As the mom of three children 5 and younger, meal planning for my family is a big part of life right now. There’s the shopping, the cooking and then the more challenging and unpredictable part of getting my kids to eat and actually enjoy a variety of healthy foods. That’s why I related to the frustrations Emily Wylie described when she talks about the moms she encounters at her day job as a healthy eating specialist at Whole Foods Market here in Austin.
Emily, who has a 3-year-old girl, works at the Whole Foods Market at The Domain. Part of her job description is to help parents get healthy food into their kids’ diets. Advice that’s based on the Whole Foods version of a healthy diet includes whole, unrefined and unprocessed foods, lots of vegetables, healthy fats (from nuts, seeds, and avocados), and recipes packed with nutrients.
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Despite her expertise, Emily told me over coffee recently that even feeding her own daughter can be hard. If it’s a challenge for her at times, she reasons, then it’s even harder for the parent who doesn’t like to cook or has a picky eater. “People will come in and say, ‘I don’t know how to cook, but I can’t keep giving my child granola bars,’” she said.
We all want our kids to eat well. As a mom, Emily gets it. So, I had questions for her, both as a mom and as a healthy eating specialist. She did not disappoint.
Q: What are some ways parents can get their kids to eat better?
Try a variety of preparations. Get them in the kitchen. Let them make a mess. It’s likely that if your little one helps you make your own hummus that they will be your taste-tester. Just because a child doesn’t like roasted potatoes doesn’t mean they won’t like them baked. Greens can be hidden in a number of ways – pancakes, desserts. I explain to kids why healthy foods are good for them.
Why do you think so many families find eating healthy a challenge?
I think that time is a huge factor. Kids see the marketing of unhealthy foods. There aren’t any commercials for broccoli and carrots. So, as a mom, you are kind of obligated to be that spokesperson for what’s healthy and, in most cases, time doesn’t allow for that.
What role does organic food play in your diet?
For me, personally, it’s almost cost prohibitive to shop entirely organic. I tend to choose animal products – meat and dairy. I think about things that have nooks and crannies like berries. Anything that has a skin is conventional and fine. Other people follow the clean 15 list (foods with little to no traces of pesticides). Again, it’s a personal preference. I am so loyal to the quality of the product we carry here, I don’t seek out organic.
What’s a typical week night meal plan for your family?
I’m a batch cooker. We eat a lot of rice bowls and repurpose throughout the week. I make a giant batch of rice or grains – last week it was lentils, this week farro – a big batch of beans and roast a tray of veggies. I’ll make a sauce, like pesto or peanut sauce, and all of it will usually last about a week. We are almost entirely a veggie house. We eat fish on the weekends and almost never red meat.
What was your diet like growing up?
I grew up on a beef farm in Pennsylvania eating rare steak, potatoes and biscuits. It was incredibly good, but I ate rich, heavy foods my whole life until I went to college in California.
How has being a mom changed you?
I used to carry a much smaller purse. We could probably survive on what’s in my purse for a week – there’s always food, notebooks, entertainment for my daughter. I will pick up sticky, unidentifiable objects without thinking about it. I’m much more humbled.
Is motherhood what you expected?
I think I just had a great mom myself that I never really put too much thought into the kind of mom I would be. I thought I’d inherit that gene from her and everything would come into place and that’s kind of what happened. Aside from the minor freak outs that happen regularly, you just kind of get it.
What worries you as a parent?
Because my daughter is so active, my biggest fear is about her getting hurt. On a much larger scale – I don’t know- the things that every mom worries about. You want them to have opportunity and to be safe. That’s one of the reasons why we moved here. My husband spent the better part of 10 years in New York and I spent that time in LA. Austin seemed like the best of both worlds to grow.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I don’t have one, which is something I really love about the job. I’m in the store doing basic one-on-one meal planning support, to leading 300 people on a healthy eating challenge, to teaching kids and teachers in the community. It’s day-to-day, which is a challenge for me, because I’m such a disorganized person in general.
How do you manage it all?
I’m a compulsive list taker. I carry around these three things: a note pad for to-dos, a notebook for recipes and thoughts, and a calendar. Once I write it down, it’s stuck.
What does your daughter eat these days?
She really appreciates natural foods. She chooses fruit over something that is packaged. She has no concept of fast food, which is pretty amazing. She’s very much like other kids in terms of what she wants, but she knows more about what’s good for her. All I can really do is teach her about what’s best, but you can’t control the rest. Even if she makes healthy choices half the time, that’s great.
How would you describe your parenting style?
I’d say freedom within loose boundaries. There are a couple of hard rules. Being honest and good eating habits are the two things where I draw the line at this age. Around those (rules), I encourage her to be independent. She’s a head-strong and tenacious little one. A lot of that planning in your head about your baby, it goes right out the window when you start learning about their personality.
Since your days tend to vary, what can you be consistent about?
There are a few things I do every day. I do a set of push-ups and sit-ups. I make sure I’ve given my daughter an hour of undivided attention. I have things I try and set up for the week. I make sure my daughter gets to choose something she wants to do. We usually go to the animal shelter to play with the dogs. That’s her choice and adventure. There’s usually big golf ball tears when we leave. I keep bringing her back, because that’s what makes her tick.
If people want to start making changes to their family’s diet, what are the top three things they should start doing?
Get in the kitchen. Like any other skill, cooking takes a lot of practice. Be active. It’s really easy to make changes to your diet when you are making other healthy choices. Get people involved. It’s critical to have a support network. If you make it fun, you are more likely to succeed.
Check out Emily’s latest post featuring her top five recipes for after-school snacks on her healthy eating blog, www.wholefoodsmarket.com/domainhshblog. For more about Emily and some of her favorite spots around Austin, follow her on Instagram. And of course, don’t forget to follow @AbbyRoedel on Twitter!