Camila Alves McConaughey admits, she hasn't always set the perfect example for her three kids.
And one day, they totally called her out.
"They caught me," she told E! News, remembering the time she was busted sneaking chocolate out of her hiding place on a high shelf in the pantry. "And they're like, 'What are you doing?'"
Hand in the proverbial cookie jar aside, Alves was quite proud of them, since the main reason they thought it was a big deal was because their mom had already done that good of a job teaching them about healthy eating.
"Actually, they inspired me to go, 'You know what? I can't keep doing this, this is not OK,'" Alves said of sneaking sugar. "They encouraged me to go ahead and find better versions, so now my go-to is vegan chocolate. It still gives me my fix but it's better for me."
That teachable moment for everyone is reminiscent of the plot of the 39-year-old entrepreneur's first children's book, Just Try One Bite, co-written with Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Mike Boldt, which flips the script on the picky eater trope.
"We gave all the power to the kids, the kids know best, they're actually getting on the parents," Alves explained of the premise, in which three siblings are trying to convince their mother and father to set aside the ice cream and just try a bite of broccoli.
And though Levi, 13, Vida, 12, and Livingston, 9—all of whom have gone through "different stages at different times" with food, Alves shared—don't generally have to remind their model mom and Oscar winner dad, Matthew McConaughey, 52, to eat right, they have been empowered to make their own informed choices (within reason) when it comes to snacking.
"That's what I do in my household," Alves shared. "When the kids want to have something that's not good for them, I go, 'Hey, I'm not going to tell you not to have it. But look at the ingredient panel.' They go in and they start looking at it and I go, "Well, does it all sound like stuff that you would have in your kitchen? Does it all sound like stuff that you want to put in your body?'"
She recalled sports drinks being on of their first topics of conversation in this vein. "We were talking about food coloring and all of that" and she told them, '"Look, 'Red 40,' I know it sounds fun, but do you know what that is? Nobody does!"
So she turned that into a contest, offering a prize to whomever found out what it was first.
And "they still have it," Alves added, noting that she hasn't banned red food coloring or other fun, albeit less nutritionally dense, ingredients from the house. Rather, the kids know that, if they want something, they need to be aware of what's in it. "We're in no way, shape or form perfect in the household," she said. "But we try to create a balance with knowledge."
However, not knowing what was in something did get Alves to eat mushrooms, a food she had always despised with a passion. "You couldn't pay me enough to eat them," she quipped. (She draws the line at fish, though, revealing that she's never even tasted the salmon dish she makes that her husband likes so much.)
But after sampling and loving a vegetarian Bolognese prepared by Top Chef winner Kristen Kish, who did a Chef Series video for Alves' Women of Today (where you can find that recipe and more), she was shocked—shocked!—to find out she'd been happily scarfing down mushrooms.
"Ever since, that opened up my palate to try different ways of having mushrooms," Alves, who then tried it out at home (where it was shirtless husband-approved) explained.
Knowing just one savvy preparation can get a person to embrace new foods, giving more families the tools to make more nutritious choices has become a priority for the busy mom.
"It just became so clear to me how important it is to start the conversation early on, and how easy it is," she told E! "So much information is now accessible and there are so many things you can do that are actually simple changes. It doesn't have to be that hard or that difficult."
Acknowledging just how much information is out there, helpful and otherwise, she continued, "A lot of books say what you cannot do, and a lot of books go to the science of it or say you 'eat this, don't eat that.' But I haven't seen a book that makes it fun and funny and gives the kids the power and is not judgmental."
Enter Just Try One Bite, which also features the kids getting to tell their parents, "In your face, Mom and Dad." (Which had to have been a perk for Levi, Vida and Livingston, who narrate the audiobook along with Mansbach's daughters, the eldest of whom inspired his most famous work, 2011's Go the F--k to Sleep, when she was 2.)
The book "really represents the power that, if you give it to the kids, they will grab it and run with it," Alves said. "I've seen it happen in my own household. So if parents can have fun with it, I think it's awesome. And overall it's just a great conversation to have."
Again, she emphasized, "We do a balance. It's not about being perfect. You can still have your ice cream now and then, just not every day. You can still have your doughnut holes."
Her Texan husband came from a household where they talked about such things, so he got the memo early about enjoying sweets in moderation, Alves explained.
But though the Brazilian-born Alves, who moved to Los Angeles when she was a teenager, hailed from a family of farmers, she continued, and their "connection with food and where it comes from is really strong, we never talked about sugar. It was free-for-all sugar, and what do I struggle with now, as an adult? Sugar."
That being said, she noted, "I'm not here to tell any parents what to do. I'm not here to tell them to follow a certain diet, to follow a certain direction on how to feed their kids. But I am here to tell them that the conversation with kids about healthy habits and how food interacts within their body is a very important conversation to have. And if we start that early on, then most likely you are setting your child up for life-long good habits."
Just Try One Bite is on sale Tuesday, March 22.
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