I often get questions from concerned moms about how to keep kids from wanting sugary snacks and junk food. It may seem that the easiest compromise is to allow them to eat sugary snacks and junk food only occasionally. But the problem is, once they have it, they want more.
Healthy eating has always been a very important value in our family. Throughout the years, my husband and I researched and learned about nutrition and adapted our diet accordingly. We knew that not only did we have to eat healthy but we also had to teach the same to our kids. We cooked most of our meals from scratch and only allowed select sweets to ourselves and our children. At home, that worked. But eating outside of home often got us in trouble. Our family and friends didn’t always share our values, which led to a lot of misunderstanding and drama. Still, we felt that we needed to stay firm in our commitment, or else it would not work. So we continued to cook healthy foods at home despite the time and effort it took, and we didn’t let the kids eat the unhealthy stuff at parties despite the negativity and judgment we got from people.
Of course, we allow our children to eat sweets and occasionally, junk food such as popcorn or potato chips. However, there are major differences between the conventional approach and ours, as described below.
Everything in Moderation
We always ensure that our kids eat sweets in moderation. Every night after dinner we give them some chocolate or honey. We serve ice cream once a week on Friday night (the Jewish Shabbat). I only buy them popcorn or potato chips occasionally about once a month, and we don’t store any in the house. Other than popcorn or chips, they don’t eat any “junk food.”
We only buy sweets – as well as any other processed food – with the fewest simple ingredients and without any preservatives, coloring, flavors or any other chemicals. Our kids’ sweets include dark chocolate, honey or nuts. We buy white solid honey from Whole Foods. We also buy dark chocolate from Whole Foods with the fewest ingredients possible. We give the kids nuts that naturally contain sugar. We buy nuts with no preservatives from nuts.com. The same principle – buying organic or at least GMO-free with no chemicals and few ingredients – applies to the chips or popcorn that I buy occasionally. Our Friday night ice cream also comes from Whole Foods – usually it’s 365 Organic Fudge Bars.
We only let the kids eat sugar after dinner, not before. After a full meal, the kids don’t want to consume as much sugar as they would when they are hungry. Before bedtime, we serve plenty of different fruits and berries which all contain natural sugar, so the kids crave processed sweets even less.
It Starts At Home
If you want your family to eat healthy, you need to eliminate all the unhealthy food from your house. You cannot promote healthy food to your kids when they know that you have junk food stashed away. They will ask for it and you will be tempted to give it to them as a reward or when you are too tired to cook. To avoid these temptations, keep your house clean of any food you normally wouldn’t want your family to eat.
It Starts with You
Practice what you preach. If you want to teach proper eating habits to your kids, you must follow these habits yourself. When you tell your kids that donuts are unhealthy and then your kids see you secretly eating donuts (because kids see more than you think), they will stop taking you seriously. Not to mention that eating unhealthy food is not good for you either.
What About Exceptions?
Sure, there is always room for exceptions, right? Why not let them eat junk food at a picnic with friends or at a birthday party? We struggled with this dilemma a lot and decided that such exceptions ruin everything. The problem is, you make an exception once, then you make an exception again, and then it quickly becomes the norm. There is no such thing as a little bit of poison. Sugar leads to addiction: once your kids eat an unhealthy sugary snack, they will want more. So stick to your standards and don’t cross that line.
I know people who are strict about healthy eating at home but lower their standards when they travel. No one is perfect but again, it’s best to avoid making exceptions. Consider the consequences: will it really make you feel better if you stuff your face with sugary, fatty processed food? Will your body feel better in the long term? When you get back home, will you want to come back to your healthy diet? Will your kids?
Personally, we always go to great lengths to only pick healthy food restaurants when we travel. It’s not always easy, but thankfully, healthy eating options are becoming more popular and numerous, especially in large cities. We also cook our own breakfasts when we travel and only go out for dinner. Most supermarkets carry at least some healthy products that you can cook for breakfast.
Yes, it requires more planning if you want to retain your healthy eating habits when you travel. You will need to create a list of places where you will be eating, with their locations and directions. You will need to plan your meals and include them in your itinerary because you don’t want to just stop by a McDonald’s spontaneously. But in the long term, all the effort is worth it. When you come back, you will not have to bring everyone back on the same page regarding healthy diet, your kids will not be whining and asking for the treats they had on the trip, and you will feel good about yourself.
Many people think that healthy sweets are more expensive but that’s not exactly true. Processed sweets such as chocolate or ice cream are about the same price at Whole Foods as they are in other supermarkets – maybe only slightly more expensive. We buy honey at Whole Foods only because of convenience and preference but other supermarkets carry honey as well. Healthy snacks such as nuts and fruits can also be found at any supermarket. Thankfully, healthy food options are becoming more widespread and versatile.
When it comes to healthy eating, it’s more about planning than price. You need to make a list of snacks you want in your pantry rather than buying snacks spontaneously, you need to research about ingredients in these snacks, and you need to plan where and how much you want to buy. Also, you need to plan and pack the snacks and water with you whenever you take the kids out for a walk, on a trip, to a park or picnic. That will help you avoid buying junk food on the go.
Kids love snacks and snacks are good for them. But snacks don’t have to contain processed sugar and fat. We keep a pantry and fridge filled with simple healthy snacks that our kids can grab throughout the day: bananas, apples, nuts, Corn Thins (our kids particularly love those). Instead of commercial popsicles, our kids sometimes make their own ice pops from honeyed green tea. Instead of commercial fruit juice, our kids drink plenty of water. All that works perfectly.
The Teaching Aspect
You can’t just say to a child “You can’t have that!” You need to explain why. Once they understand why, they are more likely to listen to you and, most importantly, to refrain from eating junk food even when you are not present and even when other kids around are eating it. You want your children to politely refuse junk food not because you are standing next to them and making them do it, but because they understand that junk food is bad for their health. We have finally trained our kids to refrain from processed sweets and junk food both in and out of home, but it took years of patience and teaching. When they were little, we simply told them that some ingredients in processed food were poisonous. It’s true, and we didn’t just make it up to scare them: many chemicals in processed food are indeed bad for your health. Now that the kids are getting older, we are explaining more and more to them about nutrition, calories, ingredients and the chemistry of food. We cook together with them and explain how healthy food is made and what kind of ingredients go into food preparation. We take them grocery shopping with us and teach them to examine the labels on food products. Nutrition is an important subject in our homeschool education. I want them to be informed shoppers and smart eaters when they grow up.
I know that for many parents, the toughest part is to avoid unhealthy sweets at kids’ outings and parties. Like I said, it’s a gradual and patient teaching process to train your kids to make the right choices when they are around others. But you may also have to make some adjustments in your social life. We generally don’t do birthday parties because traditionally, we prefer to celebrate birthdays within a small cozy family circle. So the problem of birthday parties is not as relevant to us as it is to many other parents. Whenever we do go to parties we bring some healthy food to share with everyone. Usually, that works, but at times we face negativity and judgement for not eating like “everyone else.” If you ever have the same experience, you may decide whether you really want to hang out with people who don’t respect the food choices you make for yourself and your kids.
It’s hard to teach children to refrain from sweets and junk food when they see their friends eating it. But it’s worth it. In the long term, it’s important to teach your kids that it’s perfectly fine and even necessary to stick with the values you believe in – even when everyone around you doesn’t share your values. This lesson will serve your kids well when they grow up into young adults and have to deal with all kinds of peer pressure.
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