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Paleo: Is It Right For Kids?

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020

I get a lot of emails from my readers and I absolutely love hearing from you all. I hear everything: easy questions, tough questions, success stories, how-to questions. Your questions press me to dig deeper, think harder, and do better. Your success stories inspire me and lift me up when I think I’d rather cave in and eat that Oreo.

One of the questions I hear the most is this:

“”I recently started paleo and love it, but should I switch my kids to this lifestyle too?”

I would like to answer this question with a resounding “YES, yes, please yes!

** Before I go any further, I would like to add a little disclaimer, an explanation on our parenting style. My husband and I give our children responsibilities. They have to clean up their own messes, fold their own clothes, do their own chores, and eat the food we give them. They do not get special meals if they don’t like what the grown ups are eating. To some that may sound harsh, to others it may sound normal. There is no right or wrong way to parent and I am not here to judge and I would hope you do not judge me. This is how we parent and it affects how we feed our children. While some of the information in this post might not appeal to (or even work for) you and your family situation, it works for us, and I am just sharing my opinions on the topic. **

WHY should my kids eat paleo?

Let’s start with why you switched your eating habits and are now consuming more plant- and animal-based foods and cutting out the grains, sugars, and processed items that pass as foods. I’m guessing you’re making this change for your health, for your mind, and probably a bit for your looks.

You realized that you started feeling better: slept more soundly, had more energy, clothes fit better, not sick as often. The list goes on, you get the point. You may have even tried to convince your significant other to join you in your new food venture (although the success rate on this varies).

So the natural next attempt is to get the kids on board. But should you?

Think back to how hard it was for you at the beginning of your paleo journey. You fought and struggled and failed and succeeded and tripped and got back up. It wasn’t easy. It’s probably still not easy. Now imagine that you started this paleo thing back when you were 4- or 5-years-old. Think about how easy this would all be for you right now. Think about how grateful you would be to your parents for teaching you healthy habits at a young age that shaped you into the balanced, healthy person you are today.

It’s a common misconception that so long as you’re active or going to the gym on a regular basis, you can slack a little on your diet. That is 100% not the case. You can’t outrun bad eating habits. Your diet is what will sustain your health, although you really should incorporate an active lifestyle as well for optimal results. As a husband and wife that do CrossFit, we feel that being active is just as important as following a healthy diet, but we have seen firsthand the difference between working out and eating junk vs. working out and eating healthy. Trust me on this one.

Honestly, that’s only part of the “why” in this equation as far as I’m concerned. It’s so important to give kids the resources they need to have healthy habits into adulthood. Now I’m going to speak on my own personal experience.

Kids are hyper. Have you noticed? They are insane little creatures that suck the life out of everything around them. Luckily, they are cute so they’re easy to forgive. Let’s take this kid for example. This is Russell, my middle child. My almost 7-year-old boy. My only boy. This kid has an insane amount of energy. He eats all day long. His first few months in Kindergarten were somewhat difficult for our family. He spent a good amount of time in the principal’s office for acting out. It’s not that he’s a bad kid, but he had a really hard time controlling his actions when he got too excited or upset. He would throw toys or pencils, grab classmates’ arms, throw the dodgeball too hard. You get the picture.

We decided to take him out of school and wait another year. During that time, I struggled with how to help this sweet boy control his busy body with his overactive mind. I didn’t want him thinking he was a bad kid, because I just knew he wasn’t. I had read about people cutting artificial colors out of their kids’ diets and the miracles it seemed to work. After lots of study and research, our family decided to take the paleo plunge. That was over 1-1/2 years ago. When Russell went back to school last year, all of the teachers and faculty told me he was like a different kid. He sat still, listened to (and followed) instructions, controlled his “sillies”, stayed on task, and kept his hands to himself.

What was our secret? What did we do? A simple change of diet was all it took to turn my boy around. No more Goldfish, PB&J’s, cookies, crackers, fruit snacks, milk, and spaghetti. Instead, he ate carrots, salad, real fruit, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, water, and grilled chicken thighs. And he loved all that food. Especially the Brussels sprouts.

This is just one kid’s story, but let me ask you this:

If paleo is good enough for you, shouldn’t it be good enough for your children?

I am not one to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. It breaks my heart when I see parents being so cautious about the food that they put into their own bodies, all the while poisoning their children with processed foods just to “keep the peace”. Risking a child’s health is not worth a few moments of peace that a handful of Goldfish might achieve. A handful of grapes can have the same effect and is infinitely better for your child’s health in both the short and long run.

Okay, I understand why, HOW do I get my kids to eat paleo?

Ooh, now isn’t that the million dollar question. Most kids see green and run in fear, right? We’re all led to believe that we have to bribe our children to eat their veggies with the promise of a sweet treat after dinner. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret:

Children do not inherently hate vegetables.

I know, how can that be?! This is how: we (their parents) are the ones that train our children to avoid the veggies and crave the sweets. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but let me explain.

We’ve all seen that hilarious face of our little baby taking their first bite of pureed green peas. And then the subsequent splatter of peas on the wall. We think “wow, my kid must hate veggies” and we move on to bananas, sweet potatoes, or applesauce, sweeter foods that are sure to make our baby happy. Sure, they’ll eat the green foods every now and then, but we often have to mix them in with something sweet to trick them into actually eating it.

Then our babies turn 1. Oh the joy of the cake smash and the frosting all over everything. At the tender age of one, we shove a heaping pile of wheat, sugar, dairy, and artificial colors in their face and say “have at it, kid!”. And then we wonder why they reach for the jar of cookies instead of the plate of veggies.

If you’re one of the lucky ones that has yet to handle your child’s food intake in this manner, congratulations! Life just got a little easier for you. Just start them off on a grain-, sugar-, dairy-free diet void of all processed food with artificial flavors/colors/preservatives and you have already jumped a huge hurtle.

However, if you’re like me (yup, those are my 3 cake-covered kiddos in the picture above) and didn’t set healthy habits for you children in their younger years, the battle will be a little more difficult, but not impossible. The process will vary depending on the child: some will handle a cold-turkey switch with no problem while others may need a longer weening period. It’s something you have to test out and only you will know what’s best for your child.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Replace their favorite foods with healthy alternatives. Check my Snacks and Treats recipes for sweet replacements or use fruit for snacks. In the beginning, make grain-free bread so they can still enjoy a sandwich. Eventually, remove sandwiches from the menu altogether. We went cold turkey with bread and it only took about 3 days for my kids to get over it.
  • Stop using food as a reward, especially sweet food. Use activities as a reward instead. This will also help to increase their activity level, which should go hand-in-hand with healthy diet changes.
  • Add in a new food at each meal. Make a deal that they have to try at least one bite before declaring the food inedible. They will almost always be pleasantly surprised and finish it.
  • Don’t force something they are adamant against eating. This can cause them to rebel against food change. If you test the waters and things don’t go so great, slow down the pace a bit and revisit that particular food at a later time.
  • Set the example. If they see that you won’t eat Brussels sprouts, why should they? If they see you eating healthy foods, they will be more apt to give them a try.
  • Don’t make special meals for your children. This is a big one. You are not a short-order cook. Cook one dinner for everyone in the family. That is all they get. If they don’t eat, they don’t eat. I promise, your kids will not starve. But preparing a separate meal to appease them will not help in your efforts. In the beginning, you may need to make some minor compromises, but eventually, everyone should be eating the same food. This will make life way easier for the cook in the family as well.
  • Talk to your children. If you don’t let them know what’s going on, they’re likely to be resistant. Have frequent conversations with them about why this is happening and why it’s important. Our kids were interested in the science behind it and enjoyed watching a few documentaries with us. If your children are old enough, maybe get into some deeper conversations with them to help them understand the science behind the diet. We really liked The Perfect Human Diet and I would highly recommend you watch it.

It sounds good enough, now what?

I’d like to offer a challenge to get you started. It might sound scary, but if you think your child(ren) can handle it, I’d highly recommend you do this. Ready?

For ONE month: eliminate vegetable oils, grains, sugars, dairy, artificial colors/flavors, preservatives, and processed foods.

Whoa. I know. But don’t worry, you can do this. I did this. Our family went cold turkey. All 5 of us. At the time, my kids were 7, 5, and 2. They handled it like champs. We ran out of bread and milk one day and I never bought them again. We started filling our grocery cart halfway in the produce department before we even got to the center aisles (which we rarely even walk down). The change has been phenomenal and eye-opening.

You can do this. You need to do this. Your children will thank you for this (although it might not be right away). And if you do this, I want to hear all about it. Email me, post on my Facebook page, Tweet me, leave a comment below. Let me know how things are going or share your tips on what works for your family.

Do this for your children, they deserve it.


Kids’ Paleo Lunch Ideas

Real-Life Success Stories

A Complete 180

I am one of those parents of whom you refer to as being ever so cautious about what I was eating (Paleo), but I continued giving my 4 yr old son sprouted grains (thinking they were a “healthy” alternative and that every kid is fine with a sandwich). His lunchbox included all natural and organic items but those things still contained grains. My son was hitting all his so-called milestones, but I’d watch him with other children and something just seemed off to me. Friends and family said I worried too much, but I knew. My story is too long to get into, but in December I started working with my trainer’s mom…a big Paleo advocate and my Paleo “guru.” She knew the challenges we were having with my son’s health, and she said, “Make your son Paleo for 3 weeks, see what happens, or I don’t want to hear any more about it.” So, in March of this year I made him a Paleo kid. The Saturday night high fevers we had been struggling with and told, “oh it’s just a virus”…GONE!. The cradle cap we’ve battled since birth…GONE! His speech…took off within 10 days of eliminating grain! His preschool teacher was waiting for me the second week of his new diet, and she wanted me to write down everything we were doing at home, because suddenly my little guy was sitting still and asking to write his name by himself…communication, fine motor, overall behavior, drastically changed within 10 days. She had never seen such improved behavior in such a short time. But, the comment that really got me was this, “Angela, I look in his eyes and there is a clarity there that hasn’t been there. It’s like a fog has been lifted.” Wow. Really? (After reading the effects of grain on the brain, I know I was unintentionally drugging my child with Ezekiel bread and Annie’s Organics.) Accidents happen…he had Cheerios one morning while visiting family, 101 fever within an hour and became very lethargic. Ice cream at school resulted in hives and a fever. My husband wasn’t totally on board with making my son Paleo, and he gave him a chocolate chip cookie. Our son got sick and broke out in hives. We recently had his annual “well-child” visit, and the pediatrician actually said, “well, from his blood work it looks like that multi-vitamin is working.” I never put my son on a multi-vitamin. And, I did let the doctor know that I eliminated grain and dairy and stepped up the fruits and veggies, and I think that is why his blood work looked so good. Nutrients are now able to be absorbed, instead of being depleted by grain/dairy. As you know, making “Paleo kids” is a lifestyle change. Sundays are prep-days. Birthday parties, pre-school activities do take some planning. I want him to have fun and be a kid, and I do send him with home-made treats, but they are grain-free.


A Family Affair

My 2 children (who were 4 and 7 at the time) were constantly dealing with allergies that would cause them to be severely sick once a month-for a week straight. They even were using inhalers to help fight the coughing. They also suffered from eczema. I had read an article that mention a documentary called Hungry For Change. I watched it. Then I watched it again. We immediately switched to an Organic Lifestyle (still eating wheat and dairy). After 6 months we were all feeling much better but the girls where still suffering – just not as bad – but they still needed Allegra everyday. That’s when I heard about Paleo. After even more research I saw that some people, who had allergies, benefited from not eating certain foods. I was at a point in my life where I was desperate, so we jumped into Paleo head first. It’s been almost a year 1/2 now. What a complete and total change. Sick? Who, my kids? Never. Their skin also cleared up and as a bonus we noticed that they began doing better in school. They slept better and had more energy. An even bigger bonus is my husband and I also benefited from it. My face has a youthful glow again, we have tons of energy and together we have lots over 100lb. Since I began Paleo my brother and his family and both my parents have switched with amazing results of their own-one being my Dad no longer takes cholesterol medication.


A Totally Different Family

My two boys, ages 2.5 and 4, we’re diagnosed with expressive/receptive language disorder. They were immediately put in speech and occupational therapy, and there was initial progress in the first 6 months. Then the progress stopped. I felt that there was more to this than therapy and a diagnosis, is I went on a mission to help my kids get better. I turned my whole family cold turkey on paleo two months ago along with superfoods, and I don’t even know where to begin. My younger son, who could barely put two words together, started saying three word sentences, doing 3 year old puzzles, and reciting numbers and his alphabet! It’s to the point where he doesn’t need speech therapy anymore. My 4 year old used to have terrible melt downs- no more! He is saying 4-7 word sentences and can write words; even count backwards from 20. I used to suffer from depression, anemia, mood swings, and was tired all the time. I have never felt as good as I do now. I would recommend the paleo diet for anyone, special needs or not- it makes a HUGE difference.

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Sherlene Noecker

Monday 10th of August 2015

Thanks a lot for the post.Much thanks again. Great.

Annelies

Monday 1st of December 2014

I loved the Real Life Success Stories, as well as the ones shared by readers in the comments section! Very inspiring :)

Naomi

Tuesday 2nd of September 2014

Thank you for your blog post on this topic. A year ago I decided to switch to paleo but it's been an uphill battle wver since for me personally and in trying to convince my family that this was really what would be healthiest for all of us. My children are 8, 7, and 2. My two year old will mostly eat whatever I eat, my older two are my biggest struggle when it comes to food. My husband likes his regular pancakes and burgers and fries but will eat whatever I prepare, when I actually have time to cook a decent meal for us with all the running around we do after school.

Anyway, my children combined were recently diagnosed with several food allergies/sensitivities which confirmed in my mind the need to keep trying to switch my family to paleo. And because of their combined allergies to eggs, dairy, yeast, nuts, gluten, and soy I've considered the auto-immune protocol.

My challenges are that there isn't much left for my children to eat with that many allergies, and my husband doesn't believe the method used to determine these allergies (muscle testing by my chiropractor) stands. In addition to these food allergies my oldest has asthma and some emotional challenges, my daugther often has stomach aches, and my youngest has eczema. And personally I occassionally have flare ups of iritis.

All these health concerns prompted me to look into the paleo diet to begin with a yea ago anyway. I am just feeling very discouraged as to how to get my damily on board with paleo when I have tried and tried and tried for the last year. And in the meantime I am not even really following it strictly either. I just want to cry most days because I have no idea how to approach this anymore. :(

Should I focus just on getting myself there for now? Should I go cold turkey with my entire family? I just want to do what's best for my family, but in having to eliminate so many things in order to substitute some of their favorite foods like pancakes or bread I started making those foods using legumes or gluten free based flours, so now I am introducing foods that aren't paleo in order to still try and keep them happy and healthy. It's all just very overwhelming. Then add to that that we all basically like different types of meats, fruits, and veggies.

What would your suggestions be to someone in my situation? I do fall in the category of people who tend to just give in when things start to become a struggle. Maybe I just need to be more consistent.

Thanks for letting me rant for a minute.

Kendra Benson

Tuesday 2nd of September 2014

Hey Naomi,

My kids are nearly the same ages as yours (8, 7, and 3) and even though we've been at this for nearly 2 years, we still have to deal with them wanting the occasional no-no foods. They're better about it, but we still have our moments.

With the numbers of allergens you need to avoid, this can be very difficult, but more so if you don't stick to it. By giving in here and there, it's only doing damage to your end goal, which is to get everyone on board. I will say that if you have to step outside the bounds of pure paleo with legume based foods, that's not really a deal breaker. If your family can tolerate legumes well, it should be find to use those as a sub, but try not to make it a staple in the diet either. And be wary of items (especially flours) that are labeled as "gluten-free" because they may have a whole slew of weird ingredients and chemicals in them to mimic that gluten texture. Always read the ingredient lists.

Cold turkey works well for some (like it did with us) and not so great for others. I didn't have any allergens to deal with when we made the switch, so it was easier for me to handle. If you feel that cold turkey would cause problems with your kids, I wouldn't recommend it. You don't want them going backwards in their progress because they're feeling backed into a corner. Subbing their favorite foods with healthier alternatives is key, that way they don't feel like they're missing out on much.

Nobody is perfect, please don't beat yourself up over this, and just continue on the path of change. You're already moving in the right direction, you just need to keep following that path, regardless of how slow it might be or how long it might take.

Honestly, I have times when I fall out of line and back into some old habits. It's harder to do that since I don't actually buy the ingredients to make some of my old non-paleo favorites, but I'm sometimes less cautious when I go out. Getting back on the horse is hard, but I always do, regardless of how hard it might seem.

You can do this and I promise your kids will thank you in the long run :)

KK

Wednesday 20th of August 2014

My daughter is three and a half, and eats about 90% paleo. I am very fortunate in that she eats anything and everything I give her and doesn't care much for processed foods, but that is the way we have been raising her (when we go to grocery stores, if we *happen* to walk down the center aisles [a rarity], she will point to all the "foods" on the shelf and ask me why people would buy stuff with "yuckies" in it). Once in a while, we will go to Red Robin and get burgers on GF buns, or sushi and she loves both but realizes that they are not a staple in our diet.

I am very lucky in that when I decided to make the switch, my husband jumped right on the bandwagon with me. I have a great husband and he is all about being healthy, especially if he thinks it will help me feel better. I went from being what I considered "healthy" (randomly breaking out in hives, constipation, recurrent kidney infections and thrush- the things I had been experiencing all my life) to sick (in addition to the other things, I suddenly developed chronic, severe abdominal pain, neurological problems and multiple food allergies). I was walking into walls, falling a lot, becoming forgetful, couldn't hold pens or pencils because I couldn't feel my hands, and developed chronic fatigue. My husband and I have been together for ten years, so he was able to see my decline and felt helpless. I went to numerous doctors who told me I was fine, but I knew that the issues I was having weren't normal. The more I read, the more I was convinced that my problem was gluten. I went gluten free and some of my problems improved (I regained partial feeling in my hands and my stomach pain went from unbearable without painkillers to tolerable.) I got blood tested for gluten antibodies two months after going gluten free and they were still five times higher than a "non-allergic" person but only half of what they would have to be to be diagnosed as celiac. My improvements had waned, and I knew there had to be something better. I found Danielle Walker and Mark Sisson's sites (and yours too!) and I went on amazon and ordered several books: Against All Grain, Primal Cravings, Practical Paleo, Paleo Indulgences, and later I pre-ordered The Wahls Protocol. I went to my local bookstore and picked up "It Starts With Food." I went about 80% paleo after that (and since I am the primary cook n my house and I don't do special meals, so did my husband and daughter.) I saw more improvements in my health but still no recovery.

I finally decided to do the Whole 30, and after the first two weeks, I was like a different person. I regained most of the feeling in my hands and could actually WRITE again (something most people take for granted but I wasn't able to do since late 2009... and mind you, I'm only 30 years old.) I regained most of my energy but still had intermittent days of fatigue. I was not doubled over in pain every day. My nails stopped peeling. No more hives. My previously clear skin began to return. My memory came back and so did my ability to concentrate. No more falling or walking into walls by accident. The spasticity in my muscles decreased. My husband did it with me, no cheating at all, and he saw improvements, too. The IBS that he had since I have known him disappeared. He has a job where he labors intensely, and the first week, he did have a hard time with feeling hungry but that disappeared after the "carb flu" went away. We both realized that it really isn't that hard to exercise willpower.

I still have to maintain a diet that is grain, sugar, dairy, and lectin free to keep my pain under control, but it is totally worth it. I have found so many great recipes that I rarely feel like I am "missing out" on anything. My daughter, meanwhile, had a grain free, dairy free, processed sugar free, nut free carrot cake for her birthday, and she loved it! Believe it or not, none of the guests were the wiser until I told them, and then they were shocked. How is it possible that eating healthfully can also be delicious?? It just is...

I believe that while I had health issues related to my diet to begin with, it was moving into a mold-infested home that sent my health over the edge. It killed the remainder of my immune system and I got biotoxin illness. I am regaining my health slowly, and am glad that in the process, my family has gotten much healthier. Seeing the changes in me also inspired my family and friends: My mom and dad went entirely gluten free and 90% paleo. My mom's blood pressure (which she has long taken meds for) has regulated and my dad lost 60 lbs. My best friend and her husband completed a whole 30 and now maintain a whole 30 diet with just one cheat meal per week. My other best friend just started reading "It Starts With Food." My uncle started the Whole 30 a couple of weeks ago and he said his clothes fit better and he feels better. I bought a weight bench from someone on craigslist and by the time I left he said he was going to by ISWF. I dropped 38 lbs in the process and currently weigh ten pounds less than my regular pre-pregnancy weight. My goal wasn't even to lose weight, but I won't say that I am not stoked about it.

I cringe when I see people giving their kids junk food, especially when it is clear that the kids have developmental or behavioral issues, or things like eczema. Even before switching my daughter to paleo, we were making sure that her food was organic and always free from HFCS, MSG, artificial colors, flavors, etc. We were eating mostly fresh, unprocessed food, but I didn't realize that all my baking-from-scratch was poisoning all of us, especially me.

Sorry for the long-winded comment, but this particular article really hit home with me. I noticed great improvements in my daughter's behavior when we eliminated wheat and sugar from her diet. We do still allow her to have fermented dairy as well as cream and butter, as well as properly-cooked legumes and occasionally rice. She shows no issues with them, and is the healthiest kid I have ever seen. She really NEVER gets sick.

I couldn't have written this article better myself and hope more "paleo" parents will read it and get their kids on the same page with them as far as diet. Parents may not be able to control what their teens eat when they are at school, but they CAN and should control what food is brought into and consumed in the home. And the best thing we an do for our kids is lead by example.

Kendra Benson

Wednesday 20th of August 2014

I LOVED reading your story, such a fantastic transformation! Our daughters are the same age and I can see similarities in how they view food. Isn't it amazing how in tune they can be at such a young age? And how fantastic that you've basically converted so many family and friends around you. Not only have you done so much to help them, but in turn you have a huge support system now. I'm seriously so impressed with all that you've accomplished. Congratulations and good luck with your continued success and improved health :D

Leli

Wednesday 13th of August 2014

Thank you for sharing your amazing ideas, recipes and stories! Just wondering how you handle activities outside the house. When my kiddos were smaller, I could bring food to give them and they never noticed the difference. Now--my twins are 5--I feel like I'm entering a battle ground every time we leave the house. Between grandparents, playdates, sports activities, Sunday school, birthday parties, BBQs, etc...they are offered junk all the time. I have two great kids who happen to both be incredibly 'strong-willed' and it's a scene EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I say no. We've had to leave gatherings b/c of their reaction. A lot. If it were only occasionally, I wouldn't worry about it, but lately it's multiple times/day. We talk about why choose the food we eat all the time and my kids love to help me shop for, prep and cook food at home. We spend hours having fun in the kitchen together. I feel like they're as educated and involved as 5 year olds can be about our food choices, but when it comes to someone offering them Goldfish or a cupcake, you'd think they hadn't seen food in weeks. I don't want bubble kids but I'm starting to dread leaving the house. Any suggestions you have would be so appreciated!

Kendra Benson

Wednesday 20th of August 2014

I feel your pain. Although my kiddos understand why we eat this way, sometimes the temptation is a lot to bear, especially since they haven't eaten this way since they were infants. They've had a taste of that poison and liked it :)

Some things I will slide on, like special occasions, but some things I have to put my foot down. It's one of those things where you may just need to pick your battles to start. Don't give in all the time and be picky about what you will allow. If you know that certain foods affect them negatively, then don't slide on those. I know that grains and sugar is what sets my son in a downward spiral, but he's okay with minimal dairy, so we'll sometimes let him get frozen yogurt. I'm not opposed to the occasional burger, but it's not a regular occurrence.

Just as it is with the adults, the kids can have an occasional "cheat", but that doesn't mean it has to be an entirely unhealthy treat. And it may just be a rough patch with your kiddos too. My kids sometimes surprise me with their food choices, while other times they have me pulling out my hair. Good luck :)