For a parent who cares about healthy eating, navigating the endless opportunities for children to eat junk food can be overwhelming at times. Here are my four top tips for helping kids to make good food choices in a fast food world.
1) What happens at home matters most.
Create a home environment that offers real food choices. One of the great things about human physiology is that we crave what we most regularly eat. As parents, this gives us a unique opportunity to influence our children’s food preferences, simply by being mindful about the foods they eat every day. Make a choice about the foods that you eat together at home, and commit to it. If you don’t want the kids to eat it, don’t buy it. Home is where you’ll be shaping your children’s long-term food preferences. And where you can have the greatest influence without a struggle.
2) Let them eat junk. Yes, really.
From school-age onwards, allow children to eat junk food when it’s presented socially, if they want to. Whilst this can be really tough for some parents, particularly health conscious ones, it’s important to give kids the opportunity to experience what junk food does for them. How it makes them feel. Generally speaking, if you eat a nourishing diet of real foods most of the time, when you do eat highly processed foods they’ll make you feel pretty average. Some kids need to learn this for themselves, so let them experience the consequences of their own choices, to learn how to make good ones.
I remember being at parties and social gatherings when my youngest daughter was little, and she might ask me if she could have a ghastly-looking treat she had her eye on. I would answer that it’s up to her. She told me in later years that she found this so annoying! It made her question whether she really wanted it. It would have been so much easier for her to look to me for permission; instead, she had to take responsibility for the choice she made. As a teenager now, she has a great relationship with food and chooses nourishing foods over junk foods wherever she can, without any angst.
3) Show don’t tell.
Show your children how to make good food choices by talking through your own decision making process around food (focusing on how the food makes you feel rather than concerns about weight gain). For example, instead of telling my daughter she can’t have a piece of that towering, rainbow frosted birthday cake, I might say ‘Mmm, I don’t think I want any of that. It looks so pretty, but I don’t think I’ll feel very good afterwards’. Or ‘It does look good but I probably won’t feel great if I eat a whole piece. I might just have a tiny taste instead’. And if she chooses to have some cake I accept it without comment. By showing her how I make arrive at my decisions, I’m modelling making a choice that’s good for me – without controlling her. If I control her, how will she ever learn to control herself? And ultimately, that’s what she’ll need to do to manage her own life.
If you find that you have trouble making good choices for yourself, it will be hard to model that for your children. In this case, working on your own relationship with food (and getting professional support if needed) is the best way you can help them grow up feeling good about food.
4) Just relax.
Yes, I know this is a big ask when you see your children eating something you know isn't good for them. But restricting and/or controlling our children’s food choices invariably does more harm than good. In fact, restricting certain foods can lead to those foods being more appealing to children and making them more likely to eat greater quantities of them when they are available. In addition, children whose parents restrict their intake of certain foods have higher levels of guilt and anxiety around eating. Trust your child to know where their limits are. By showing trust in your children, they learn to trust themselves to do what’s right for their bodies.
Ultimately, the area for us to focus our attention on is the food environment and culture in our homes, and modelling a healthy relationship with nourishing, whole foods ourselves. Children will grow up to love the foods they share with us around the family table, and absorb our values around food and self-care far more than the rules we impose upon them.
And if they divert for a while and binge on junk food as teenagers, as teenagers are known to do, hold tight. Chances are they’ll return to their roots and embrace the good food you raised them on. And if they don’t, the choice will be theirs, not yours.