ARE PALEO KIDS BETTER EATERS?

According to my non-scientific “anecdata” from a statistically-insignificant sample of a self-selecting population, the answer is yes :). Okay, so I really can’t answer the question, but I’d like to reflect on some of the reasons why kids who are following a Paleo (or Primal, or similar) diet might be perceived — especially by their parents 😉 — to be better eaters than other children.

First, what defines a “good” eater? I believe most parents, when evaluating their child’s eating as good or bad, are referring to the following three measures:

1. The quantity of food eaten at each meal;
2. The variety of foods a child will eat; and
3. The perceived healthiness of foods eaten (e.g. lots of vegetables, few or no sweets).

When I hear parents expressing concerns about picky or poor eaters, they are usually worried that:

1. Their child does not eat enough;
2. Their child eats only a limited number of foods (usually the “beige” foods); and/or
3. Their child won’t eat vegetables.

Quantity of Food

From my  experience with Oliver, and from what I hear from other parents who are following a mostly Paleo/Primal approach, these kids eat absolutely vast quantities of food. I was cautioned to expect a sharp reduction in appetite after his first birthday, but if anything, Oliver eats even more food now than he did back then. He eats so much that it often takes him twice as long to finish his meal as it does J and me! Today, for example, 16-month-old Oliver consumed:

– breast milk (2 nursing sessions: 24 minutes and 9 minutes)
– 3 eggs fried in 1 tablespoon of butter
– 1 medium apple
– 20 raspberries
– 3 cherry tomatoes
– 1 medium avocado
– 1 large banana
– 3 small chicken thighs
– half of a large carrot
– a small head of broccoli
– 2 tablespoons of 11% fat Greek yoghurt

It’s completely counter-intuitive. I always assumed that Oliver would eat less food than his peers, since the food he eats tends to be much more dense and filling than the typical toddler fare of Goldfish crackers and pasta. I thought Oliver was an outlier with his eating habits, until I started hearing the same thing, time after time, from other Paleo/Primal parents.

What could explain this phenomenon? I believe there are two factors at play: snacking and milk.

Toddlers nowadays — at least where I live — snack constantly. I’m amazed at how rare it is to see a child in a stroller without a snack tray full of Goldfish, Cheerios or animal crackers. They snack during play groups, while running around at the park, and even in the car. It seems that nary a minute of awake time goes by where toddlers don’t have unfettered access to some sort of food and drink.

Children who are eating Paleo, on the other hand, are less likely to be snacking all day long for the simple fact that Paleo snacks take forethought and work to prepare. There are very few Paleo-compliant packaged foods, so snacks for Paleo toddlers have to be washed or cooked, chopped, and packaged into food containers. They can’t be stored conveniently and indefinitely in the diaper bag or car, like a canister of Gerber Puffs or a baggie of cereal.

If we are going to be away from home during a designated snack (or meal) time, I will prepare and pack food for Oliver. Otherwise, as a general rule, I don’t carry snacks with me. Oliver has learned not to expect food handouts at the first sign of hunger or fussiness, and I have learned some more creative ways to appease him when he’s cranky.

So I don’t think it’s as much a case that conventionally-fed children are actually eating less overall, as it is that they eat less at mealtimes because they’re not as hungry. They are perhaps also eating less of what their parents want them to eat. When parents observe that their children “don’t eat much,” they may be forgetting to account for all the calories consumed between meals.

Health Canada and the Canadian Pediatric Society recommend that children aged 12 months through five years drink two cups (16 ounces) of 3.25 % fat milk per day. Many toddlers, however, drink much more than this. Aside from being strongly correlated with childhood iron-deficiency anemia, consuming too much milk causes children to eat less food, simply because they become full from the liquid calories. The same could be said for excessive breastfeeding at this age; however, you don’t generally see toddlers breastfeeding all day long, whereas it’s quite common for them to have constant access to a sippy cup or bottle of milk.

Since milk is not part of the Paleo diet, more calories need to be obtained from food — especially for those toddlers who are no longer breastfeeding on a regular basis.

Variety of Foods

Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters, and can be very single-minded. Once they’ve jumped on the “beige foods” bandwagon — bread, crackers, cereal, rice, pasta, bananas, breaded chicken, etc. — it can be incredibly difficult to get them to eat anything else. These foods are thought to have brain-altering, addictive properties! Since most beige foods are not Paleo compliant, Paleo-eating toddlers never really have the chance to develop a love for or addiction to these foods, and are therefore much more open to experiencing a variety of foods.

Healthiness of Foods

The Paleo Diet, in a nutshell, consists of meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. By default, even the pickiest of Paleo toddlers will still be eating a diet of fresh, healthy, unprocessed foods, since they don’t have the option to get hooked on junk food. Some parents marvel at how I “get” Oliver to eat so many different fruits and vegetables, and so much meat, but the reality is he’s never known anything different. Toddlers like what they know, so these are the foods that are interesting and appealing to him. The other day, I was lamenting the fact that I think Oliver eats too much banana, apple and avocado — sometimes to the exclusion of other foods. Another mother put things in perspective when she responded, “I wish that was the worst of my kid’s eating problems.”

Oliver, age 10 months, enthusiastically chowing down on a banana, scrambled eggs and avocado.

Oliver, age 10 months, enthusiastically chowing down on a banana, scrambled eggs and avocado.

Do you feed your child a Paleo (or other special) diet, or a more conventional diet? How would you rate your child’s eating habits?

12 responses to “ARE PALEO KIDS BETTER EATERS?

  1. I guess I agree with you to a degree. My son is a very good eater and LOVES vegetables, but we did not (and still do not at 3years of age) feed him with a paleo diet. We did (and still do) however eat very “healthy” in our home. He was never offered macaroni and cheese or chicken fingers as an option when he was small because I saw very limited nutritional value in them. We eat a lot of steamed vegetables in our home and so our son has watched us eat them (and had them on his plate) since he started eating solids. He has always wanted to eat what we are eating and we eat a lot of broccoli and chicken breast so he does the same. Rice or pasta or bread or potatoes or quinoa are not the basis for meals in our house, they are a side dish for meals. For that reason he has only ever received a small portion of those things on his plate. Even when we have “spaghetti” he hurts a small amount of noodles and a large amount of sauce. He has never had the option of only eating noodles for dinner and so doesn’t even consider it. As for snacks, my son lives them as much as the next kid. Ive never been one to resort to them as entertainment though. Goldfish and any kind of cookies have always been considered a treat and the “go to” take out snacks have always been fruit, yogurt and cheese in our house. It might take a minute more to package some of it to go, but again, I consider nutrition when thinking about what to feed my kid. Now that he is older he asks for the things he’s used to which makes life a lot easier for me as well. He WANTS plain yogurt with frozen blueberries and specifically requests it even when he knows there is sweetened flavoured yogurt in the fridge (for my husband).

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that although I do believe that a paleo lifestyle is a healthy one (I am a crossfitter so the concept has been drilled into me) I don’t see it as the only way to get your child to eat well. It just takes some consideration of the nutritional value of food before you even think to offer that food to your child as well as modeling of good eating habits. So I definitely agree with the lack of junk food as an option concept. Only very recently has my son discovered “crap” food because he is old enough now to see it at parties etc and be curious about it. It’s still not an option at home, so it’s not something he requests from us. I also agree with the milk idea. Although my son at age three does drink a lot of cows milk he didn’t really drink it much until he was close to two years. He nursed until he was three and he ate 1/2 cup of yogurt and a serving of cheese every day at lunch (at daycare) so I didn’t see the need in offering him other milk to drink. Now that he has it he loves it, but it doesn’t stop him from eating his meals. We don’t give him more than 1/2 cup at a time (unless in a restaurant) and he had water only as a drink for a long time so he still has occasion to ask specifically for water because that habit was already formed. Juice is a treat reserved for juice boxes at birthday parties (and I think sometimes snack at preschool) but its not an option at home either.

    I also have witnessed my girlfriend’s EBF 9 month old (at the time) spit out every bit of solid food that made it to her mouth, with vegetables being a serious struggle. To some extent I think that some kids are picky from the start no matter what and the effort involved in getting them to “eat well” is much greater. Perhaps if my girlfriend had never eventually introduced “beige food” or “junk food” as an option her child would have eventually eaten the good stuff, but I know that my friend introduced those foods out of desperation to get her child the eat SOMETHING because her child wouldn’t eat anything already being offered.

    I do think it’s terrible that restaurants in general offer only crap on their kids menus. It especially pisses me off now that my son is old enough to want his menu and to pick from the pictures what he wants. Fortunately he stears clear of the noodles/chicken fingers options and is more likely to order a hamburger where he often eats all the “meat” and only part of the bun. He also will only pick at French fries as a side but will eat every single steamed veggie on his plate. I curse the servers that offer fries because he will agree to fries and when we say bring veggies instead he gets upset (even though he likes them better).

    I’ll stop now :).

  2. Well said. I have no idea myself how true the “paleo kids eat better” thing is as mine is only 7 months old right now. I will say he eats a great variety of foods already. The part I can most agree with is that paleo children and sometimes non-paleo children as well eat meals since, like you said, snacking isn’t as easy. My son eats 4 times a day and has since he was only 3 1/2 months old. I love that he has a feeding schedule. This way every time he is upset I don’t just assume he is hungry and feed him. Food is for nutrition and not a way calm ourselves. I have always felt it necessary to teach my children to eat for nutrition not because they are upset or bored. In general we do not feed him in the car, stroller, etc. He is almost always in his high chair and it is almost always meal time. If he is hungry a little early sometimes we of course feed him but at the end of the day he still only ends up eating 4 times and never shows a need for more. He is only in the 29th percentile for weight but that’s because he’s only in the 9th for height so clearly developing right on track. We plan to continue this as he gets older. His favorites right now are steak and apple slices! So many people have so many opinions about food and feeding. I think it is a huge disservice to our children to feed them, usually less than ideal foods, all day long. Thanks for having the courage to keep all of us in check!

  3. My son is 14 months old and he LOVE fruits, most veggies, eggs, and nuts. We do give him some cheese and yogurt here an there but it’s not every day. Snacks are frozen peas, fruit or high protein muffins that I make. My question is: how do I get him to eat more meat? I can put some in an omelet and he will chow down on it but he rarely eats shredded or chopped meat on it’s own (but he will snack on dried venison – go figure!)

    • Perhaps he just finds meat dry or boring on its own? Maybe try adding tomato sauce, gravy, butter and salt, yoghurt or mashed avocado and see if that helps. It could also be the type of meat, or the texture/toughness. Does he like chicken thigh meat? That’s always been a huge hit with Oliver, I think in part because it’s so soft and moist. I’d say don’t stress too much (they can smell our insecurities, lol), and just keep offering it whenever you can. He might come around to it more as he gets older and has more skill with chewing.

      • He does prefer chicken thigh meat over chicken breasts so I’ve been cooking more of that but it’s still hit or miss. I think when he gets more of his molars in he’ll do better with it so I guess I’ll keep disguising the meat with other things for the time being.

  4. I definitely agree with you on this one. For the first two years of her life, our now three year old daughter, has eaten a Paleo diet. But this last year, starting in January 12, when I found out I was pregnant that changed a bit. Pregnancy did a number on my paleo meal planning, prep and therefore our families diet suffered. I was nauseous and tired all the time in the first trimester, so I started buying easy snacks (goldfish, fruit snacks etc) and making quick dinners (pasta, mac and cheese etc). Even though the nausea went away (the tiredness never really does ha!) Our eating habits stayed the same. In the past 9-10 months I’ve noticed a drop in my daughters appetite during meals: she stopped eating two eggs in the morning for breakfast, became super picky at lunch and at dinner. She still eats a wide variety of foods, but just not the quantity she had been eating (due to the snacking). I need to make a commitment to break that habit, because she is filling up on empty calories. Thanks for this post! Reminded me of what my daughter used to eat like and makes me want to get us all back on track!

    • Thanks for sharing this! It’s really interesting to hear from someone who can actually compare the outcomes of two different dietary approaches in the same child. I suspect you won’t have too much trouble getting your daughter back on the bandwagon. She’s still young, and she had a great start 🙂

  5. I am currently working at a restaurant that serves steak as a kids meal! Weehee!
    We aren’t Paleo, but I feed my 7 month old whole foods only (including some grains). He has a baby sitter who will sometimes give him what they have (pretty typical American foods), so I have started sending prepared foods with him so it doesn’t come up.
    Fortunately I also have most of the control over what my son eats, so I try not to stress to much. He loves broccoli and seems to think that carrots are in fact dessert. He will eat any fruit I set in front of him, and tries to claw his way out of the booster when he sees me bringing him steak. He reacts to new foods or cold things, but after a bite or two he has adjusted.
    From what I see from other parents I think it is pretty common for them to project their food preferences onto the child. If they don’t like tomatoes and the first bite the kid has they make a funny face or spit it out, they just assume they won’t eat it and don’t try again. Little man reacted to tart black berries the first time I gave them to him and didn’t eat them, but the second time he ate them without a twitch. His grandma was over for the first round and got mad at me for giving him something tart. To bad she wasn’t here the last time to see him devour it =)

    • Yes, exactly! So often kids are just *reacting* to a new flavour, texture, temperature, and their reaction is no reflection of whether they actually like or dislike it. The first time we gave Oliver beef curry, he shuddered and made a face every time he put a piece of meat in his mouth. We thought maybe it was too spicy for him, or that he didn’t like the flavour, but he kept going back for more 🙂

  6. Pingback: A couple of interesting posts on kids, eating, and beige foods | Primal in the 'Peg·

  7. As a mom of four, I definitely agree to most of this! We switched to a Paleo lifestyle over 2 years ago (my older child was 5) and I have seen a dramatic increase in my children’s’ appetites (and love of food in
    general). I do however give my kids lots of snacks still…Larabars are a wonderful thing! For more ideas check out http://busypaleomom.com/feeding-kids-paleo/
    Thanks for all the great idea!

  8. I admit that my daughter has been on a ‘paleo/primal’ diet ever since we started her on solids. She’s now almost 2 and eats a far greater variety than when her 7 other cousins were at her age.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to snacking and too much liquid calories. I have found however that whenever my daughter is having a growth spurt she goes for nutrient dense foods more than ‘beige’ foods and up until very recently she ate much like Oliver. Teething also played a huge factor in her interest in food also and at times seemed to alter her taste and texture preferences.

    Now that she’s 23 months her interest in food has reduced and changed so significantly, cos for a few months there she was easily eating me out of house and home. Now I have to cut out more empty calories, specifically yoghurt so that she will eat a proper meal. I do note a bit of pickiness these days also even with no snacking. Another thing I do is if she asks for a beige food in between meals I offer her real food and if she says no then she’s not really hungry and we wait until meal time.

    The thing about feeding kids for me is trusting they know what their bodies need. Of course we still need to guide and most importantly display the right example to them, but nine times out of ten, my daughter helps herself to eat right, and then I feel i can give her a beige treat like once a month, and it’s a real treat and surprise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s