the bad guys win.” He’s referring to sugar feeding the “bad” bacteria in his gut, which can lead to gut dysbiosis and inflammation.
Importantly, I never speak to Hunter from a place of fear. Even when I was battling an autoimmune disease, I told him that God would heal my body – and He did. I tell Hunter the truth, as I see it, while focusing on hope and positivity.
I invite “experts” into our home: I routinely listen to free on-line health summits in our home. They keep me up-to-date in my field. But, they also teach Hunter about health and wellness. He doesn’t sit down and listen to the summits, but Hunter does absorb bits of information as the summits play in the background. Having “experts” in our home also helps reinforce the concepts that I’m teaching him – even though I have a Ph.D. in Nutrition, to Hunter I’m “just Mom.”
I encourage him to play in the kitchen: In an effort to help him connect with our food, I encourage Hunter to cook with me. I teach him how to follow recipes, but I also provide space for him to make his own creations. Experimenting with food has expanded his creativity and motivated him to continue cooking.
Our cooking sessions are also when I share stories about our food, such as: where our food comes from, why I choose to eat certain foods and avoid others, and how to listen to your body to figure out your individual needs.
We play with our food: I often make pictures with Hunter’s food. Yesterday, I drew a happy face using blueberries for the eyes, hummus for the nose and carrot strips for the mouth. It’s simple, only takes a few seconds, and it engages Hunter in the meal.
We hunt for food together: Hunter flips through cookbooks and picks recipes for us to try. He also helps plan our meals for the week, and he selects our produce at the supermarket. Currently, he is learning to pack his own snacks and lunches.
I don’t deprive him: When Hunter wants a cookie, he eats one. He used to go over-board with sugar. But, now that he’s grounded in his principles, he self regulates – usually stopping at one or two cookies.
I also keep homemade desserts in the freezer that are aligned with his principles. So, when he’s invited to a birthday party, instead of feeling left out, he can celebrate with the other children while eating a treat that he feels good about.
I don’t use food as a reward: I don’t want Hunter to associate food with love, like I do, so we don’t use food as a reward (or a punishment). Instead, I reward with affection and praise.
I expose him to “bad” foods: When trying to eat “healthy,” it’s commonly recommended to throw out the junk food in your home to avoid temptation. As previously mentioned, we intentionally surround Hunter with junk food. For example, even though nobody eats it, we keep last years Halloween candy in the pantry. Hunter has never asked to eat it, and has never tried to sneak it. In fact, he conducts experiments with the candy, which help him learn about the chemicals they contain.
I gave him ownership: When Hunter learned about the hidden chemicals in our food that can make us sick, he wanted to help other kids by providing “healthier” alternatives. So, he created his own dessert line, Rattlesnake Treats: Take the Bite Out of Sweets. Hunter’s goal was to give kids a choice: “We can eat treats that have hidden chemicals, or we can eat the foods God gave us.”
I guided Hunter as he developed his business, but the project was created and driven by him. He decided to launch his product line at a Homeschool Entrepreneur’s Fair. Then, he sold his treats at a local event featuring Sandy Rios and Congressman Dave Brat. Afterwards, he decided to package his product line into an electronic cookbook, Rattlesnake Treats, and sell it online. He included product comparisons that we developed together, which were a critical tool in his understanding of the chemicals that exist in common candies and desserts. And, now he’s developing a cooking class for kids called Candy Chemistry.
Giving Hunter ownership of his dietary principles, food choices, and business was scary. What if it backfired? What if he chose to eat junk food all day? The doubts and fears seemed endless.
But, I’m glad I took the risk and kept the faith because it was one of the best decisions I have made. Over the past couple of years, Hunter has flourished. He used to be shy and insecure, but now he’s comfortable and confident being himself. He’s happy. And, I have peace of mind knowing I don’t need to worry that Hunter will make “bad” choices or that he’ll sneak down stairs and steal licks of sugar from the sugar jar. I trust Hunter and he trusts me. Both of us know that we’re not perfect. We both will make mistakes. And, when we do, we’ll practice grace by standing for one of our life principles:
Love over fear.