Throughout October we chatted about sustainability and our kids…. How to foster eco-conscious children, how and why we need to get our kids playing outside more, how to nurture a love of science in our children…. And even how to be a happier mama.
I’ve received so much feedback on how so many of you loved these features and wanted to hear more, so I’ve decided to continue the discussion around kids and health and the environment into November….
Today I’m joined by Belinda Smith of The Root Cause to hear how we hear how we can empower our kids to make better food choices. Bel is a health and wellness coach and is one super-passionate mum on a mission to transform children’s health, one lunchbox at a time.
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Bel’s message is a simple and very important one and it’s also so very timely.
The long-term health prospects of Australian children are a real concern. 27.4% of our children in Australian between 5 & 17 are now overweight or obese. Of these children, 80% will go onto become overweight or obese adults.
This stat alone is not the only concern. Chronic illness is now on the increase. Diabetes type 2, once an adult onset illness, is now occurring in our children, and Australia has one of the highest allergy rates in the world.
Together with her husband and their two children, Bel travels Australia in their big green bus Kaley, running fun and interactive workshops for children and parents about making better food choices. We were so lucky to have Bel and Israel park their bus opposite our home in Roxby Downs for four nights a week or so ago and we couldn’t help but seize the opportunity to record this late-night chat.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and what set you on this path?
Firstly, my most important job in life is being a mum to my two children; my ten-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. I’m also a health coach and I am a mum on a mission to transform children’s health in Australia.
This started about six years ago, after our son was born. My husband was diagnosed with post-natal depression, and rather than go straight down the path of medication we decided that we would look at the way we were living our life.
Back then I was just an everyday mum who had Maggi packets in her cupboard, and added water to things thinking that it was a meal. I still cooked but it was largely from packets. We discovered a massive linkage between the food we were eating and his mood.
That set us on the path of changing the way we were eating. Then we noticed a massive difference in our daughter. She was five and we would say she was beautiful one minute and psychotic the next. After about two months of removing gluten from our diets, not only was my husband walking around saying “I feel like a fog has been lifted”, but our daughter mellowed out. She stopped having those big highs and lows.
That peaked my interest in wholefoods and I started studying to be a health coach. Within about a year, my daughter started getting teased a lot at school about her lunchboxes being packet-free. Her teacher suggested that I come in and talk to the kids about a healthy lunchbox. I thought “how am I going to get thirty kids listen to me talk about fruit and vegetables?”
I created some quirky experiments and I called it the Mad Food Science program. Basically, overnight I had parents contacting me saying “my son’s going through our pantry telling me I have to find better choices.”
The school got me back in and I did the program for the whole school, then another school, and another school. We had already spoken about travelling Australia as one of our ways of getting out of the Sydney madness which was contributing to Israel’s depression. I said to him one night “if we’re going to do this, let’s see if we can make a difference to other people’s lives with the information that we’ve learnt.”
We didn’t get this information from doctors, or the psychiatrist, or the psychologist. I was just an everyday mum with access to the internet and I was prepared to try things and observe what happened in the family. That was all it was.
Now we travel around and we share our Mad Food Science program, but we also just let everyone know that you can do this yourself, it’s quite simple.
What are the biggest barriers in getting our kids to eat real foods?
There are lots of studies that show that as parents we are confused about what is healthy. Even if you go into the health food aisle in the supermarket, a clear majority of those products aren’t actually healthy at all. They don’t do anything to help our children’s bodies or our own.
That’s number one; what is healthy?
The second barrier is time. People think that packing a healthy lunchbox takes time and it’s more convenient to take a packet out of the cupboard and throw it in the lunchbox.
Another barrier is stress. You know in the morning when you’re trying to pack lunchboxes, feed the kids breakfast and get them into their school uniforms, plus trying to get yourself dressed too. There is a lot going on in the morning.
Then we have the issue of our children don’t eat this or that or they’re fussy eaters, and you want to send them to school with a lunchbox full of things that you know they will eat.
These things combined are the barriers to packing a healthy lunchbox.
The reality is that there are easy ways to work out what is healthy. Just understanding what is in the food that you’re packing is a start.
In terms of time and stress, a lot of that comes down to planning and preparation. I have an e-course that helps busy parents pack healthy lunchboxes in about five minutes. Myself, I pack our four lunchboxes in five minutes every day.
Be bold enough to resist temptation. Just don’t have things in the house that you don’t want to be eating, because then you can’t put it in the lunchbox. That’s a big but easy step.
Getting your children used to seeing real food happens at home before you do your lunchboxes. I always say “never put anything in a lunchbox that you haven’t had at home and that you know your children are going to eat.” Because you certainly don’t want them to go to school with a lunchbox that isn’t going to get eaten.
All these barriers are easily addressed but we’ve lost the art because we’ve been marketed so brilliantly on why we need these convenient packaged foods.
Tell us about the Mad Food Science program.
It’s fun and interactive. It’s all the same message but I change the delivery style depending upon that age group that is attending. When I run a family event we have both parents and children, ranging in age from 4 to 13. I try to get each of the different age groups involved.
We explore complex health messages, but I deliver them in a simple way. We discuss how your body is like a car; it’s made up of lots of parts. We talk about what happens if you don’t put the right amount of fuel in there or don’t put enough fuel in there.
Once we’ve done that, we talk about how their body is different from everyone else’s. This is important and you can see the light bulbs ‘come on’. This is telling them that they’re the only person who knows how their body is truly feeling. Getting them to realise that that they have this one body for life and how important their role is in helping you, the parent, take care of that body.
We talk about the rainbow of fruits and vegetables and how all the different colours can do different things to their body. We do some taste-testing and I make them a green smoothie.
We do many other experiments. I wear a lab coat and goggles to get a message across that a lot of the other food that we see in the supermarket begins in a chemistry lab, and then is made by machines in a factory.
We do an experiment trying to crush processed food compared to real food. They can visibly see how processed food is negligible; it does nothing to fill up their body compared to something like an apple. That’s a fun experiment that simply gets the message across that they don’t get much value out of that processed food, which I call ‘pretend food’.
I tell them that the biggest gift I can give them is to teach them how to read a packet label. In a family event, I sit on the floor with the parents and the children and I give them a whole range of packets labels to read. They start to grasp just how many ingredients are going into these packets, compared to a real food. We also look at sugar content and that helps them to understand that these foods aren’t good for their body.
It’s quite fun seeing them go through the different transitions because there’s a range of other little experiments but these are the key ones where you can see those light-bulb moments. I have a fantastic national partner in Worldwide Printing Solutions and they make sure every single child gets a hand out. This includes three other experiments that they can do at home with their parents to continue the conversation. When it is part of a school program I also provide three months’ worth of weekly tips to go home.
What are some tips for transforming children’s lunchboxes?
Focus on what you know they like already in terms of real food. Don’t get hung up on the things that they won’t eat. You can start them getting used to a wider variety at home by having plates in the middle of your table at dinner time.
Secondly, packet food looks bright, shiny, and colourful so we need to match the lunchbox with bright, colourful real foods. I always try to have two vegetables of contrasting colours. Do same with fruit, give them two different kinds of fruit cut in half. Also, cutting things differently e.g. carrot sticks with cucumber rounds, so visually it looks different and it’s more exciting for them.
If you’ve got the issue where your children want the same packaged snacks as others, try to find something that mirrors what it is that they are complaining about. Find a recipe that can create something similar, that is additive and preservative free because you’ve controlled it in your own home and maybe has less sugar. Just make sure that they don’t feel like they’re missing out.
In terms of their main lunch it’s important to have a protein source in there. A lot of our lunches are carbohydrate heavy. A sandwich converts reasonably quickly in sugars which send the blood sugar levels up and down. You need to balance it out with something that keeps their tummies full and helps their brain function. Good quality protein and fats are important.
The reason why lunchboxes became my focus was because that was the impetus for me to develop the Mad Food Science Program; because my daughter was being teased for her lunchboxes. When you’re in the school environment, what your peers say has such a big bearing. That started to affect her behaviour at home and she was coming back with a lunchbox still full of food.
Lunchboxes are significant for all of us because 40% of a child’s weekly food intake Monday – Friday comes from their lunchbox. That lunchbox is supposed to be enough to nourish their bodies and their brains so that they can sit and concentrate in class, and go on to be the best that they can be.
We all want our children to have the opportunity to do whatever it is that they want. But the reality is that a lot of lunchboxes at schools just aren’t making the mark. We have become so reliant upon the marketing messages and convenient foods. As parents, you don’t have time and it makes life easier to put a packet in a lunchbox. That’s no one’s fault, it’s happened since the 70s when we had three thousand packets on the supermarket shelf, today we have eighty thousand. Plus 80% have added sugar in them.
We’ve all started to become accustomed to those extra flavourings. It’s happened while a lot of households have both parents going to work or even single parents, so the explosion of convenience foods has been marketed so well at a time where we’ve become time poor and need it. These foods have crept into our days without us even realising it.
But it’s affecting children’s behaviour in class. If you talk to a teacher, they will tell you that they spend a clear majority of time managing behaviour rather than educating. That’s why our lunchbox food is so important, we need to be packing foods that nourish their bodies and minds.
Where can our listeners today find you online?
I write an education blog which is usually based on a question that has come up in my workshops or classes either from the children themselves or from the parents. This year alone we’ve covered topics around breakfast cereals, snacks, and portion sizes. There is a whole range of topics and when you join the free online community you can get access to all this and more.
My e-course The 5 Minute Healthy Lunchbox System includes menu plans and shopping lists and over 140 different recipes including options for sandwiches, non-sandwiches, and vegetarian meals. You receive lifetime access; I understand that we are all busy and sometimes we fall off the wagon and need to restart again.
If you want me to come to your school or town to help empower your children, on the website there is a section about our Australian tour and all the areas we come to. We’ve already been along the east coast of Australia and now we are making our way through South Australia and Western Australia and the top end of the Northern Territory throughout the end of 2016 and into 2017. We do have a few stops on the way back down the coast in Queensland through to Victoria and back to New South Wales at the end of next year. So, jump on our website and fill in the form to let us if you’d like us to come to your area.
Help empower your children so they can start making better health choices for themselves and bring you along for the ride.