Sugar- and salt-laden packaged foods are a fact of modern life. But they don’t have to dominate your family’s home food environment. See which boundaries work for my family, and that might work for yours!
Many of you may be surprised to learn that my healthy kids don’t always eat healthy foods! It’s tragic, I know. The sad reality is that some of them are old enough to make their own choices when they aren’t home, and they don’t always choose green peppers when chips are an option.
As a mother, I’ve thought long and hard about this. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to let me kids make their own food choices. But that I don’t have to throw up my hands and stop teaching and modeling healthy habits.
The truth it, we can’t control the amount of junk food our kids will encounter in the world. But we CAN create a home environment that champions different food values and makes healthy food normal and available.
And we have to trust that the lessons we teach our kids at home will last into adulthood when it’s time for them to make their own choices all the time.
Here are the five household rules I set around junk foods with my kids. You are free to use my rules as your own, or come up with your own. This is what works for us.
1. I Do Not Use My Grocery Budget to Buy Junk Food
Don’t worry that you’ll be depriving your kids by not buying junk food. Between school, church, little league and grandma’s house, today’s kids have loads of opportunity to eat junk food. The foods we never buy and bring home include:
- Chips (deep fried potato chips- you can totally make your own!)
- Commercial fruit snacks (void of fruit, nutrients, and full of sugar)
- Commercially packaged desserts like cookies. (We’re not anti-sugar on this site and I love to bake cookies with my family. But there is no reason to buy them already made in a box.)
- Soda pop (seriously, overpriced and no one needs it!)
- Candy (although we do make exceptions to this on holidays like Halloween. I just don’t stuff my pantry with Swedish fish for any time the kids “need something sweet!”)
To have these in our pantry would send mixed messages about our desire to be a healthy family. These foods are not forbidden for my kids. In fact, no food is off limits for my kids! But they’re not part of our regular grocery purchases.
2. I Commit to Stocking My Fridge and Pantry with Healthy Foods
It’s not enough to avoid buying junk food. We also need our kids to have access to a variety of healthy foods! Fill your fridge and counter with fruits and vegetables. Stock your pantry with dried fruits, nuts, seeds, or homemade granola. Kids learn that they can eat what’s available. And they’ll develop a taste for nutritious food.
3. I Limit Screen Time
I consider this part of my snacking strategy for two reasons. One: being engroseed in an iPad screen lends itself a little too well to mindless snacking. When kids are active, or in a social setting, they tend to have more awareness about their habits and appetites, compared to when they’re in front of a screen.
And two: Junk food ads aimed at children are still prevalent, and they’re more or less designed to get kids to beg their parents to buy sugary treats and processed snacks. Nutritionist and food activist Marion Nestle gives a compelling talk on this topic here. Limiting screen time means kids have less exposure to junk food ads.
4. I Keep My Kids Connected to Our Family Food
Kids like to know what to expect. So I let my kids know what’s on the meal plan, and I let them help me decide what to make. I also shop with them, grow our vegetable garden together, and most importantly, eat with them as a family. The more we can integrate our healthy lifestyle with our kids’ when they’re young, the more ingrained those lessons will be when they’re grown.
5. I Don’t Strictly Prohibit Junk Food
Tightly restricting kids’ access to “treat foods” can backfire, leaving them curious and craving all those colorful, appealing snacks. You’re doing enough when you make your home base a healthy place. When kids are out in the world, letting them taste and explore lots of different kinds of foods is part of supporting their healthy relationship with food.
So there you have it! Parenting is hard. My favorite quote is, “if you think parenting is hard, you are doing it right!” It’s easy to ignore or minimize the importance of teaching your kids to have a healthy relationship with food, but the sooner you can do these things, the sooner the lessons will be learned.
Do you have any tips to help keep your kids away from junk food?
I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.Learn More about Natalie