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Family Nutrition: The O'Neills

Hilaree O’Neill, The North Face athlete and mother of two, shares her secrets for raising healthy kids.

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Last month, when most of us were participating in benign activities like barbecuing or inner tubing, Hilaree O’Neill, The North Face athlete and mother of two was climbing and skiing Denali. Crowned one of the most adventurous women in the sports world by Outside Magazine, not only has Hilaree skied and guided mountains globally – she’s also what some might consider a foodie. But athletes only live on “goo’s” and Red Bull, right? Not in the O’Neill household. Turns out, perseverance and dedication extends beyond bagging first descents, but also into the kitchen. Raising healthy kids is no easy endeavor, but a big priority, and Hilaree has managed to get her boys eating arugula, quinoa, and wild caught salmon. True story. Let’s find out how.

When skis and passport are stowed, Hilaree calls Telluride, Colorado (elevation 8,750 ft.) her homeport. On a typical summer morning, Hilaree and husband Brian – also a professional skier – enjoy a cup of coffee while their two son’s Grayden, 2, and Quinn, 3, munch on whole wheat waffles with organic strawberries and take their vitamins. After Quinn’s soccer practice (by the way, Quinn’s already been in a Warren Miller movie, making him way cooler than most of us already), a picnic is transported via bicycle to the river. Carrots, peppers, apples, grapes, homemade meatballs, and hot dogs are typical menu items. But not just any Oscar Mayer weiner.  

“Healthy snacks are a big priority for me, and I feel pretty strongly about local meat, eggs, and milk, but I’m not a Nazi about it,” says Hilaree. Every Thursday year round, Black Canyon Foods, a coop delivery service based in Olathe, Colorado, drops locally-sourced meat (including hot dogs), chicken, cheese, eggs, milk and produce on her doorstep. Between deliveries, she’ll grocery shop (her food spending estimate is between $800-$1,000 per month), make homemade meatballs and popsicles (with fruit and coconut milk), bake gluten free cookies, and puree vegetables.

“My kids are really hyper and spazzy – so I started paying more attention to food and it has made a big change,” she says. Quinn doesn’t do well with dairy, and she doesn’t like to keep white sugar in the house. Lately, Hilaree has also been doing more gluten free foods for herself. “I feel better, have more energy, quicker on my feet, not as groggy, little stuff like that. It’s not enough to make me be 100-percent, but if I’m baking cookies they tend to be gluten free. The bi-product is the kids get less too, which I think is good.”

So back to how, in between traveling internationally heli-ski guiding in southwest Colorado, Hilaree has managed to get a 2-year-old to consistently eat broccoli. Breaking it down, there are basically three approaches she uses. “I’m pretty strict,” she laughs, “but everything in moderation is the way I try to do it. I try to be flexible but within a routine.” This means that even though the kids eat really healthy, whole foods, a trip to the ice cream shop isn’t out the question.

First, she’s found that having sit down meals three times a day is huge.  “That way they know that if they don’t eat then, then they won’t eat again until the next meal. This works for us but it’s still a struggle. I’m a stickler – when I say you’re done your done. They have to be excused from the table.”

Next, she has a rule that the boys have to try everything, even if it’s just one bite and they end up spitting it out. “If one day they don’t like something, I keep trying it – just cause they don’t like something one day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again down the road, my kids are so fickle and they go through phases of not liking things – so I try different sauces or different shapes.”

The last tactic is an experiment. “I don’t know if this is the best method but sometimes I totally bribe them,” she laughs. She will tell the kids they have to go to bed unless they eat dinner  – but if they do eat, they can watch thirty minutes of TV, or get to play with water balloons. Sounds like a good strategy.

When it comes to feeding fickle kids healthy foods, the best advice from a badass athlete and cool mom: “Stick to your guns.”

Jess Kelley is a Master Nutrition Therapist and has a private practice in Durango, Colorado. She is also the Managing Editor of Edible San Juan Mountains Magazine.