Fermenting Dissent (with Determination, Cabbages and Salt)

Later this week, I’ll post about the news on toxics out of the U.S. Senate, which last week passed the Safe Chemicals Act out of committee on a party-line vote. I’m scanning the testimony, much of which is worth a gander. Really, the Safe Chemicals Act is a bit of a no-brainer, so it’s terribly disappointing to see partisan political deadlock on something so common-sense and fundamental to health.

Andy Igrejas, Campaign Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, wrote a great piece highlighting the problems for Republicans and the chemical industry if they continue obstructing progress on this issue. As he points out, educated consumer demand and our skepticism about the safety of products is a real threat to corporations when so many serious questions remain about the chemicals in our products and food. So keep asking questions, my friends, and letting the companies know we are all watching and taking names.

When life is such a mix of sweet and sour, that always feels like an invitation to pickle something. And over the weekend, a golden (or really purple) opportunity presented itself when my new pal Sharon offered to teach me how to make sauerkraut the old-fashioned way.

Here’s what the Nourishing Traditions cookbook says about the power of pickled cabbage:

Captain Cook loaded 60 barrels of sauerkraut onto his ship. After 27 months at sea, 15 days before returning to England, he opened the last barrel and offered some sauerkraut to some Portugese noblemen who had come on board….This last barrel was perfectly preserved after 27 months…and had also preserved sufficient quantities of vitamin C to protect the entire crew from scurvy.

Fermented foods are terrific for health, as they help to balance out the elaborate ecosystems in our gut. Traditional diets around the world use fermented foods far more frequently than we do in the Western diet, where half-limp dills tend to be the only sign of a once-robust spread of zingy condiments.

From kefir to kimchi to kombucha, miso to mango pickle, preserved lemons to pickled beets, fermented foodstuffs are commonplace in other cuisines, and are considered essential to good digestion. In my husband’s native India, meals typically included at least three kinds: intensely spiced pickles of many flavors, as well as fresh-made, live bacteria yogurt (or “curd”) and buttermilk.

Don’t tell the drug companies, but it turns out that making a high-powered new ecosystem to better service one’s digestive plumbing is simple, fun and deeply satisfying. Under Sharon’s expert tutelage, we drank some wine — fermented again! — and kneaded stringy pulpy cabbage pieces until they gave up their water and our hands were stinging from the salt. It was a wonderful and relaxing way to spend our daughters’ nap time on a summer afternoon. Below I provide all the details so that you, too, can share in the fun.

Sharon’s Easy Sauerkraut

Ingredients:

1 head (organic) cabbage

1 Tbl Celtic Sea Salt per head (you want pure, high-mineral salts for this)

Optional: Pickling spices

Optional: a small amount of whey, to jump-start the fermentation (more on homemade yogurt in a future post)

Directions:

Chop cabbage into chunks and then into fine strips and place in a large bowl.

Optional: Sip your wine. Laugh and talk. Discuss the cool new cookbook on fermentation that just made the Amazon bestseller list.

Wash your hands well and add 1 generous Tbl of sea salt per head of chopped cabbage.

Get your hands in there and squeeze and knead the salt into the cabbage. It will begin to give up its water and you’ll learn all about any small cuts and hangnails you may have. After about 12 minutes of kneading, it was limp and beautiful, and about half the volume.

If you like, add the pickling spices at this stage and knead them in a bit.

Stuff the proto-sauerkraut into a crock, glass jar or other non-toxic container (Note: Ball jar metal lids, and most other metal lids, have a coating of BPA on them!) and push it down so that the surface of the cabbage is below the water it has generated. Add the whey in this process if using it.

Leave some room for more water to develop at the top (mine started to leak violet juices after a day when not enough room was preserved).

Cover, put it somewhere where it will stay around 70 degrees F. Wait anxiously for 4 to 7 days before opening and sampling your creation.

After opening, store it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a month or more. Makes about 3 and 1/2 cups of royal purple goodness. Serve over greens, next to sausage, in soups, or just as a nice condiment.

If you have variations on this recipe, other additions, or great ideas for how to use and serve sauerkraut, please share them in the comments!

Beyond Work-Life Balance, In Search Of a More Balanced Life

When I read Tim Kreiter’s essay criticizing how so many people (including me) are caught in “The Busy Trap” a few weeks back, it struck me as true that the pace of our lives has generally sped up until it out-paces any consideration of the quality of our time.

And this has implications for the heated debate over motherhood occasioned by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and, far less insightfully, Elisabeth Badinter. Though the two approach the problem of work-life balance from diametrically opposed positions — Slaughter believes the world should better adapt to the needs of women and parents, while Badinter believes women should abandon, more or less, a nurturing role in favor of work and marital obligations — both implicitly buy into the notion that super-heroics might still be necessary in order to prove … well, what is it exactly? That women can stand next to men in the workplace? That we think as deeply and meaningfully as men do about the problems of the world?

Slaughter has since partially recanted this aspect of her article, instead saying that “time macho” hurts us all. The truth is, most of the men who have left any lasting impression on the history books were idle men of means or paupers who wrote stuff down, like Marx — who famously imagined a world of working in the morning and “fishing in the afternoon”– with plenty of time for contemplative pursuits.

Sure, to be more fulfilled, women and parents could really use a workplace that honors and celebrates family obligations as central to worker productivity and happiness. But we could all — parents or no — also benefit from a set of expectations for work that are more limited, and fewer activities, obligations, and extra commitments overall.

I’m with Kreiter in thinking that there is real value in apparent idleness — for both adults and young children. Kids, in particular, need time to process new information, pursue wild and pigheaded ideas, and direct their own explorations of the world.

Yet, as this wonderful article sadly describes, even in environmental education, which should be the ultimate opportunity for a child’s confrontation with the unmediated vagaries of nature, we have formalized the lessons and sanitized the experience, urging children to “stay on the path.”

As if these limitations were not enough, there is also, on the other hand, overload. IMHO, too many think that even young infants and toddlers should be regularly shuttled between multiple enriching experiences. On Monday, it’s music class, and Tuesday, kiddie gym, and so on. Here’s what Resources in Educare expert Janet Lansbury gently explains about the impacts on children of this well-meaning impulse:

What parents don’t realize is that each of these learning opportunities requires children to conform to a set of rules (attire, etc.), and be directed, taught, sometimes even tested.  In even the loosest, most playful of these classes, children sense that some sort of performance is expected of them.

So activities that might sound interesting and enriching to us create at least some level of pressure for our toddlers and preschoolers.  The more of these situations children have to endure each week, the more pressured they feel.  Instead of learning through the play they choose — tinkering, exploring, creating, daydreaming — they must spend most of their time being quiet, listening obediently, imitating, trying to “get it right.”

I initially also dutifully signed Maya up for music classes, but, truth be told, I quickly learned that she was too overwhelmed and intimidated by the environment to relax. Once a week was simply not enough to build the familiarity needed for her to enjoy it, even though at home she is keenly interested in music and singing at all levels of silliness.

So, what are the ways we can all take a deep breath and inject some idleness into our too-busy lives? I’ve written before about the need for structural and economic changes that would dramatically improve the lives of women and families, and I’m certainly not the only one to make those points.

But while we’re (not) holding our breath waiting for Congress to come to the overwhelming realization that they are failing American families, here are my three simple thoughts on some antidotes to busyness that could also pay dividends for health:

1) Stop eating processed food and cook a little every day.

I was once someone who would always have the frozen stuff on hand, just in case. But I recently discovered that if I just stopped buying those pizzas and perogies to fill up the freezer, I would have to make something myself using real food, almost every day. Now, I often cook in the morning for the day, and because Maya’s up at 7 a.m., even a long-cooking recipe is done by 9 or 10 when we’re likely headed out the door.

The act of chopping vegetables is, to me, meditative and tactile, a nicely concrete task that allows me to accomplish something small before the day even really begins. Maya loves to play nearby, and often insists on whisking eggs or supervising the chopping herself. We eat fewer foods with chemicals or packed in plastics, and far more vegetables and fruits, and it’s (mostly) cheaper as well.

Living this way slows you down, just a little a bit, and makes you think about what you want to eat and what is seasonal and fresh, instead of merely discovering what you have pre-decided in frozen form. It’s in the moment, experimental, and requires your participation. Whether or not it’s what we usually mean by work-life balance, it would be hard to imagine a life in balance that lacked the time to ensure that the food we eat is nourishing and contains a bit of our intention.

2) Put away the devices, and find the time to read a book.

In our screen-driven world, fewer steps are more radical than sitting down to read a book. One with pages, and paper, and words in ink. All the way through to the final page.

And don’t check your email. Or answer your cellphone. Though it’s not in Slaughter’s piece, one major factor that must be driving the heightened tensions between family life and work is the implicit assumption by most employers that the mobile phone and email are never truly off. Not on vacation, and certainly not on a regular evening. The slow but unmistakeable creep of a shadow of work into every moment of our lives is perhaps the most suffocating — and quietly unreasonable — aspect of contemporary working life.

And working aside, we now all have Facebook, and Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Even just putting away the identity management tasks related to life on the Interwebs for a few hours at a stretch is a revolutionary notion. As someone’s signature line on my parents’ listserv admirably says:

“I’m not available on email from 10 am to 8 pm. It’s not “avoiding work,” it’s “developing a reservoir of cognitive capacity through strategic non-application of processing resources.” M.G. Saldivar

Modeling reading for kids is, of course, even more important in the Age of Screens. When I was a (nerdy) kid of 7 or 8, my mom says, she would often come up to check on the sudden silence in the playroom and “catch” my best friend and I quietly reading to ourselves. I wonder how often that would happen today, when even 7-year-olds have Iphones.

Given this happy memory, I was tickled pink when Maya imperiously commanded me to sit next to her yesterday and read my own book while she perused hers. It went on for 20 minutes or so, the two of us just sitting and reading together on the floor. It was a wrinkled brow moment for her, and pure joy for me.

3) Dance. In your living room if need be.

Turns out, both Maya and I dig us some classic Lauryn Hill. With her unique approach to rhythm, this evening Maya stomped and twirled her way through most of the Miseducation album, utterly and blissfully ignorant of the criminal sentence for tax evasion Lauryn now faces.

While this one requires little pre-planning, and is a bit of a no-brainer, I’m struck by the absence of public dancing as a form of exercise and expression for Americans. All around the world, and even in more rural parts of America, celebrations include dance, with multi-age groups and traditional forms from salsa to two-step.

Yet for many Americans, any real attempt at dancing is now reserved for the club, and is basically an activity confined to prom-goers and over-makeup-ed twenty-somethings. Like many, I don’t relish the idea of being the oldest and least stylish person in a club, so my friends and I have basically ceased our dancing outings. As with the bygone days of communal singing pointed out in a poignant article by my good friend Karen, the days of the “Saturday night date” for married couples at a supper club with a live band are, sadly, no more, and much to our detriment.

Personally, I can’t think of a more spontaneous and fun way to be in the moment (if only to ensure you are not about to twist an ankle!). As Maya’s clear delight tells me, dancing forms an imaginative connection between music and our bodies. It’s deliciously pointless, at least for those of us clearly not vying for a spot on Dancing with the Stars.

And it’s something we can do with nothing but a song and our willingness to embarrass ourselves. When we dance, it’s nowhere but here, and no moment but now.

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What are some things you do to take back your time and slow down? Hiking? Hanging out with friends? Knitting?

Do share, and feel free to post pictures and comments on my new blog Facebook page as well!

Slightly Sprouted Green Lentil Salad

Moong (or mung) beans are eaten far more in Indian cuisine than American, but they shouldn’t be. For a dose of health, you can’t do much better than these. The small, oval dark green lentils known as “moong dal” or “green gram” are high in protein, and Vitamin C, and also contain magnesium, phosphorus and potassium in smaller amounts.

More importantly, they are delicious, and especially when sprouted, very digestible for both adults and toddlers. The flavor is slightly nutty, and they are filling and comforting food.

Mung bean sprouts are very common in grocery stores, but since I prefer them more like beans and less like gangly sprouts, I sprout them at home and eat them just when they are barely ready to slip off their small green skins. (I’m also skeptical of store-bought sprouts, which are a far-too-frequent trigger for e coli and similar food poisoning incidents.)

The recipe below takes 3 days and 30 minutes, but don’t let the advance prep fool you — all you have to do for the first few days is change the water twice a day, morning and night. The hard part, once you become as fond of them as we are, is waiting for the days to pass…

Ingredients

2 cups whole green moong dal

1 rough-chopped (organic) tomato

1 chopped (organic) cucumber and/or raw zucchini

1 chopped (organic) yellow onion

3 cloves chopped (organic) garlic

1 finely chopped small green chili

2 Tbls coriander seeds or powder

1 1/2 Tbl cumin seeds or powder

2 Tbls brown mustard seeds

3 Tbls chopped fresh cilantro

Juice from 2 freshly squeezed limes

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Optional:  3 Tbls toor (yellow) dal, split

Optional: Grated (organic) carrot

Directions

Place the beans in a vessel with some room in it for expansion and cover with water for 3 days. Twice every day, rinse and replace the water — once at morning and once at night.

On the third day, the beans will be bubbly and look like these (Maya loved the bubbles, and kept poking them):

On the third day, you’re ready! Over low to medium heat in a deep saucepan, saute the onions, garlic and spices. Drain and add the beans to the pan, stirring in the spices and salt and pepper, and warm them through. Remove from the heat.

Optional addition: roast the toor dal in a small amount of oil in a separate pan and set it aside. This adds texture and crunch, but is not completely necessary.

Add the tomatoes, cucumber and zucchini, carrots, and last the fresh cilantro and fresh lime juice and combine. Top with another shake of salt and pepper. Serve while still slightly warm.

The Twinkie Did It, Mom, I Swear: The Crisis in Child Nutrition and What It Does to Our Kids

English: Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake w...When I read Kelly Dorfman’s new book, What’s Eating Your Child, a few weeks back, I was stunned by the number and variety of child health problems that turned out to be related to diet. The book is a quick yet informative read, built from clearly explained case studies of children with health issues ranging from anxiety to Asberger’s, all of whom are significantly helped by her simple, effective nutritional fixes.

Here’s Dorfman’s compelling version of “we are what we eat:”

One basic law of physics says that you cannot make matter from nothing….In the case of the body, its ability to create must start from what it takes in or is born with. In other words, any growing, healing, development and functioning you accomplish must evolve from from what you come with, eat, drink or breathe. You are born with about seven pounds of matter that will expand into a hundred-something pounds….What one eats has bearing on mood, energy, susceptibility to illness, digestion, sleep, learning, healing capacity, and more.

The book centers mainly on Dorfman’s sensitive, case-specific assessments of the issues affecting particular families, and the tone is gentle and explanatory rather than judgmental. But it was nonetheless amazing to me that so many children in the book, living in a food-abundant society like our own, have such utterly crappy diets.

In many cases, though it should perhaps be obvious, diet is the last place it seems anybody looks for a solution, even for serious child health problems. The book is full of stories of families who have been to an elaborate pantheon of expensive medical specialists for their child’s health issues, and of drugged-up children taking medications more suitable for adults — medications that do little to address the problem, and carry a risk of serious side effects. All the while, the kids are snarfing down nothing but Twinkies, Wonder Bread and soda, yet no one apparently connects the dots until Dorfman gently suggests a vegetable or two might improve the situation.

Predictably, she puts it in a nicer way than I just did:

Few parents start out with the goal of feeding their children toaster pastries for breakfast and peanut butter crackers for lunch, yet an astounding number (if my practice is any indication) end up there. … The scenario of a typical diet gone bad starts at age two when a sleep-starved mother hands her red-faced, screaming toddler a cracker or cookie so he will just shut up.

She goes on to rightly label cookies and crackers for toddlers “like crack.” As someone who very recently violated every principle I hold dear to repeatedly stuff “Toppables” crackers into Maya in an attempt to get her to shut up for the duration at recent family memorial service, I can personally attest to their addictive, and seductively taming, properties for toddlers.

Even my own impertinent darling, despite our generally uptight dietary controls, asks for “biscuits” “crackers” and “cookies” daily and by name. While she only very rarely gets them, and the ones she typically does get are made of organic oats and taste like wallpaper paste, this has yet to cool her ardor. Toddler crack? I’d say more like heroine.

And past the toddler stage, things don’t look very bright either. Dorfman reports that most children over-consume salt, bad fats, and added sugar, adding:

An October 2010 study reported that the top sources of calories for 2 to 18-year-olds were [] cookies, cakes, granola bars, pizza and soda. Nearly 40 percent of the total calories consumer were from empty-calorie foods.

Up against these odds, Dorfman is undaunted. To find the cause for a specific problem, she becomes what she calls a “nutrition detective,” putting the clues together either to figure out when a food is a harmful irritant, or to identify a deficiency might be causing the problem. Some of her conclusions are astonishing, as when she demonstrates that chronic ear infections may be related to milk allergy, or that speech delays in two children were likely caused by a lack of adequate essential fats in their diets.

She also points out that each of us has highly individualized nutritional needs, a factor called bio-individuality. This means that even within a family, the dietary needs of one child for a particular nutrient or mineral may be higher than for her sibling, a reality that unhelpfully may conceal the relationship between nutrition and that child’s health issues.

On the flip side, there are also linkages among family members due to genetics, as in the family in which a shared intolerance for gluten negatively affected the behavior of both parent and child, causing irritability, behavioral irregularities and distraction in both.

How a Nutrition Detective Clearly Links Child Health Back to Food

I highly recommend this book. I found its approach balanced, sensible and sensitive. When families and other doctors were skeptical about the contributions of nutritional factors, Dorfman explains how she would patiently allow them to exhaust the traditional medical diagnoses first, and then move in to restate the obvious. Her approach, overall, is both gentle and painstaking. And behavioral change is obviously harder than popping a pill. Still, at times I wished the book was a little more directive, as it lacks a chapter that summarizes all the dietary “do’s.”

Nonetheless, the overall message is obvious: sugars, highly processed foods and refined flour products tend to take over the diets of children, taking up space where real foods should be, and creating taste preferences that lead to “picky eater” syndrome. She suggests a method for insisting that picky eaters diversify their food preferences, and also takes this problem of a mono- (and nutrient-deprived) diet as seriously as it likely deserves.

For stiffer medicine, she also suggests that we not keep anything in the house that we don’t want our children to eat. This is harsh, but good advice. I know the day is fast approaching with Maya that “do as I say” won’t work anymore — and this rule of thumb seems right to me (and will push me into the final clean-up of my own dietary act, as it were. Ahem.).

In addition to emphasizing organic, whole foods and a wide range of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and highlighting the importance of a protein- and nutrient-rich breakfast (a few of my own ideas on that one are here), she recommends that children (and adults) take a multivitamin, and she touts the significant properties of cod liver oil for its essential fatty acids.

Since I have always been skeptical about the uptake of minerals and vitamins from supplements, her insistence that these additions are important to the diet, and her well-reasoned arguments in support of that idea, are causing me to do a rethink.

I looked around briefly for products that would fit the parameters in the book, and they were hard to find. For vitamins, she recommends one with a good variety of minerals, and the full set of B-vitamins (which gummy vitamins are typically missing), and not more than 2,500 IUs of Vitamin A.

For cod liver oil, she indicates that we need more than 1,000 mgs total of the active ingredients of EPA and DHA. We were already taking a popular brand of fish oil capsules, but a closer reading of the label revealed we’d need choking hazard-levels of 15 pills per day each to get that amount of active EPA and DHA! (She also recommends probiotics — the more live bacteria the better, and chewable ones should be avoided because they are too low in live cultures.)

So I wrote to Dorfman to ask for recommended brands for vitamins and for high-potency fish oil that had been cleansed of mercury, PCBs or other pollutants found in fish. And wonder of wonders, she actually wrote me back, of course with some very helpful answers. Noting that it would have been far more dicey for her to officially recommend particular products in her book, she said:

With [cod liver oil], it is tough to stabilize the potency so to get the higher amounts of EPA/DHA you may have to get regular fish oil.  Nordic Naturals has a patented process for purifying fish oils and are good.  They are available widely.   Their Ultimate Omega (which is also available with vitamin D) comes in a bottle as a liquid.  I recommend it a lot.  However, their products have a strong fish flavor.  If you need a neutral tasting clean product, consider 2 tsp. of Omega Cure.  It mixes easily with other foods.

As far as a well balanced multiple, check out these wafers.   Two per day contain 15 mg of zinc.

We’ve ordered both products, but they have not yet arrived. I’ll just note that the Omega Cure site also includes fish oil chocolates and cookies, thereby introducing significant cognitive dissonance into my nutritional wanderings. I’m so curious about whether these are tasty or not that I’m sure to break down and order some eventually… if you’ve tasted them, please let me know how they are! Fish oil chocolates, mmmm!

Two New Zealand chocolate fish.

They don’t really look like this.

One more note:  Given the frightening lack of any real regulation of food supplements, you may want to check the products you are using against the testing being done by the only private group to fill in doing what the government should be.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay for the privilege. The group is called Consumer Lab, and membership is $33/year. They do regularly find problems with supplementation products, so if you spend a lot of money on these kinds of things, it would easily be worth it to join.

You also can and should look for labels on supplements that indicate that they adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), the highest sanitation, process validation and quality standards that are voluntary standards from the federal government. Especially if you are feeding the supplements to children, this level of compliance with basic health standards is a no-brainer.

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This book may be for you if…

Because Dorfman’s book presents nutritional solutions to such a wide range of child health problems, below I provide a list of issues with her accompanying suggestions so that readers grappling with these issues in a child’s or their own health will see that this book may offer some useful insights, or at least some avenues to try as an alternative to prescription drugs or mere desperation.

If you are dealing with any of these issues, the list below by no means should replace your review of all of the information in the book, which includes detailed case studies, full descriptions of the problem and methodology and a candid discussion of how well the nutritional solutions worked. Dorfman is also available for consultations and is based in Northern Virginia.

Health Conditions Addressed by Nutritional Changes, by Issue, Cause and Solution

Frequent nosebleeds/stomach pain — Gluten intolerance (despite negative test for Celiac disease)

Lyme disease symptoms not addressed by antibiotics — High Iron levels in Prenatal Vitamins (brief mention)

Very picky eater, upper respiratory and ear infections — milk (casein) allergy or other food allergy

Serious reflux (GERD) — Milk allergy, addressed by alternative formula (not soy-based), probiotics and zinc carnosine

Near-constant stomach pain, craving wheat-based foods, eczema, anemia, severe mood swings and/or behavior issues — Gluten intolerance (again, despite negative test for Celiac)

Very picky eater, deficient growth, lack of hunger — Zinc deficiency

Constipation, Eczema — Milk allergy, addressed with pro-biotic supplements, Liquid-L Carnitine

Rash or “chicken skin,” dry hair, lack of thirst — Essential fatty acids deficiency, addressed with fish oil supplement

Insomnia — Melatonin, in small doses (caution about drug interactions with SSRIs); other practical advice, such as increasing exercise and decreasing sugar/caffeine

Hyperactivity, Aggression, Moodiness — Decrease sugar (she notes that a small subset of sugar-reactive children do get hyperactive from sugar, despite more general findings of no link between hyperactivity and sugar); increase magnesium; DMAE supplements (sardine oil nutrient)

Anxiety — fish oil supplementation to increase amino acids, protein and nutrient-rich diet

Ear infections linked to ADHD — Eliminate common allergenic foods (dairy, wheat, soy and/or eggs); address with probiotics; evaluate auditory processing

Autism with behavioral deterioration from some foods and sudden rash, or                 Itchiness or red cheeks or rashes from certain foods — Pesticides on strawberries (my note: likely methyl iodide or methyl oxide) or other foods, such as fruit

Hives (after all food allergens and contaminants are removed) — Allergy to genetically modified corn and soy

Dyspraxia, or speech delays — Deficiency in essential fats, addressed with Fish oil supplementation, Vitamin E complex, and Choline supplementation (one child also needed Taurine supplementation in addition). The book also helpfully contains a guideline by which to measure speech delays in toddler development, and highlights the developmental urgency in addressing this issue as early as possible.

Hyper-sensitivity (Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD) — Deficiency in fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, addressed with fish oil, and mineral and vitamin supplementation 

Toddler Nutrition: Feeding Your Child for Optimum Health

The hardest thing about nutrition is to actually do what you know you should do. We all know that a diet of whole, unprocessed foods is best, and that in order to avoid sugar, excess salt and nasty chemicals, cooking at home with fresh ingredients is preferable.

But knowing and doing are two really different things, as I am aware from my several evenings last week of watching videos on the evils of sugar consumption while stuffing my face with oatmeal cookies… though at least they were made at home!

Over a year ago, when Maya started being ready for solid foods, I first took a close look at how and what we were eating, and became far more interested in tracking nutritional controversies and monitoring what we bought and ate. It occurred to me then that while our pediatrician had said she was now ready to “eat whatever the family is eating,” our family meals were not healthy enough to be a strong foundation for the well-being of a person who weighed only 20 pounds or so.

I thought we could do better than our haphazard ways. For her diet anyway, and insofar as what we ate while we were home, I decided I wanted to close the considerable gap between what I knew versus what we did about nutrition, and to deal with at least some of the environmental health issues related to chemicals in food.

We let our concerns about Maya lead the way, in other words, which has meant that our whole approach to food has gotten better. Like anything about “greening” our choices or becoming more intentional about consumption, the changes we made were small, gradual and happened over time.

While each one may have caused some difficulty at first when we were figuring out what to do, they eventually became habit. It turned out that only four types of changes were needed to remake our approach, and that now it’s easier than I would have thought to just say no to parts of our diet that were less healthy.

Food expenses are now a much larger percentage of our family budget. But food costs as a percentage of household costs have dropped considerably since the 1960s, and, as a nation, the quality of our food supply has actually been degraded as chemicals and fillers have been subbed in for actual food. If we all were willing to spend a little more on simple, real food, the market would doubtless shift again.

Eating this way also tastes way better. These days, if we do skimp and eat something that is cheaper, processed or junky, both my husband and I can taste and feel the difference, immediately. For my husband in particular, who used to eat nearly every lunch at McDonalds, the dramatic differences our improved diet has worked in our sense of taste has been a shock (and is a bit of a pain while traveling!).

Below, I’ll describe our 4 categories of major changes and how and why we made them.

1) Going organic, and then eventually grass-fed, pasture-raised for dairy and meat:

We started by being much more careful about buying organic versions of whatever Maya would eat, and eventually, after some reading about the nutritional, contamination and sustainability advantages, have switched almost entirely to grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and dairy foods.

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

First, choosing organic foods is important because the chemicals in pesticides show up in foods, albeit in small amounts. These chemicals have been linked to birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time, according to the EPA, which notes that some pesticides also pose unique health risks to children. Even trace amounts have no place in food for either pregnant women or for small children, who need every nutrient and whose bodies are still developing. In addition, organic foods are free of antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unless contamination occurs by GMO crops.

We’re fairly strict about this one: when fruit or vegetables are not available in an organic form, we skip it and eat ones that are. In particular, fruits that are porous or have no skin to peel, like apples, grapes, berries or tomatoes, or things that grow on or near the ground, like potatoes and peanuts, tend to have higher levels of pesticides in them. We also buy organic for the processed versions of foods, such as raisins, hummus, peanut butter and tomato sauce.

Organic is certainly more expensive. If you are concerned about costs, you could buy organic food for just the pregnant women and children in your family, or you could target the organic foods you buy by looking at the helpful lists from the Environmental Working Group that indicate which foods have more or less pesticide residues — the Dirty Dozen or Clean Fifteen. In addition, farmer’s markets offer some well-priced organic or near-organic (no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers) foods, and Community Supported Agriculture shares (CSAs) can offer savings on seasonal deliveries (though not all CSA farms are organic or near-organic; you can find a local one here).

Grass-fed dairy and proteins are higher in trace minerals, vitamins and nourishing essential fats, because the animals are living how they are designed to live by nature. Chickens that eat grubs and scratch in pasture, out in the sunshine, produce more nutritious eggs. And cows, which are ruminants meant to eat grass, do far better and require far fewer antibiotics or other drugs when on field.

In many modern farms, including for chickens and pigs, animals never venture outside, instead spending their lives in small metal cages or pens. And “free range” labels are misleading — most chickens that are supposedly in this category never see the light of day.

Our industrial food system actually sells us an egg, most of the time, that is worth less, nutritionally, than an egg should be. Trace minerals and vitamins are missing (lower vitamin D from a lack of sunshine, for example, or vitamin E) — as well as healthy, unsaturated fats, and thus we would need to eat more to get less.

Nutritionally impoverished food is so because of inhumane, factory farm conditions that are abusive to animals. Garbage in, garbage out. Given these connections, and what we know about what it does to us through our food, consumers should really be demanding better quality protein far more of the time.

On the nutritional side for children, and especially young children, its critical to know that the brain — and all of the connections in the brain — are actually made of fats, and so having high quality fats in the diet is essential to healthy development. As the LiveStrong Website notes:

Each neuron [in the brain] has an axon and a dendrite, which help send and receive information throughout the body. The speed at which the information can be sent is largely impacted by myelin. Myelin is a thick substance made of fat that insulates the neuron’s axons and dendrites. This insulation of the nerve fibers allows information to be sent and received by the brain at a much faster rate. Myelination, or the formation of myelin, begins at birth and continues rapidly throughout the first two years of life.

For Maya, we use grass-fed butter liberally, and organic coconut or peanut oil for cooking. We also give her whole milk, and will continue to long after the dietary recommendations are to switch to skim (myelin develops throughout childhood). And for other essential fats, we feed her (organic) avocados and coconut milk weekly.

As this would suggest, we generally ensure that at home, we use grass-fed, pasture-raised milk, meats, eggs, and butter, as well as cheese when we can find it. These items are harder to find, but again, the taste is so delicious that it become its own motivation.

We buy meats and eggs from a supplier at our local farmer’s market, or look for ratings of 4 or higher at Whole Foods for meat (which is not always easy to find). We can get grassfed eggs, butter and milk at the local co-op (Natural by Nature is one brand for butter and milk; we also like the less-homogenized milk sold in deposit glass containers from Trickling Springs Creamery, which does have an organic option). For cheese, if you look closely, Whole Foods sells some very affordable grass-fed cheeses in the dairy case.

2) Minimizing processed foods:

I used to like Trader Joe’s more than anybody. But I’ve stopped going, because I realized that much of what I bought was convenience foods, much of which was full of preservatives and chemical additives. I’ve become a label hound, and basically will not give Maya anything with stabilizers, “gums”  and fillers (like guar gum, carrageenan, or the like), or sulfites or other preservatives.

In fact, I just put down the box if there is anything at all in it but simply described real food. As a consequence, the only pre-made food Maya eats with any regularity are the pot-pies from the organic farmer’s market stall, which are made with organic, real ingredients and nothing else.

Sugar

3) Minimizing sugars:

Kids love sugar, and Maya’s no exception. In the presence of sugar, she becomes all misty and rhapsodic, and will even bring up the topic unprompted. But the evidence is strong and growing that we’ve all been lied to, more or less, about sugar. A calorie, it now appears, may not just be a calorie. In fact, a calorie of sugar, rather than merely making us fat if we don’t burn it off, may actually do other kinds of harm in the body. And predictably, high fructose corn syrup is a health disaster.

Sugar belongs on our list of highly processed, refined and nutrient-deprived foods. At a minimum, it takes up room where real food should be. At worst, it does far more harm, including disruptions in brain processing and insulin production that derails health, leading a recent 60 Minutes investigation to ask whether it’s “toxic.” In the face of such suggestive evidence, I would propose, as I usually do, a more precautionary approach.

We do not give Maya sugar on any regular basis. She’s had ice cream or other treats perhaps 5 times in her short life. Her “cookies” have 2 grams of sugar only, and are used sparingly as snacks. I have been known to quietly forget to give her birthday cake at a party when it didn’t seem she would notice or care. I also have looked for alternatives to sugary beginnings for breakfast (20-odd other ideas for toddler breakfasts are here).

We skip sweetened yogurt (we make our own with plain yogurt and unsweetened berry jam); do not do fruit roll-ups or gummy “fruit snacks” or breakfast cereal; and generally endeavor to avoid any kind of pastry, white bread, or refined flour products. (Processed flour, without germ in it, basically converts to sugar when eaten.) We use organic brown rice cakes, oat-based crackers, nuts or fruit instead as snacks.

Unless she’s sick and needs a hit of vitamin C, we also do not generally give her juice, which is very high in sugar and can create a sugar craving. (Needless to say, soda and fruit drinks are completely off the list.)

We do sometimes allow coconut water on very hot days. And Maya does eat some wholegrain bread and occasionally has cous-cous or ravioli (wholewheat when we can find it). But I am skeptical of wheat generally, and look for other whole grains to use in our foods, like brown rice, quinoa or millet. I also will sub in rice flour in place of wheat flour in recipes on an experimental basis.

In general, monitoring sugar around children makes me feel Grinchy. Although I acknowledge that I am really out on a limb here, I really do wish that we would stop framing key events around sugar. Birthday parties, ice cream socials, etc., all put sugar consumption at the center of fun, and kids get the message loud and clear. As it turns out, for children, there is no level of sweet that is too much, and the marketers and candy makers know it. (In fact, when I taste how incredibly super-sweet they’ve made classic candies like M&Ms these days, it makes my teeth hurt.)

The party circuit cake-thing might even be acceptable if it was in fact a rare and special moment to eat sugar. But rather than being saved for a special occasion, today kids eat sugar all the time. As someone who has spent her adult life listening for the siren call of my next sugar fix, I think we will have a lot of work to do to wean the next generation off its highly addicting properties if it actually turns out that the nutritional studies now being done on the serious health risks of sugar are right.

A single week's fruits and vegetables from com...4) Consuming a wide variety of legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds:

Maya eats a small amount of protein at meals, and we try, sometimes repeatedly, to ensure that the real emphasis is on vegetables, fruits and beans.

We’ve had success with: corn, peas, broccoli, avocado, kale, spinach, mangoes, pears, apples, plums, peaches, apricots, berries of all kinds, melons, cherries, grapes, bananas (duh), figs, oranges, kiwi, onion, celery, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, asparagus, sweet pepper, squash, rhubarb (ok, with a little sugar), carrots and beets. I provide this list to show that there are actually a huge number of options in terms of texture, flavor and preparations to try.

While Maya won’t touch some of these things some of the time, she’s been known to eat all of them at one time or another, sometimes smothered in sauce or cheese. (Some thoughts about how to cook these things to appeal to a toddler are here.) When in doubt, making a chicken soup with lots of vegetables is a no-miss proposition.

Dried fruits (organic, unsulphured) are also a hit, including raisins (soften by cooking, as these are a choking hazard), dates, prunes, apricots, etc. Nuts and seeds are also big — we add cashews or almonds to rice, or flax seeds and chia seeds to oatmeal and baked goods (oats, incidentally, are very heart-healthy and have a different and less irritating kind of gluten than wheat).

I am cautious about soy beans, which have weak phytoestrogens in them, and researchers are really uncertain of their effects or safety. We do serve fermented soy, like soy sauce, or tofu (but definitely buy organic, as most soy is GMO). I do like most beans, and buy Eden brand, which uses a safer type of BPA-free lining in its cans. We also like lentils, including toor dal (yellow) and moong dal (green), which are terrific for health and as a medium for cooking vegetables.

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Eating out remains a challenge with these guidelines. Sometimes, I find a salad with avocado, chicken and vegetables, and let Maya pick at that. Ethiopian cuisine, which is common where I live, is also a good option.

There is also a premium on home-cooked food, which is demanding in terms of time. I try to involve Maya when I can, because it’s fun and studies show that kids involved in cooking have better diets.

I also often pack our food from home: at the pool last week, in lieu of ice cream or other poolside fare, Maya and a friend happily munched on cukes and rice cakes, with grapes on the side. Sometimes, we give kids sugar because it’s automatic and easy for us, or even because, really, it’s cuter. (After all, no one ever posts pics on Facebook of their kid eating a cucumber. Awww….)

And I notice that when I slip up and allow her to have sugar, Maya becomes hyperactive and has more difficulty sitting still or falling asleep, so on that one at least, it’s easy to see when things head south.

As I have a sample size of one, I can’t tell you whether Maya’s diet has made a difference in her health or behavior. In general, she’s a happy, calm, focused and healthy little girl. Given the relationship between inputs and outputs, it seems reasonable to think that a generally healthy diet might have something to do with her sunny, easy-going ways. Then again, we might just be lucky and my persnickety gene has skipped a generation.

Overall, though this was far from intentional, the up-shot is that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet, more or less. It just so happens that this has been shown by a study published just last week to be the diet most protective against obesity (among a test of diets that included the Atkins approach, and the traditional low-fat, high-carb diet). I do tentatively feel that if more kids ate this way, we’d likely have far fewer health-related issues with kids, and I’ll post a book review next that bears me out.

I am particular in saying that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet because I am still in thrall to the sugar fairy and am having a hard time kicking that habit when I am away from home or at work. While I don’t eat a lot of sugar by some standards, and long ago stopped drinking sodas, I have to have a little sumpin’, now and then. When you add that to the delicious, nourishing full-fat dairy foods and butter we use at home, it’s not exactly a combo that will make you skinny. A truly low-glycemic diet is the obvious next stop for all of us.

Even today, though, I do eat better, much of the time, thanks in large part to our girl, and how much she made us think about our food.

More resources:

Below are some helpful and interesting links to studies on the impacts of a low-glycemic diet, taken from this Children’s Hospital Website, which notes that they “show different ways that hunger, wellbeing, physical and mental performance are related to low-glycemic diets.”

  1. Effects of dietary composition on energy expenditure during weight-loss maintenance (newly published study)
  2. Breakfast glycemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children.
  3. Glycemic index and glycemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial.
  4. The glycemic potency of breakfast and cognitive function in school children. Long-term effects of provided low- and high-glycemic load low energy diets on mood and cognition.
  5. Effects of differences in postprandial glycemia on cognitive functions in healthy middle-aged subjects.
  6. The influence of the glycemic load of breakfast on the behavior of children in school.
  7. A low glycemic index breakfast cereal preferentially prevents children’s cognitive performance from declining throughout the morning.
  8. Better cognitive performance following a low-glycemic-index compared with a high-glycemic-index carbohydrate meal in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  9. Carbohydrate-induced memory impairment in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  10. The delivery rate of dietary carbohydrates affects cognitive performance in both rats and humans.

Talking to Toddlers: A Eureka Moment

Redheaded child mesmerized.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

In a more-or-less crash course on how to deal with a near-two-year-old, I’ve flipped through a significant number of parenting books full of perky, preachy “dos and don’ts” on talking to toddlers. They typically include tips on how to distract toddlers from a sudden obsession by introducing a different new toy, how to be soothing when an injury occurs (“You’re ok“), or how to structure daily routines in the hopes of minimizing conflict.

And yet I had a gnawing sensation that few of my responses to our daily situations were landing right with Maya. Indeed, it seemed her very set-up, which is all about testing boundaries, was to push relentlessly on all of the serious limitations of this paltry toolbox of tricks. After all, if the corny dialogue in these books failed to hold my interest, how rich are they as a structure for a relationship between a parent and child?

On the other hand, when I actually sat down and read some of the latest fascinating explorations of the infant mind, such as Alison Gopnik‘s The Philosophical Baby, it became clear that, with the research that has become available in only the past decade or so, we now know a lot more about the inner lives of pre-verbal toddlers. We know, for example, that even very young infants connect cause and effect, have rich emotional and imaginative lives, and are more like people in miniature than we guess — meaning that the mix of inauthenticity, expectations for performative little moments (“come give mommy a hug”) and condescension we show them much of the time must grate a little, to say the least.

So imagine my delight when the director of Maya’s new preschool sent around an article about a philosophy of infant and child interaction called Resources in Educare, or RIE, which precisely addressed some of the missing pieces of this puzzle.

RIE, as a school of thought, was popularized in the U.S. by Magda Gerber, an author and teacher who brought a distinct philosophical approach to interactions with infants. One RIE disciple, Janet Lansbury, has a blog called Elevating Child Care that includes many interesting posts that I have since found helpful for dealing with older children.

I’m currently reading Gerber’s book, Your Self-Confident Baby, and while, predictably, I don’t agree with everything in it, there’s a lot to like as well. I’ll be posting a fuller review when I’m finished.

But I don’t want to wait, because right away, I have found her and Lansbury’s analysis of toddler psychology to be revealing and incredibly useful in my conversations with Maya. My instant take-aways to her writing and Lansbury’s thoughtful posts thus far include the following:

  1. It’s preferable to be authentic than falsely cheerful in that “toddler tone.”
  2. Distracting a child who is focused on a task, even a frustrating or inappropriate one, may encourage a lack of sustained attention.
  3. You can usefully (and thankfully!) drop the urge to entertain and allow child-directed play instead. (Given the literature on the importance of relationship-building and engagement, I sometimes feel Gerber takes the “do not teach” imperative a bit too far, but I get her point: parents, including me, play “the expert” all too much and fail to let children just learn for themselves.)
  4. Resist the impulse to always correct a toddler’s verbal mistakes — language acquisition is hard enough without fear of being caught in a mistake!
  5. Don’t say “you’re ok” impulsively whenever there is an injury or perceive hurt — it’s minimizing and mostly serves the interests of the parent, who needs the child to be ok. Instead, ask, “what happened?” first, which is far more respectful, and may actually give you information you may need.
  6. Call out the intention of the child in a conflict and set boundaries clearly instead of just saying “no” loudly and repeatedly, which is the “technique” we had been trying. LOL. (Most exciting is that this actually works, mostly, as you’ll see below — Eureka!)

The overall point is that parents unwittingly and with all good intentions over-ride and blot out children’s own particular intentions, emotions, and useful frustrations in an attempt to make behavior more manageable, acceptable and pleasant. Yet these confrontations with the facts of the world are incredible learning moments.

While we must not ignore the social expectations others will have for toddlers, and we should communicate clearly about boundaries, we also don’t have to let them know “the rules” in a way that dishonors or denies their feelings or motivations.

Cockily, I thought that we were doing pretty well by allowing Maya child-directed play as her main activity, and that we were respectful in our dealings with her. But when I had this “aha” moment, I was actually shocked to reflect upon how much of my dialogue with Maya still revolved around an attempt to conform her behavior through manipulation, often against her obstinate will to do some other thing instead.

In these tiny but powerful struggles, I would tell her “no” to something and witness the internal battle that raged within her, as she struggled to alter her desires to match mine. Mostly, of course, that struggle placed my request for compliance firmly on the losing side. And then had to be reinforced again, more loudly. You can see why this “strategy” was destined for failure.

But the other night, at the pool, with RIE in my pocket, things were different. The stage for an epic battle was set when Maya wandered 10 or so feet away from me close to some large steps leading up a hill, and I was still in the water. It was the ultimate test — could I control her with my voice alone?

I summoned my calmest, most determined voice, and tried the RIE approach, saying clearly, “Maya, I can see you want to go up the stairs [naming her intention]. But you may not go up the stairs because I am still in the pool, and you may not go up the stairs without me. That is the rule. [naming the rule and reason]. Please walk back to me.”

A woman was standing nearby, and I would swear that when these words came out of my mouth she looked over at Maya and shook her head, ever so slightly. Yeah, right, lady, I could almost see her thinking, that’ll work.

But here’s the thing that truly shocked me: it did!

Maya gave out an involuntary little squeal like a angry pterodactyl, balled and unballed her fists, then turned and walked back to me. By the time she got back, she was actually smiling. (I may have, though I can’t really be sure, shot the lady a brief, smug look as Maya was heading back my way.)

I’ve since tried this approach at other times, and I would have to say that even when it doesn’t work perfectly, it’s still far better than the former tactic of escalating “no’s” or even, threatened consequences, Supernanny style. It feels more respectful, recognizes Maya’s intentions and desires, and forces me to articulate our roles and whatever principle may be stake. As a geek and lawyer, I can’t help but think of it as basic due process for children.

As this implies, when Maya is fully verbal, I may need new tools to avoid her lawyering everything to death. But for now, I would say, I’ve finally stumbled across a set of working guidelines that serve our family interactions far better than our former muddling-through.

I hope these few insights are useful to you as well, and I would encourage anyone working through similar issues to check out RIE and Lansbury’s site. If you have techniques you like, please do share as well.