Camila Alves McConaughey on parenting: 'When the kids want to get away with something, they definitely go to their father'

·7 min read

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Most parents can relate to having a pint-sized picky eater, but in Camila Alves McConaughey's just-released children's book, Just Try One Bite, it's the kids who are trying to expand the grown-ups' culinary horizons. While the Brazilian-born mom of three admits she has an aversion to salmon and okra, and is only a recent convert to mushrooms, she saw her first outing as a children's book author as an opportunity to provide a fun spin on the conversations families can have about healthy eating.

"I didn't want it to be preachy," she tells Yahoo Life of the book she's co-written with Adam Mansbach, with illustrations from Mike Boldt. "This book is not about 'follow one way' or 'follow a diet' or 'what's right/ what's wrong.' It's really about getting kids and parents to talk about 'how can we have a healthy relationship with our food and have fun with it?'"

Alves McConaughey knows first-hand the challenges of dealing with a picky eater at dinner time. The Yummy Spoonfuls co-owner and chief brand director shares three children with Oscar-winning husband Matthew McConaughey: 13-year-old Levi, 12-year-old Vida and 9-year-old Livingston. While the kids' eating habits fluctuate over time, it's currently Vida who is the hardest to please.

"She's going through a stage where ... a lot of vegetables and fruits that she used to like, all of a sudden she goes, 'I really don't like it. I really cannot have it,'" Alves McConaughey shares. "So what we did was [say], 'You know what? We understand that your taste buds are changing, your palate is changing. We understand and respect that, but you know that all those things are good for you. So we're gonna make a deal: You can have a throw-up vegetable."

A "throw-up vegetable," she explains, is something her mother-in-law came up with when battling with a young Matthew McConaughey over food. The child can choose their least-liked veggie — "the one that makes you gag" — and it'll never appear on their plate. The catch is that the child has to try at least a little bite if any other vegetable is served.

Ultimately, Alves McConaughey tries to ride out any picky phase, understanding that most of the food quirks her kids have picked up over time eventually fizzle out. But getting her kids to help out in the kitchen has also made it easier for them to learn about food and explore new flavors; having them make eggs or pizza is one of her mom hacks, as is serving up yummy smoothies packed with ingredients like kale that they wouldn't normally eat.

"The hack is really to get creative," she says. "Take the pressure out of trying to be perfect."

Camila Alves McConaughey on her new book, picky eaters and raising three kids. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Camila Alves McConaughey on her new book, picky eaters and raising three kids. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

She admits that perfection has eluded her when it comes to enforcing sparkling table manners, from keeping elbows off the table to chewing food with the mouth closed. Because McConaughey's 90-year-old mother, Kay, has moved in during the pandemic, getting the kids to stay at the table until their grandmother has finished eating has become a "constant conversation."

"I'm failing on this," she laughs. "I can't figure this one out."

Beyond dinner etiquette, the 39-year-old mom's biggest parenting challenge at the moment is guiding her kids — now tweens and a young teen — through hormone changes and the upheaval of the pandemic. Parents talk at length about the exhaustion of having a newborn, or the drama of dealing with moody teens, but the in-between angst is something Alves McConaughey was unprepared for.

"I'm actually more exhausted [now]," she says of the energy needed to handle this emotional phase. "It's like, give me the physical [work]. Let me change some diapers. I'll stay up all night. ... That brain power that you actually have to use to guide them through everything they're going through with this transition period, it's something that I wasn't [expecting]. I just didn't have many people talk to me about it to prepare me for it. So I was in a bit of shock. At the end of the day, I'm like, 'I wanna make tequila and I wanna go rest.'"

But this phase is also exhausting "in a good way," she notes. Getting to see her kids mature and grow more independent and form their own interests is a "joy," one that offers glimpses into the people they'll become and more meaningful conversations.

Compared to her movie star spouse, Alves McConaughey considers herself more of the disciplinarian, but notes that "we balance each other out very well." Though she tries to have fun too, her kids are more likely to go to McConaughey when they want to hear an "alright, alright, alright."

"When the kids want to get away with something, they definitely go to their father because they know they can probably get away with it better than with me," she says.

And then there's Grandma Kay — a.k.a. "KMac" — who Alves McConaughey laughingly calls a "troublemaker."

"It's definitely a transition, but it's been a big blessing," she says of her mother-in-law moving in. "She brings so much joy into the household. She's funny. She's sassy. She's a troublemaker. ... But it's very joyful. And the relationship that we're having with her now, and that the kids are having, is priceless."

Staying on top of a large, bustling household — including three kids, a grandmother, three dogs, two cats, assorted tortoises and fish and a husband "with a really busy life" — requires a lot of organization. Alves McConaughey keeps a large calendar on the wall, assigning a different Sharpie color to each person and planning appointments, events, trips and other obligations months in advance. She also squeezes in time for herself to step away from it all, even if it's just a 10-minute break where she can be on her own and have "nobody calling me, nobody asking for anything."

Just Try One Bite is released March 22. (Photo: Courtesy of Dial Books for Young Readers)
Just Try One Bite is released March 22. (Photo: Courtesy of Dial Books for Young Readers)

"I think that as moms, we have really high expectations of what we can do — as we should," Alves McConaughey says. "But the reality is that we have to step back and go, 'Alright. I know I can handle a lot, but what is really realistic for me?'

She adds: "I think we have to be realistic that we can't take those big breaks all the time. But to be able to have those little mini breaks that actually recharges us ... it just gives you that energy to continue going. ... Sometimes I just sit in the car before I come into the house and I just breathe. I do breathing exercises and I go, 'OK, I took five minutes. I did some breathing exercises. I'm ready now to go in.'"

Those little breaks can help tide moms like her over until "you can actually take proper time to yourself, which I think is very important." She recalls putting her "foot on the ground" during the pandemic.

"I'm like, 'I'm gonna lose it. I need to go,'" she says. "I literally did not even tell my husband where I was going. I packed up, I loaded the car and I was like, 'I gotta go. Like, I'm out. I need a day.' Sometimes you've just gotta do it. You've gotta do what you've gotta do. And it's important to realize when you need those bigger breaks."

—Video produced by Stacy Jackman.

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