A day of meals in the life of 8-year-old Eva Ballantyne looks like this: eggs for breakfast; three organic, grass-fed hot dogs and raw veggies for lunch; and "whatever mom makes" for dinner, says the Atlanta third-grader, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. If she's lucky, what mom makes is a paleo take on fish and chips, one of Eva's favorites. "I love meat," she says.
While Eva's mostly paleo diet might not look like a lot of her peers' -- at school parties, for instance, she might bring a paleo-compliant treat made with rice -- it does look like her parents'. After all, Eva's mom is The Paleo Mom, Sarah Ballantyne, who transitioned her family to the plan about four years ago.
"I was paleo myself for about two months before I decided that was something I wanted the whole family to do," says Ballantyne, who credits the diet with her 120-pound weight loss and helping to treat her autoimmune conditions. "For me, it was trying to prevent those types of health problems in my children."
So far, so good -- and then some. Eva, who used to have chronic stomachaches and constipation so severe she regularly took adult doses of laxatives, "went from the super-skinny kid who would tire really quickly to the kid who now does the monkey bars forever," Ballantyne says. Meanwhile, her younger daughter's acid reflux -- and associated sleepless nights -- disappeared.
"What was really fascinating for us was both of the kids had health issues that we had no idea was linked to diet, but were resolved with the paleo diet," Ballantyne says.
Other paleo parents are sold on raising cave children. Paleo websites like Paleo Leap coach parents on how to raise "healthy, happy paleo kids," while cookbooks for kid-friendly paleo food with names like "Eat Like a Dinosaur" abound. "The trends in feeding baby are reflecting a lot of what the adults are doing," says Jill Castle, a registered dietitian in New Canaan, Connecticut, who specializes in childhood nutrition.
Is that a good thing? When it comes to the paleo diet, the answer is mixed. On the one hand, the plan emphasizes fruits, vegetables and healthy fats and snubs processed foods and sugars. No issues there, Castle says. On the other hand, the paleo diet eschews whole grains, legumes and dairy -- important sources of nutrients -- and hasn't been sufficiently studied, particularly among children, says Dr. Robert Murray , a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University.
"We don't know if [some of these diets] are beneficial or when they're developmentally harmful, and, particularly in the development of a child, you don't want to gamble," he says. So before committing yourself to bringing up paleo baby, consider these expert tips:
-- Don't subject your kids to your diet experiments. For centuries, children in other parts of the world have grown up on diets Americans would label vegetarian, seafood-heavy or kosher. "Kids do well in most of those [cultures] because it's not a fad -- it's something serious," Murray says. But raising your child on a restrictive diet because it's trendy or it gave you results is more concerning. "The stuff we do for our own health needs to be thought of as separate from what the child needs," Murray says. "The child needs feeding experiences -- not restrictions."
-- Do focus on variety. Between the time children start eating solids and they hit 2 years old is a "once in a lifetime" window when they're remarkably open to trying new foods, Murray says. After that, expect resistance. "Give the child a lot of feeding experiences in those first 6 to 24 months and make sure they've experienced all different textures, sights and smells," Murray says. If kids' diets start off restricted, they'll only get narrower -- and thus their opportunities for important nutrients lessened -- as they age.
-- Don't expect change overnight. Eva didn't always love meat. "The only food I would eat is crackers and cheese," she says of her pre-paleo lifestyle. Now, she says, "I eat it all." But it took about six months "of bribery and silly games at dinner" for that to be the case, says Ballantyne, whose pediatrician supports the family's diet since Ballantyne has a background in the medical sciences. Ballantyne's husband was a tougher sell. "I had to prove to him that the food he was going to eat was still really delicious," she says.
-- Do modify as needed. Turns out, Eva had been suffering from a gluten sensitivity (hence the digestive woes), and their 6-year-old had a severe intolerance to dairy (causing the acid reflux). So while Ballantyne is diligent about keeping gluten off Eva's plate and dairy away from her younger daughter, she's more lenient when it comes to other areas of the paleo plan. "It's OK to find that balance to make it sustainable, it's OK to figure out where your wiggle room is," she says. "The point of following a diet like the paleo diet is long-term health."
-- Do let kids be kids. When asked if she ever feels unwelcome among her classmates because of the way she eats, Eva says, "No, no, no -- I love that we eat this way." Her mom tries hard to ensure that's the case, allowing occasional non-paleo foods and sending her kids off with substitutes when a school's treat, for instance, will upset Eva's stomach. "It's important that eating differently from their peers isn't a source of ostracization," Ballantyne says. Maintaining that sense of belonging is important, Castle says, since "the whole purpose of nutrition during childhood is to promote normal growth and development -- and development is social and emotional development as well."
-- Don't "diet." In the Ballantyne household, they don't talk about being on the "paleo diet" or eating "gluten-free." "We just eat what we eat," Ballantyne says. Staying away from terms like "diet" or labeling certain foods "off-limits" are important when raising kids to have a healthy outlook on food, Castle says. "Sometimes these diets cause unintended consequences," like disordered eating if diets are too restrictive or parents are too "overzealous" about food, she says. "I like to have parents have a moderate, balanced, flexible approach to nutrition -- and make food enjoyable to eat."
-- Do your homework. While anyone who starts a new diet should consult a nutrition professional, that step is particularly important when that person is still developing. "Any parent that wanted to do that type of transformation, I would strongly suggest that they sit down with a dietitian and spend some time becoming educated about the child's needs for optimal growth and cognitive development," says Murray, who also recommends sticking to websites of well-known health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for information about childhood nutrition. It's important to learn how to make up for nutrients your child may be lacking, be it through other foods, supplements or both. And don't worry about getting chastised by your dietitian. The good ones will work with you to help your priorities fit in with your child's nutritional needs, Castle says. "I'm seeing a real strong desire to eat healthy and to get kids to eat healthy, and [the question is,] how do we do that?" she says. "And for every family, that's going to be different."