Just as I took another bite of my juicy Top Notch double cheeseburger with jalapeños, my 7-year-old asked me, "Is that cheeseburger healthy?"
I held up my index finger to signal that I needed a moment to finish my bite, though I was actually just building time to stall. I was having lunch with my four sons—Dalton (age 12), Vaughn (age 10), Jackson (age 7) and Cain (age 2). My 10- and 12-year-olds looked on with mild amusement while sipping their lemonade.
"It's not necessarily healthy but in my opinion, it's part of a balanced life,” I answered, looking at him out of the corner of my eye to gauge his reaction.
"What do you mean 'balanced life’?” he asked as I reached for the dessert menu.
I grabbed my ice water, took a slug and thought about how I would answer his question.
"I try to eat healthy most of the time," I began. "I usually have a green smoothie in the morning followed by an egg white omelet. For lunch I have chicken, sweet potatoes and veggies. In the afternoon, I have a protein drink followed by a healthy dinner of some sort."
My 2-year-old aimed a tater tot my way as I explained that by eating healthy foods most of the time, it’s acceptable to indulge in a guilty pleasure meal every once in a while.
His little 7-year-old brown eyes lit up as he explained to me what his idea of a healthy meal plan was—whole grain pancakes with fruit on top and a glass of milk for breakfast; peanut butter and jelly with carrot sticks and yogurt for lunch; an apple and cheese blocks for an afternoon snack; turkey meatloaf with sweet potatoes and green beans for dinner.
"That's right," I said. "You’ve just described a balanced eating plan which includes healthy choices from all of the food groups. Today, we're eating something different, spending time together and learning about how our family eats a well-rounded diet."
I was impressed that at such a young age, he had been so perceptive to our family’s nutritional values and was already able to comprehend the role it plays in our overall health and well-being. I strive to be supportive of his ideas while explaining why certain foods may be better than others. This isn’t a singular teaching moment. This is a time to connect and bond while hopefully saying something that will sink in and stay with him, the same way my mother did with me as I was growing up.
When I was in high school, my mother came home from the grocery store with skim milk instead of whole milk and wheat bread instead of white. As I lugged in the bags of groceries and helped put items away, I asked her about it.
She informed me that we were making some changes in our food choices. My father was recovering from triple bypass surgery at age 58, and the doctors had recommended implementing certain substitutes in his diet.
I never forgot that.
My mother had used that moment to teach me something that has stayed with me to this day. Not only did she teach me why, but she also taught me how. It led me to think more about what I eat and pay attention to the way I feel. If I feel bloated and sluggish after a meal, I can recognize that it’s because I’ve combined too many different foods, and my body is utilizing an influx of energy to digest those foods. It robs me of energy that I could be using for other things—like playing with my kids.
And here I was at Top Notch Hamburgers 34 years later talking with my kids about the importance of healthy eating. I polished off the last tasty bite of my burger and asked my kids what they wanted to do after lunch.
"Play baseball!" was the unanimous answer, and that was the answer that I was hoping for. I explained that once our food settled we would be doing our bodies a favor by getting outside and doing something active, like baseball.
I put it in a way my kids would relate to. The concept that our bodies use food as fuel or store it as fat was simple enough, but I elaborated my point to ensure they understood it in a way that was applicable. I told them that if we don't burn it off through physical activity, we might store the excess as fat. If that happens, they may not be able to move as quickly and as athletically as they would like to.
It resonates with my kids because they're at the age where they want to be as fast as possible. In that moment I taught them the why and the how.
As we got up to leave, my 7-year-old and I couldn’t help but notice two mouthwatering milkshakes sitting on the table next to ours.
"Hey Dad, can we get a milkshake?"
"Race ya to the car!” I replied as I shuffled past the shakes. I picked up my pace and corralled him and the other boys past the front counter before Jackson had a chance to ask again. We’d save the milkshakes for another day.
As we ran toward the car, I watched him shift into high gear. I slowed down to watch him while savoring the fleeting taste of zingy onions and the satisfaction of what I considered to be a day of productive parenting.
I stopped to look up at the cloudless Austin sky. I let him win that time, but I felt like I had won something more important.
“Kids are like a mirror, what they see and hear…they do. Be a good reflection for them.” – K. Heath