An Experiment in Clean Eating for Behavior


I never thought I’d be the mom making eggs every morning for breakfast. Six weeks ago, I’d smear some peanut butter on toast to serve alongside yogurt or pour a big bowl of cheerios with banana. Today, I make eggs and serve with chia coconut milk pudding or fresh fruit or grain-free, dairy-free crepes. Let me be clear: I didn’t want the clean eating life. But the clean eating life came for my family, and we are doing the best we can with it.

clean eating for behavior

How it all started:

Two years ago, my toddler seemed to going through a”hitting” phase. It was developmentally appropriate at the time, so we ordered Hands are Not for Hitting and practiced gentleness and used timeouts as needed. It was a standard right of passage, we thought.

And it did get better—for a while. Then, after my youngest was born, the hitting returned. And a year and a half later, it was still going strong and joined by other aggressive behaviors—like throwing toys at others or spitting. We taught and disciplined and read and prayed and felt completely overwhelmed that our 4-year-old was somehow getting even more aggressive and defiant.

I felt like a failure. Another child told me one day at the gym childcare dropoff, “Oh, I’m glad I’m not in class with HIM today. He’s trouble.” I felt judged by others, big and small, but more importantly? I felt scared that I was failing my child.

My little guy has been evaluated through Early Intervention, the school system, and his pediatrician. They all agreed his only disorder is speech-related, and behavioral problems could be a result of poor communication skills. We started specifically working on phrases that could help in times of frustration, and we practiced play scenarios so he’d know how to use them. Things did improve, but he still seemed to be stuck in this area of regulating his emotions.

Hello, Desperation.  Meet my friend Food Elimination.

Enter food elimination. I talked to friends who had observed behavioral problems when their kids had dyes, sugar, gluten, dairy, soy. Articles on GAPS or grain-free diets for autism, SPD, ADHD became my reading material of choice. I was desperate and figured it wouldn’t hurt, so we went all in on dairy-free, grain-free, soy-free, legume-free, peanut-free, corn-free life. (Think Whole 30 or Paleo, y’all).

I expected my little family to freak out, but they have all been troopers, especially my 4-yr-old. Today is Day 30, and he now has peanuts in moderation and corn flour/rice flour in small amounts in one product.

He asks for watermelon or blueberries for desserts now, and he takes a Larabar to church for snacktime. He tells others “I can’t have that. That hurts my belly,” when faced with a grain-based snack. In 30 days, he has completely changed his eating habits. And for the first time in two years, I’ve noticed significant progress. He’s happier, less aggressive, less defiant. Maybe it’s a fluke, but I let him have brown rice oatmeal for three days, and they were rough. So I am thinking it’s not a coincidence. He still has moments—because he’s four. He still has trouble—particularly when he’s extremely excited. But progress was the goal, and we are there.

Does your story sound similar?

If this is something you’ve been thinking about for your family, or if you are just looking to eat a little healthier or focus on gut health, here are a few things I think helped us:


We talked about the changes for a week before making them. Everyone was on the same page as to what, when and why we were making new healthier choices.

Play to your strengths.

Fruit, fruit, sweet potatoes, fruit. That’s what got us through the first three days. The goal was not low-carb, so I made sure plenty carbs were included. However, my one-year-old did throw up and show signs of fatigue on Day Four, so I deliberately gave him a high carb meal, and he was back to normal within an hour.

Baked goods can still happen.

Coconut flour, almond flour, arrowroot flour. I can make crepes, buns, and muffins. I didn’t splurge on any of these until Week 3, but they have been a game changer.

Be reasonable.

Splurge products: Freedom cereal. It has rice flour, but they are allergen free and look like cheerios. Sometimes kids just need a little normalcy, ok? We also love Enjoy Life chocolate chips, all fruit leathers, sweet potato chips, and probiotic gummy snacks.

Prep ahead for school.

I make grain-free crepes on Sunday. Serve with fruit and almond butter or ham and treenut cheese (made with cashews or almonds). My son actually told me other kids wanted his “blueberry pancake.” We’ve also done “gorilla snacks” —  basically a sandwich wrapped in romaine leaves instead of bread.

Ask the experts.

Thankfully, Paleo and Whole 30 blogs abound. So much of the research and recipes are already done and available for free or very affordably. My husband always asks me what I’m looking at on my phone. 90% of the time, it’s Instagram pictures of food we can eat.

The learning curve is steep, but the results have been worth it. I can’t say it’s forever, but it’s working for now. And I’m thankful.

I never thought I’d be “that mom” or that my kids would voluntarily eat and enjoy healthy meals, but here we are. Grain-free, dairy-free, soy-free, legume-free—and happy about it!


    • I really enjoy The Paleo Running Momma’s website and the Against All Grain cookbooks! I also used RealPlans meal plans to get started.

  1. Wow, this hit home…especially the comment about having another child tell you that your kid is “trouble” (this happened to me while I was subbing at my son’s school). Thank you for this article & the suggestions. It helps to know we’re not alone!


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