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Thursday, 31 July 2014

Merry-Go-Veggie-Kids Week #4: Eat Real Food with Julie

About a month ago, I started the Merry-Go-Veggie-Kids Summer 2014 event which is a virtual event where a few blogging friends and I have teamed up to present to you kid-friendly recipes, tips and pieces of advice about how to get your child to eat more vegetables and cultivate a healthy eating habit right at an early age.

This week's featured blogger is Julie from The Real Food Kids. Julie is a licensed Family Therapist with a PhD in Child and Family Development, a certified Health Coach with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, and a professor at a New York university. Trusting her gut instinct, Julie made the decision to change her food choices to improve the health of her son who was suffering from a number of health problems. In so doing, she has also hugely benefited from this change for herself and her daughter. Today Julie is sharing her Mega Chocolate Muffin recipe which features zucchini and beets -- a great way to get children to eat their veggies in a disguised way! So let's read about Julie's inspiring journey to better health for her family.

1. When did you begin your blog, and what inspired you to start it?
The blog was launched in May of 2014, although it had been in the planning process for a few years before that, but we lost our home in Hurricane Sandy and I’m a single working parent, so the blog had to go on the backburner for ages. I started the blog because of my son’s struggles with health problems early in life. He was regularly prescribed antibiotics to help with fevers, heavy colds and hearing problems (he was a late talker), and whenever I asked the
health professionals if food could be a contributory factor they treated me as though I was a neurotic mother! One night I sat down to watch Forks Over Knives and that was pretty much the turning point. I cleared out the pantry and fridge before I went to bed, and then it was a slow road to figuring out how to feed us. Along the way I trained as a health coach to better understand the connection between food and health. And then of course I am a licensed family therapist, and as I made the connection with my own child, I also started to see child behavior problems differently at our community clinic. Now I see how powerful food is I just want to do whatever I can to help other families who are open to changing how their kids eat.

2. You said that "while no one diet fits all, eating clean, real food will generally benefit most of us". Can you elaborate on what you mean by "real food" and what kind of diet has worked so far for you and your family?
To me, real food is food that comes in its most natural form. It is not processed or full of added sugars, so if I can figure out how to make a product myself then I would rather do that than trust a food corporation to do it. For my family, real food is also plant based, which means the bulk of it comes from food that grows in the ground. There is a basic guide on the blog on how to keep your diet real, and that’s what I work to when feeding my kids. I would say we eat a clean plant based diet about 95% of the time, the remainder being when we are out somewhere. If my kids want a slice of pizza or birthday cake to fit in, then I don’t make an issue out of it, although usually they don’t feel so great after! My son is 6 and he is making that connection for himself already, which is wonderful.

3. What impact has a "real food" diet had on your health and that of your family?
Oh, where to start? My son has had no antibiotics since I changed how we eat and his ears work fine now (although I suspect he has selective hearing!). My daughter has been raised this way from birth and is the healthiest kid I know. She is 3 and has never had a heavy cold (a slight sniffle for a day or two at worst), a fever, an ear infection or been prescribed any medications. Both kids have a ton of energy and a glow to their skin. As for me, I have seen huge changes in my health since we switched to real food. I was pretty much a junk food vegetarian for years and was suffering with asthma and slow weight gain. Then in my late 30’s I was diagnosed with uterine fibroids. They were so bad I was told I needed a hysterectomy. Luckily I avoided a hysterectomy by finding the right doctor, but it was still major surgery to repair my uterus. Since changing my diet my periods have become pain-free and manageable, and I have had no re-occurrence of fibroids. I also lost a lot of weight and have stayed slim without needing to work out or diet, and my horrible mucous chest is a thing of the past. So it has been a win-win situation for all of us!

4. Are you fully adapted to a vegan diet / lifestyle, what has been (or would be) the most challenging part?
I would say we are adapted although we call ourselves plant-based rather than vegan, if only because I know plenty of vegans who eat a junky diet! I guess there are challenges to this lifestyle, in that society in general is not geared up to support it. People think you are weird if your kid doesn’t drink milk or eat candy and beef burgers, so you have to be prepared for backlash. You also have to learn to pack healthy snacks and plan ahead so you can fill hungry mouths in any eventuality. We were in rural France for the summer and were invited to the annual village dinner. I was told they could provide a ‘v├ęg├ętarienne’ meal, but packed hot food just in case. Lucky I did because the dinner for us turned out to be a double portion of Camembert cheese with vegetables cooked in the pot that had a pig’s head bobbing about in it! It could have been a disaster, but we had a Plan B, and I appreciated that they had tried their best to feed us.

5. What type of vegetable dishes have you found to be most successful with children?
My kids really love hearty pasta-based dishes or grains such as quinoa or millet. We do a lot of bean-based recipes which are budget-friendly and nutritious (like my spaghetti beanballs or hummus from the blog) and my kids appreciate foods they can eat with their hands (like nachos). I still hide veggies in food sometimes, although my son wised up to it ages ago. He actually told me he liked me making burgers as it meant I hid lots of vegetables he would not otherwise eat! My daughter loves soup but says she hates leaves (lettuce, spinach, etc.) even though she will drink them in a smoothie. My son has finally started liking leaves after years of offering them to him, and both kids eat kale if it is made into chips. Just goes to show, you never know what your kids might like, and if they don’t like how you present it, then try it another way next time. Persevere with every food, don’t give up!

6. How do you deal with your children when they refuse to eat a particular vegetable or dish?
We have a family rule that all new foods must be tried with a couple of good tastes, there is no outright refusal allowed. My son used to do the index finger test where he would stick a finger in the food and announce he didn’t like it, so the rule went into place. I only offer an alternative if it’s a new recipe I am testing and it didn’t turn out well. I have seen parents run themselves ragged trying to offer foods their kids will accept and I don’t go there. I tell my kids this isn’t a restaurant! I really like the French idea where kids don’t get a special kid menu, they are expected to eat a wide variety of foods, which include salad and vegetables. My family therapy training helps me to keep the boundaries fair but firm. The worst kids can do is scream! If they really hate a particular food I respect that (I have childhood memories of being forced to eat good old British foods like liver and suet pudding that make me shudder to this day) but I expect them to make a good go of the meal otherwise.

7. What advice do you have for vegan mums or parents looking to make the change to a vegan lifestyle or incorporating more healthy eating habits
First off, I would say do your homework. There are plenty of great books and websites out there (including mine I hope!) to help you figure out how to feed your child a broad range of healthy foods. Make smaller changes at first, so maybe start by making all your grains whole grains, or cutting out the sugary drinks. I have learned that food is a very emotional topic for families, and often only one parent is on board when it comes to making changes (and quite possibly extended family such as grandparents are not supportive), so take it one step at a time according to what your family can handle. Keep in mind I have been on this learning curve with food for over three years already, and my mother’s first reaction was “Oh God, you are not going to do that to the children are you?” My parents have since come around, but it has been a process for us and the process continues as I learn more. I would also say you need to incorporate an element of education with your kids. They are more likely to be supportive of dietary change if they understand why, as well as where their food comes from.

8. Do you have any upcoming projects? Where do you see your blog in 5 years from now?
Right now I am just working hard to carve out time to load content into my blog so that people want to follow it, and to figure out the look and feel of the site. I attended my first food bloggers conference about a week after launching my blog, which was a huge leap into my new project! I also just enrolled to do my gourmet chef’s training this winter, which I hope will give me a flair and confidence with food and recipe writing. I would love to grow this project to include resources such as one to one counseling/coaching with families. It would be wonderful to share inspiring stories on the blog of families who have improved their kids’ health and behavior just with food! I’m passionate about helping all kids to develop a love of healthy eating; I think it’s such an important contribution to future generations.

9. Anything else you would like to share?
I have loved talking about my work with you, and hope folks will check out my blog, sign up for my free guides to finding hidden sugars and reading food labels, share some love by following me on social media, and reach out to me! I would really appreciate hearing about you, your family’s journey with food, and what would help you in turning your children into real food kids.

Mega Chocolate Muffins

Prep time: 10 minutes | Cook time: 20-25 minutes | Total time: 30 minutes

Ingredients (about 10 - 12 muffins)

1 cup rolled oats (can be gluten free)
½ cup whole grain flour of your choice (can be gluten free, e.g., quinoa)
½ tsp baking powder
1 tablespoon baking soda
⅓ cup cocoa powder (unsweetened)
½ teaspoon ginger spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of iodized sea salt
1 ripe banana, skinned
1 ripe pear, cored and roughly chopped
1 x 15oz can of black beans (rinse thoroughly and drain)
8 pitted medjool dates
½ teaspoon vanilla powder
½ cup of milk of your choice (I use hemp or almond).
1 cup combined shredded/grated zucchini and beets (I do this in the food processor)
½ bar of quality dark chocolate, roughly chopped into small pieces
⅓ cup hemp hearts


  • Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C/Gas 4
  • Pulse the oats in a food processor until they resemble course flour.
  • Pour the oat flour into a large mixing bowl and add ingredients 2 thru 8 from the list above. Mix well.
  • Place ingredients 9 thru 14 into a blender and blend until smooth. Pour the mix into the mixing bowl with the dry ingredients.
  • Add the grated zucchini and beets to the mixing bowl, along with the hemp hearts and chocolate. Mix it all until it forms a thick cake batter.
  • Use a lightly oiled metal muffin pan (or a silicone muffin mold if you prefer). Fill each mold until it is almost full so you get a deep muffin (nobody likes a skinny muffin). Sometimes I get 12 muffins, sometimes it comes out slightly less, depending on the size of fruits and type of flour I use. Then bake for 20-25 minutes, until a knife inserted comes out almost clean.
  • Allow to cool slightly before transferring to a cooling rack. We usually eat some of these warm from the oven, but they are equally good cold; it all depends whether you like your chocolate chips runny or crunchy! Store the muffins in the refrigerator.



Thank you Julie for sharing with us your thoughts, advice, tips and this wonderful muffin recipe! It sure is a great way to hide in the vegetables in the recipe and get the kids to eat them.
Do you have any tips how you get your kids to eat their vegetables? Leave us a "dodo love" in the comments box.

Connect with Julie

The Real Food Kids


Visit the Merry-Go-Veggie-Kids Summer 2014 event main page for updates on participating guest bloggers every week until August 2014.
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