A littler, warmer body nuzzles up against me and pats my boob and says Taste? Taste? and starts to undress my sleeping sleeping body until I say: want to nurse? and I hear yes, yes, yes.
And the game is on, all day long. I've told you before how these kids can eat, and I am not lying, it is a sight to behold.
A few weeks ago I queried a friend who is also raising two little hungry Paleo people - what are you feeding them for snacks? Do you feel like your kids eat fruit all day long? I wasn't exaggerating: a quart of blueberries, three apples, two bananas, half a cantaloupe, a bag of raisins - gone, in the span of one day, as if a marauding band of fruit bats flew in, kicked ass, and left without cleaning the juice off the floor. I was tossing good stuff in between there, but let's face it: fruit is convenient, and easily accepted, and it wasn't until it started disappearing at such an alarming rate that I started to consider that perhaps free rein wasn't the best approach to snacking in the house. This friend agreed, and summarized her detente with the ways things were: I figure they eat well otherwise so I try to just let it go.
So there I was, hitting the Farmer's Market three times a week to keep my fruit bats fed. I stopped offering it at meals. (I'm slow, people. This was a revolutionary concept to me).
Then last week I got another text from her: we are two weeks no sugar except for one piece of fruit in their lunch. No more meltdowns after school and they are eating their dinners much better.
There's a back story here, to support her decision to make these changes, but it's not mine to tell. But what is mine to tell is how she inspired me to start really thinking about the logical disconnect in my own practices. What I know to be true about sugar and what is advised by researchers as judicious fruit intake (2-3 servings of fruit daily for a metabolically healthy adult) did not match with my practices in the house. My kids weren't gulping juice boxes or eating cookies with lunch, but they were getting a daily infusion, at least every three or four hours, of fruit, augmented throughout the day with other tiny boluses of honey or maple syrup (a tablespoon in the waffle batter, a bit stirred into plain yogurt, a smooth drink made with dates or banana, berries, and coconut milk to start the morning, Lara bar on the run...I mean, there was a reason why I started asking about sweet intake. It seemed to knit together the entire day!). And there have been meltdowns, Jesus, this has been the summer of meltdowns. Not to mention the sticky stuff all over the table, the floor, a 2 1/2 foot line of fruity hand prints dragged through the entire house. But this wasn't really about housekeeping. Like so many things with a Pale-template lifestyle, the proving ground has to be our own experience. I would never go to the trouble I do if I didn't experience dramatic changes in my physical and emotional health because of our diet and lifestyle. And so I walked into this with an open mind: how would they respond? Would the mood swings continue, the refused naps and dinner strikes and late bed times go on? If so, it wasn't worth the work. But I was curious. Just that weekend Jeff had observed that when Benen really started to lose his shit, he could usually organize himself once we fed him. So I felt like we had nothing to lose, and possibly something - some sense of calm and happiness - to gain.
We gave it a try. With my friend's input, since she was a few weeks ahead, she suggested a that I be up front with them (well, at least Benen. Gemma is a little easier - out of sight, out of mind) about what we were doing and why. At five, Benen has enough awareness about what it feels like to crash off a sugar high, so I explained that we were going to see if maybe he was having so many problems feeling angry and crazy because maybe he was eating too much sugar, even if just in fruit. I told him he could have one treat a day, like a piece of fruit or a Paleo cookie or a smoothie, and that we would have it after we had been busy with our bodies. He took it in stride. Then I got rid of all the dried fruit, Lara bars, and fresh fruit in the house, putting it out of sight. I planned to include lots of "safe starches" throughout the day, made sure that I had plenty of snack options stocked, and I waited (and said no, kindly, a lot for two days).
The first day was funny. If there had been any question in my mind that my kids were little fruit addicts, my doubts were put to rest by 10 a.m.. They both asked for fruit, raisins, smoothies, and bars several times throughout the day, starting in the morning, in bed: Mama, I want an apple. I can't wait. Which gave Gemma reason to start yelling Apple! Apple! Apple! We had picked 30 pounds of organic Golden Delicious apples the previous Sunday (before I decided to give the limited fruit thing a try..) and they were sitting in the kitchen, waiting to be canned into applesauce. They got moved into the garage and I made pancakes, smothered in butter, and fried eggs, and I heard nothing more about it...for two hours. In between meals, every time they asked for sweets or fruit, I offered them hard boiled eggs, cheese, roasted broccoli, nuts, sliced turkey, ham, carrot sticks. Half the time they just drank some water and kept playing.
After our big activity in the morning I made them a smooth drink - 8 ounces of full fat coconut milk, half a frozen banana, a handful of blueberries and their daily dose of fermented cod liver oil, as well as some immune-boosting herbs to fight off colds. They slurped it down, wasting not a drop (whereas in the past they would often not finish) and when Benen asked me later in the day for more fruit, I just reminded him that he had already had his treat for the day. I got a few "Oh mans!" and "Darn its!", but that was the sum total of his resistance.
Then there was the baby, unable to say much, but ever so eloquent and clever in her communication: she dragged a jar of peaches I had canned this summer out of the pantry and brought it to me."Taste this!". I made her lunch, which she devoured, nary a complaint.
I gave them yogurt plain, or sprinkled with a little cinnamon or some frozen blueberries. Both of them are wolfing down the yogurt, with little poker faces, and Benen's yelling: Sour! Sour! as he asks for more.
And? That was it. Since I figured it was only fair that I adhere to the same rules, I was the one with a headache. Turns out I eat a lot of fruit and "goodies" as the day goes on, and stepping back from this was enlightening to me about my own habits. By the end of the second day Benen was asking not for hot chocolate popcorn chocolate muffin cookie (a kind of mindless mantra that he chants throughout the day, like Chinese water torture on my brain) but egg and goat cheese, sweet potato, turkey, rice. a mantra I can say yes to without reservation, without bargaining.
The conclusion? Smooth days. Literally no need for discipline a few days, and very little intervention needed the others, whereas most days lately have had an emotional roller-coaster flavor that nobody has enjoyed. Benen's capacity for impulse control has increased, notably. They are as energetic and silly as ever, but I'm not seeing the extreme highs and lows that I was seeing. They are both eating more food at meals, and they aren't hounding me throughout the day for food I prioritize as less-than-ideal. Not to say Gemma didn't just about jack a kid at the park today for his banana. Gemma is napping with more consistency and they are not fighting bedtime. We already have a strong daily rhythm, lots of outdoor time, and set routines to facilitate all the things that need to happen in a little person's daily life. It was pretty interesting to me to see how so small a change in their diet could have such a profound affect. But when you're parenting small ones, it's the little things that can make or break a day. A fifty-minute drawn-out bedtime drains the piss out of me. Having to call time-outs three times before 9 a.m. - I'll do it if I must, but what if I don't have to? I didn't get into this gig to be a cop.
Last night we had dessert to celebrate a friend visiting. We baked peeled, cored apples, stuffed with raisins, cinnamon, toasted pecans and almond extract, topped with a knob of butter, for about an hour at 350 F. We whipped cream with a little bit of vanilla and topped the warm apples with the cream. Benen ate his whipped cream and left the apple, which made me laugh. Gemma ate two raisins and then left to play. It's wonderful to be surprised by them.
Why am I sharing this with you? Not so that you, too, will pull the sugar rug out from under your feet. That's totally up to you. I'm sharing this with you to demonstrate that most of my ideas about my kids and food are simply that: preconceived ideas. I am continually surprising myself as I confront my own beliefs about what it means to nourish and care for these wonderful little people. I assume they won't eat something, I assume that sweet treats need to be a part of our daily fabric. In reality there is little basis for these ideas beyond cultural norms, and physiologic habit. Part of my work is to challenge those norms when they no longer work for our family. In this case, I had only a hunch to go on, but I can't tell you enough how much more peaceful it is at our house the last five days.
Having spent most of the last three years eating very little sugar myself, I know now that my children are developing a strong awareness of how what they eat makes them feel. I realize I cannot keep them in a sugar-free closet - nor would I choose to shelter them that way- we attend parties and picnics and potlucks, we like to roast a marshmallow over the fire-pit sometimes, I like to turn up the bluegrass and bake cookies during a Fall rain. Birthdays are a big deal in this house. Cake and ice cream will happen. But it doesn't need to be all day, every day.
What I can provide to them is a template for wellness, and choice, that allows them the mental and emotional clarity that good nutrition brings. And snacks. Lots and lots of snacks.
I can't claim this roasted broccoli recipe as my own. Several woman at our gym shared it with me and I've been making it at least three times a week in the afternoons as a snack. Benen and Gemma will eat a pound of steamed broccoli tossed with a lot of grass-fed butter like its popcorn, this is just a slightly fancier take on the idea (and it is stupid delicious, it is possible that I may or may not have eaten a pound of broccoli by myself this week as a snack). We also tried it with green beans this weekend, which Jeff pronounced as "potato chips". So I guess if you have a potato chip hankering but want to stay Paleo, there is that.
1 pound organic broccoli florets, cleaned and dried
1/4 cup olive oil
sea salt and black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 F. Toss the broccoli with the olive oil and salt and pepper on a cookie sheet and roast for 20 minutes. Remove sheet from oven, flip broccoli, and roast another 15-20 minutes. The broccoli will brown and crisp in spots; it is absolutely delicious this way.
Prep time: Less than 5 minutes. Cook time: 40 minutes.
And if you really need to indulge yourself (and why shouldn't you?), dip it in this:
Better Ranch Dressing
1/3 cup raw tahini
2 tablespoons rice vinegar (or other lightly flavored white vinegar, such as champagne)
2 tablespoons dried dill
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 tsp sea salt
Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add water to thin to desired consistency. Store up to two weeks in refrigerator. I made this a few weeks ago and have been fantasizing about dipping hot wings in it.
Prep time: 5 minutes
What do you feed your inner fruit bat?