Kelly LeVeque is a holistic nutritionist, wellness expert, and celebrity health coach based in Los Angeles. She hosts the Be Well by Kelly podcast, interviewing experts and doctors about nutrition and health, and is the author of Body Love. But she’s also a mom to two boys under five, Tashan and Sebastian. We recently had Kelly on our podcast, A Whole New Level, to talk about the challenges of feeding young kids healthy food and helping them learn about what food does to their bodies so they can make their own positive choices as they grow. The following is an edited version of her conversation with Levels Head of Growth (and dad of four), Ben Grynol.
Ben: Every parent knows that there are so many challenges to feeding kids. It’s this tension between making sure they’re fed but not giving them everything they want and trying to steer them in the right direction. Also, thinking about their relationship with food. How do you think about why feeding kids today is so hard, and what tools do you use?
Kelly: As Sebastian, my oldest, grows up and starts having toddler friends and going to birthday parties, I realize as they age, it gets harder and harder. So, I’ve been thinking lately—especially in the last couple of weeks with him going off to preschool—how important the beginning is.
We know from research that there is this flavor window for kids: the first 18 months. That’s when you’re thinking about the introduction of flavors and foods. So I tried to introduce Sebastian to those bitter flavors, sour flavors, Brussels sprouts, and kale; focusing on exposure to as many flavors as possible.
I also thought about exposure to food sources: little gardens in our neighborhood, the farmer’s market, the grocery store. That got harder during COVID when we were having groceries delivered, and we weren’t immersed in where the food was coming from. Instead, we bought seedlings and planted little sweet peppers and strawberries in the backyard.
I look at that exposure as the foundation for healthy habits and a healthy sense of food. That helps prepare him and us for when we come up against those challenges, like birthday parties that have pizza and doughnuts and cake.
Preschool is another challenge. Some days, the snack menu is crackers, cheese, and juice, which I know will spike and crash his blood sugar. I don’t want to be that mom who feels crazy for not letting him eat the school snacks, but I also have to think about how he’s going to feel the rest of his day.
“Being mindful of his relationship with food, I don’t say that cookies are bad for him and sugar is bad for him. I say desserts are for celebration.”
So the other thing I focus on is controlling the controllable. So, what’s controllable in our house is what he eats for breakfast, how he goes into his day. Is he starting his day with protein and veggies, like a healthy smoothie or an egg scramble? Okay, great. Now how am I packing his lunch so that it’s blood-sugar balancing and nutrient-dense? How am I serving him dinner?
And then, when I can, I make swaps. For example, I told the school that we don’t do any liquid sugar in our family: no juice, no milk, no Gatorade. And I’ve told him, “Our family doesn’t do juice. If you want flavored water, you tell mama.” I have a flavored electrolyte drink or Hint water or our homemade flavored waters I give him.
Doing these things, having these boundaries, allows me to say yes when it’s a birthday party, and he can enjoy that celebration. Then I don’t feel bad because I’m not giving him sugar on the regular.
On helping kids learn to make their own food choices …
Ben: Parents are fighting an uphill battle between outside influences like friends or school lunch menus, media and marketing around processed foods, and our broken food system that creates and subsidizes so many of these unhealthy options. There’s a lot you can’t control about the food messages they get. So how do you equip them to make their own choices?
Kelly: One thing I try to do, even now when they’re young, is to help them make associations between food and how they feel. For example, when Bash goes to a birthday party and eats a lot of sugar and has a meltdown in the car ride home, I’ll ask him, “Why do you think that you feel frustrated? Why do you think you’re upset? Are you feeling tired? Do you feel like maybe you need a little protein, or you need a little rest?” I’ll offer solutions to what I perceive as a major blood sugar spike and crash, and we’ll talk it through.
We have conversations around, What is food? We’ll say things like, “That chicken you saw at the Ecology Center Farm clucking around? They laid the eggs, and that makes your blueberry muffins and your scrambles. And that chicken is protein for your body; it makes your body strong.”
I will sometimes even say things that are way over his head like, “That protein makes your hormones, and when you’re older, you’ll get to know what those are.” Again, it’s laying the foundation for when he eventually understands these broader themes.
Being mindful of his relationship with food, I don’t say that cookies are bad for him and sugar is bad for him. I say desserts are for celebration. Like Curious George and Blippi, we have desserts on the weekend when we celebrate having time together as a family, or on your birthday or a holiday.
Because the reality is, kids have an affinity for very sweet things. Look at the research: if you offer lemonade to children between toddler and adolescent and teenager, the older kids will start to prefer the less sweet lemonade, but the toddler will always pick the sweetest lemonade.
So, we have to be the ones pulling back the sugar and making the swaps without making them feel left out or creating taboos. Boundaries are healthy for kids; delayed gratification is healthy. It allows them to know what it’s like not to get everything that they want, allows them to be resilient without creating potentially damaging relationships with food down the road.
The reality is there needs to be an adult in the room, and we need to have boundaries with things that aren’t healthy in our lives as adults and for our children.
On ensuring meals contain the Fab 4: fat, protein, fiber, and greens …
Ben: That’s right, a lot of this is education. I know you do things like the Fab 4 Under 4, a course to help parents take your Fab Four eating philosophy—finding the right mix of fat, protein, fiber, and greens—and apply that to their kids. How does that idea help parents think through healthy meals?
Kelly: One of the goals of the Fab 4 is to help parents look at a lunch box or a plate and say, “Where is the protein, where is the fat, where is the fiber, okay. Now count the carbohydrates.” It’s also a tool to see through marketing terms: just because it’s gluten-free, dairy-free, grain-free, sometimes it doesn’t matter. We have to look at the balance and quantity.
For example, if there are two slices of bread, 20 crackers, and a bunch of grapes in that lunchbox, that’s likely what your kid will eat. And the other stuff, the protein in there and the fat and the veggies, are probably coming home.
And what you’ve just provided them is this massive glucose spike that will create a crash. And then we have more meltdowns and tantrums. We have less learning, less retention.
So many moms and dads are just trying their best but don’t know the metabolic science, the science of blood sugar, and so I am just trying to simplify the heck out of it.
They just need to know that carbohydrates—whether it’s starch or sugar, a fruit, liquid sugar—it’s breaking down into glucose, spiking the blood sugar, insulin is being released, and eventually, their blood sugar is crashing.
And then there are the long-term consequences of this, which include things like high rates of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in kids. And it’s because of liquid sugar: the soda, the juice, the Gatorades. It’s sugar that is so fast to be metabolized; it causes a major surge in blood sugar; their tiny livers are like, “oh my gosh, what are we going to do here? We have to metabolize this into triglycerides and store it in our liver.”
So my goal is to help parents look at a plate and say, “All right, I’m offering four carbohydrates and one little bit of protein—how can I balance this out?”
It’s harder for things like birthday parties. Maybe everyone got cupcakes at Theo’s birthday, and now everyone is coming to my house for Bash’s birthday. Am I the unfun mom who’s doing strawberry skewers? How can I make this a little more fun?
And what I would say is the kids just want a special moment. They want to be recognized, they want to be seen, they want to be celebrated. And getting them involved in choosing a healthy choice, allowing them to have power is essential.
It’s not having power over them by saying, “We’re doing strawberry skewers for your birthday.” Instead, I’ll show him a picture of a watermelon cake and strawberry skewers with coconut cream or dark chocolate, and everyone can dip their own.
In that case, you’re giving them two options. They’re making a choice; they’re invested in the choice.
That’s really what our kids want from us. They want to be in power, they want to be helpers, they want to learn, they want to be exposed, and then they want to celebrate.
On how to make healthy school lunches …
Ben: Many parents hear this advice and want to follow it, but they just feel like they don’t have the time or the resources to do all of this. What are some tactical tips for, say, school lunches?
Kelly: A lot of people, when they think about breakfast and lunch, they think about specific foods: for breakfast, we have cereals, pancakes, waffles, eggs. For lunch, we have sandwiches, crackers and cheese, and fruit on the side.
I try to break out of that thinking and consider more options. For Sebastian’s lunch, for example, I often use leftovers. Recently, we had some Tolerant lentil pasta with a little bit of pesto and a lemon rotisserie chicken, which I know he’ll eat cold. We’re getting some fiber and some protein in that. Also, I want him to have something sweet in his lunch that feels fun, so I might get those dehydrated strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. (I never give him a whole bag because he can pound through the entire thing, and then we’re talking 50 to 60 grams of sugar.)
Today we did a little container of hummus, cucumbers, carrots, and red peppers because I know he loves it. I recently wrapped up some turkey slices with avocado, and I put in some Hu Crackers, an excellent almond flour cracker.
I love Siete tortillas if you can’t do nuts at your school. Also, cassava is a lower-carb flour tortilla, and I’ll do pizza pockets with that. Take pasta sauce, Italian sausage, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, saute it with some pizza sauce in a pan, and then put it in a Siete tortilla like a burrito.
If you have a nut-free school, sunflower butter is great. A little sunflower butter and some apples he can dip are excellent.
If you want packaged options, we use mini olive packs you can get at Thrive Market or Trader Joe’s. We’ll use Chomps or the Thrive Market mini grass-fed beef sticks. If he wants a crunchy chip, there are now artichoke chips that are delicious and just sliced artichokes. We also love seaweed snacks with salt. When he’s home, he’ll snack on nuts all the time. Pili nuts, pistachios. I know parents are terrified of choking, but Pili nuts are soft, they’re long, he knows to bite them in half.
Back to the Fab Four: Look at their lunch box and count the carbs. If there are two pieces of bread, crackers, and grapes, that’s four carbohydrates. Maybe there’s a little peanut butter or turkey in that bread, but that’s the only protein they’re getting.
So, how can you balance this out? Can you use a grain-free tortilla instead of two pieces of bread? You’re saving them 40 grams of carbohydrates, and you just went from two to one carbohydrate. Can you swap those crackers for veggies, swap those grapes for blackberries? Now you’ve got a balanced lunch box. Will they ever get grapes? Yeah, absolutely, but can you pick the day where they have veggie chicken curry or chili in a thermos, and then add grapes on the side because you know that their protein, fat, and veggies are in the chili. They’re going to eat that, fill up, and feel calm. It’s almost like grounding their body. And then they can have some grapes.
On cutting through food marketing …
Ben: One of the challenges we mentioned is the marketing of foods. It’s simple to fall into the trap of assuming something is healthy. And in fact, a lot of the companies making these products may genuinely be trying to make something healthy, but they don’t understand the implications of the ingredients they’re using. How can parents cut through that for themselves and their kids?
Kelly: Yeah, people need help. With all these hipster companies making a cracker or a cereal—it’s not just healthier because it’s grain-free. It’s not just more nutritious because they’re using coconut sugar. It’s not just healthier because they’re swapping canola oil for sunflower oil. We have to realize that this is still a highly processed food, and we need to have boundaries around those foods.
Unfortunately, boring whole foods aren’t as sexy as a cool grain-free cereal with a fun character on the front of the box. But this is where we as parents need to be parents and just bring the boring.
There’s going to be a time when my boys go off to college, and they’re going to make choices without me. I always hope that they come back to their foundation, which is that they know what real food is, and they know how to make whole food for themselves. When I think about my job as a parent, my job is to help them feel seen and supported and comforted and listened to and to teach them the things that they need to be their own person out in the world.