The Junk Food Question: Should Kids Be Allowed to Have It? |

The Junk Food Question: Should Kids Be Allowed to Have It?

admin March 16, 2012

Image by Like_the_Grand_Canyon

When I was growing up, treats were frequent.  My lunch everyday included a snack cake (and some chips and “juice” that wasn’t usually real juice).  My parents almost always had ice cream or other desserts on hand, on what they called “the goodie counter” and we were generally allowed to have something (or more than one thing) each day.  We were often taken to the mall on the weekends and bought ice cream or some other treat.  Suffice to say, I did not grow up eating real food.

When my kids were born, I struggled some.  I wanted them to eat those nice things I had growing up.  I wanted them to have treats.  My parents did too — my mom once tried to sneak my then 7-month-old daughter a tiny bite of chocolate frosting at my dad’s birthday celebration!  (They know better now, and respect our choices — it’s been easier as the kids have grown and they’ve been able to see how healthy and happy they are.)  I knew intellectually that there was a good reason not to give them this junk food, but I initially felt like I was somehow depriving them of some experience, some rite of passage in childhood.  Doesn’t every kid taste a Hostess cupcake or Oreos?  (I don’t think my kids ever have.)

Then there are those who say, “If you make it forbidden, they’ll go crazy once they’re away from home,” or “It’s mean to deny your kids treats, let them just be kids already!”  These types of comments make a parent feel even more guilty sometimes and wonder if they’re really doing the right thing in denying their child certain treats.

So, what to do?

Junk Food Kids

These days, junk food isn’t exactly held as a special treat.  Gone are the days (for many families) when one homemade cookie after a nourishing dinner was the extent of that day’s treats.  Instead, visiting a grocery store or a school cafeteria shows a different picture: an explosion of artificial colors, flavors, wildly-designed eye-catching packages, and so on.  Most of what kids eat these days could be considered “junk.”

Kids eat brightly colored cereal puffs with low-fat pasteurized milk and fake “orange juice” for breakfast.  They eat pre-made crustless PB&J sandwiches with bags of potato chips, snack cakes, and sports drinks for lunch.  They eat pre-made “roasts” with packaged white noodles and canned peas for dinner.  They have an assortment of colored, artificially flavored popsicles, ice creams, cookies, cakes, candy, and other sugary treats for snacks and desserts.  How many parents have boxes of “healthy” fruit snacks, granola bars, and other packaged snacks in their homes right now?  (And have you read those labels?  They might surprise you.)

Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, everyday.  Eating from a box, or a can, or some type of package, though, is the rule rather than the exception in most households.  This means that these foods really aren’t even treats anymore — they are simply a way of life.  I think anyone who’s reading here will agree that this is not the healthiest way to eat, even if you are not sure what else to do yet!  (In which case, please check out my baby steps.)

Today’s kids aren’t healthy…and their diet is to blame.  Just take a look at the major processed food ingredients and it’s easy to see why many parents are beginning to avoid them!

No Treats Allowed

Some parents see this and react so strongly that they do a complete 180.  None of these awful, horrible treats will ever cross their child’s lips.  If it has sugar (in any form) — nope.  If it has a label on it (comes in a package) — forget it.  If it has any white flour — it’ll give them diabetes!  If it’s not organic — why would you allow your child to eat pesticides?!

Some parents do become a bit fanatical about this.  I know parents who claim that their child (who is between age 2 and school age) has never had a single bite that wasn’t organic.  They will refuse food anywhere they go, bringing their own snacks and freaking out if their child picks up a friend’s “unapproved” snack and tries to take a bite.

This is a little overboard.  (And I am not talking about children who have food allergies.  Sometimes this level of caution is warranted in that case.  I’m talking about a perfectly healthy, allergy-free child.)

If a child is never allowed to have any treat, even if homemade, and any packaged foods are treated like they are poison, and especially if nothing is explained to the child (beyond “Never eat that!”) then yes, children are at risk for bingeing in the future.  A child who is fed a “perfect” diet from a parent who simply walls off any other options is likely to someday taste something out of a friend’s lunch and realize it won’t kill him, enjoy it, and want to eat more.  Some may simply try a homemade cookie and love sugar so much (because really, who doesn’t?) that she tries to find cookies whenever possible and doesn’t seem to know when or why to stop.

This isn’t guaranteed to be the outcome, of course, but parents who are super strict about food and don’t allow questions or “treats” now and then are more likely to have kids who rebel.

There’s another way.

Image by bcmom

Homemade Is Better

Do my kids eat treats?  Absolutely!  They are very familiar with cake, cookies, brownies, ice cream, and so on (are you familiar with the recipes in Treat Yourself?).  What they’re not familiar with is brand names.  They’ve never had an Oreo.  They don’t eat Edy’s.  They don’t ask for Duncan Hines.  Instead, especially if they see something at the store that looks good, they say, “Mom, can you make a good one of those at home?”

There is nothing wrong with homemade treats.  

We all enjoy treats.  And frankly if you know that you can’t have that store-bought brownie now, but you can go home and bake some yourself in a little while, you’re a lot less likely to break down and have it anyway than if the answer was “no brownies at all.”  Kids are the same way.  If you say “I’m not buying cookies,” you might get a tantrum.  If you follow that sentence with “…but I’ll bake you some at home,” most kids will be satisfied.

Offering homemade treats also gives a chance to dialogue with your children.  Which ingredients do we choose?  Why do we choose them?  Which ingredients are in the store-bought version?  We sometimes dawdle through the grocery store and pick up random packages and read the labels on them.  I read off things like, “High fructose corn syrup…mono and di-glycerides…modified cornstarch…red 40” and ask my kids if that sounds like food.  They look very surprised and say “No!”  They understand, as well as they can at their ages, why we do not buy the store versions.  And they know they will be offered homemade cookies or ice cream — sometimes.

Away from home, many families live by an 80/20 rule, or sometimes a 90/10 rule.  That is, the vast majority of what they eat is healthy and nourishing.  But occasionally they throw caution to the wind and eat something they normally wouldn’t.  So maybe they are at a birthday party and they allow their child to have a slice of cake — though it is filled with sugar, corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, food dyes, and so on.  It’s not healthy, but barring food allergies, one slice a year isn’t going to kill them.

Or, maybe there’s a backyard barbecue and everyone’s making s’mores.  That chocolate has a lot of sugar and soy lecithin in it.  Those graham crackers have high fructose corn syrup.  And don’t even get me started on the marshmallows!  Again, barring allergies, enjoying one per year isn’t going to hurt anything.

Treats are treats because they are rare.  And they are special.  It might mean a great deal to your child to enjoy a s’more when everyone is roasting their marshmallows and fellowshipping around a campfire together, because that treat is a part of a greater experience.  It probably doesn’t mean anything if you buy a box of Fudgesicles for random afternoon snacks vs. making healthy, homemade fudgesicles instead  — or even skipping them and going for a fruity frozen yogurt.  Choose treats wisely.

In general, this is how we do things: if a treat is part of some special experience, we allow it.  We’ve adopted a tradition of taking our kids to a local gourmet ice cream shop for their birthdays (Jeni’s, if you’re local).  It’s special, it’s rare.  But we don’t buy junk just because we had a particular attachment to it as children or young adults.  They don’t need to taste Doritos just to say they have.  Instead of giving them a fondness for store-bought junk, we give them a fondness for homemade goodness.  “Mom, will you make those dried apple snacks again?  How about those white bean muffins?  TACO MEAT!”  (an enduring favorite)

Allergy Kids

The one exception to this is, of course, children with food allergies.  In this case it isn’t even a question of “treat or no treat,” it’s a serious health issue.  I would encourage parents of allergy kids to find safe, similar treats.  If you know your child is going to a birthday party and won’t be able to eat cake, bring a safe cupcake with you (some parents bake a dozen and keep them in the freezer for occasions such as these).  If you know everyone will be roasting marshmallows and your child can’t have them (they have corn in them, so Jacob couldn’t, supposing he were old enough to eat them in the first place), bring some safe ones, or make your own.

Allergy kids need treats too.  And as always, having one available will quell their desire to swipe an unsafe bite from a friend. 🙂

How do you handle treats in your home?

Choosing to offer homemade treats is good and why.

The Occasional Cheat?

Why some parents choose to offer occasional treats away from home, when and how often.  Situations in which it’s not a good idea.


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1 Comment

  1. Jeni’s ice cream is SO good! That is a fun tradition for your kids. 🙂 My husband and I enjoy going there for a treat in the summer, too.


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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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