When our son was born, I promised I would never, ever take him to McDonald’s. I mean, unlike my parents, I had seen Fast Food Nation. I knew exactly what goes into fast food. I didn’t have an excuse. I would never want to poison my child with that crap!
So, four years later, why have I driven my son to McDonald’s at least a dozen times—not getting anything for myself, but happy to get him those happiest of happy meals? Because he wants it? Because it’s convenient? I think, unfortunately, American food culture gives us license to spoil our kids with bad food. And it literally spoils them, from the inside out.
No, I’m not advocating zero tolerance for junk food. I’m guilty as charged. But I think it’s important that we, as parents, take a closer look at our kids’ nutrition and question our own motives behind what we give them. Fruit snacks, starchy cracker snacks, yogurts loaded with sugar… the list goes on and on. We shouldn’t be guilt-tripped into giving them bad food. On the contrary, it’s our responsibility to equip them with a knowledge of good food and help them make the right choices.
So here’s a few things to keep in mind that will help you kick junk food to the curb in your household:
Food doesn’t equal happiness. And giving your kids healthy food doesn’t mean you love them less or are depriving them of happiness. In fact, you love them more by providing nutritious, balanced food without crazy sugars and additives. They think better, play better, and sleep better with proper nutrition. That’s a gift in and of itself, even if they can’t appreciate it immediately.
Knowledge is power. When I was in the first grade, my dad sent me to school with a thermos filled with lentil soup. I loved lentil soup with a passion. But when I flipped open my thermos and poured it into the cap with a mighty slurping noise, my classmates had an entirely different idea of what it was. That brown sludge? Diarrhea. Instead of sinking under the table in shame, I wish I could espoused the healthy benefits of such a choice to my class—or offered them a taste. If you’re sending your kid to school with unconventional food it’s a good idea that they know what it is, and can show enthusiasm about it if possible. Teach them that food is an adventure, and anyone who refuses the journey is missing out!
Taste wins out. Kids dig shiny packaging and super sweet snacks. And there’s a lot of peer pressure at the lunch table. But nine out of ten times, my kid will pick something like fresh blackberries over fruit snacks. Why? Holy crap they taste so much better. Taste, texture, temperature—it’s a party of flavor. No aftertaste, either.
Lead by example. I’m always amazed when people cook separate food for their kids at dinner time (the only time this is okay, in my mind, is if the kid is allergic or has a special diet for health reasons). The only message this puts across is that they, apparently, can eat whatever they want, and that you’re willing to bend to their will. Seriously not a good way to start lifelong eating habits. Kids aren’t yet wise enough to make good nutritional choices, so we have to help them out. By one year old, our son’s favorite foods were hummus and goat cheese. And while he occasionally protests food or demands we make him something else, on the whole he’s excited about good, wholesome food. It’s also important, however, to involve your kids in food selection, which gives them a vested interest in dinner. I know my son adores going to the Farmer’s Market here in Raleigh, and I always let him pick something out just for himself. (Last week, an entire pint of blackberries!)
Go for healthier knockoffs. Okay, so sometimes you can’t win. Sometimes you need a little food leverage. Instead of reaching for Goldfish or Cheez-Its, I go to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Their own brands of similar products are reasonably priced and are free of a slew of unnecessary ingredients. The same can be done for candy treats. My son adores real, decadent dark chocolate and natural black licorice. So much better than high fructose syrup sugar bombs! You might be surprised to find how much of a discerning palate young kids can have. Options for fast food? How about making a home-made happy meal? Or consider a local burger joint. Anything’s better than the golden arches.
The list is far from exhaustive. So how about you? Any suggestions for encouraging your kids to eat better?