Although my husband and I are pretty healthy eaters, we've decided to allow our three children some leeway when it comes to junk food.
That's because we know that prohibiting something completely — especially from kids — can only make it more appealing down the road. In other words: I don’t want junk food to become the forbidden fruit they gorge on later when they start to make their own food decisions. And we know that by widening their exposure to whole foods, all sorts of vegetables and fruits, and nutritional home cooking, we're setting them up for healthy habits overall.
We instill the idea that there are basically two different kinds of foods: Those that support health and make you feel great in the long term, and those that are simply fun to eat in the moment. And so treats that fall into the second category are OK, if they're in moderation.
Over the past 12 years of parenthood, we’ve refined and adopted a loose set of guidelines that help keep our kids healthy while still allowing for junk food:
1. Eat healthy 80% of the time.
I've always liked the concept of the "80/20" rule: fill your diet with good stuff 80% of the time. It aligns with my overall philosophy of moderation when it comes to health. By practicing this rule, junk food will never be front and center in a kid’s mind, and the odd unhealthy snack is such a departure from the norm that a small amount feels like enough.
2. Start meals with the good stuff.
Sure, my kids may prefer a bowl of cereal and milk for breakfast, but I insist they start out their morning with a fruit and veggie smoothie first. In the same way, their afternoon snack may include cookies at times, but it always begins with fruit. And sometimes, that ends up being enough for them anyway.
3. Create a conversation around health.
Without being the household bore on all things health-related, I try to keep up an ongoing discussion in our home about the benefits of great, nutritious food. For example, if broccoli is part of the meal, I might mention the nutrients in it and explain why they're great for our bodies.
At the same time, I also find it's equally important to lay off the nutrition speak once in a while and just enjoy dinner together. We don't want kids who are obsessed with food one way or another.
4. Make cooking at home the norm.
We cook in our kitchen almost every evening. Getting kids accustomed to eating a home-cooked meal at the table establishes a standard that simply doesn’t allow for much junk food. When the majority of their meals are at home, I can omit just about anything processed, plus introduce new healthy foods.
5. Keep vegetables front and center.
No matter what our meal at home is, vegetables are always served in large quantities. My kids know that eating veggies is not optional, and they're exposed to many different varieties throughout a given week.
6. Buy the best produce.
My kids have learned to appreciate an amazingly ripe, locally produced quality piece of produce. They get more excited about a peach in the middle of summer than just about anything else. Sometimes at the farmer’s market they “oooh” and “aaaah” over the selection of seasonal fruits. So what if the occasional bag of Skittles gives them a thrill as well?
7. Offer treats that aren't junk food.
Sweets and other treats can be unprocessed, healthy and indulgent when you bake at home using quality products. I find that kids will go for homemade cookies made from fresh ingredients, straight from the oven, over an Oreo every time.
And with the multitude of healthy food bloggers and innovative ways of baking with less sugar and artificial ingredients, the options are endless. I recommend this raw chocolate cake recipe and gluten-free pudding.
8. Let them party.
Having said that, I believe that there's an occasion for everything, and even holiday-themed Oreos have their place in our home — though I admit it's pretty rare.
Similarly, when the kids go off to a birthday party or play date, we don't give them any rules about what to eat or not to eat. “Have fun and be polite” is just about it from us. A break from the norm, and not focusing on anything but a fun time, is good for their soul.
9. Keep screen time to a minimum.
The amount of junk food commercials on television is nothing short of astonishing, especially when childhood obesity is a serious problem.
So we've found that setting limits on screen time is a huge help in keeping our kids away from the powerful pull of junk food advertising. Bonus: This also gets them outdoors for something active instead.
10. Know your limits.
There are some items that just won’t make it into our junk food arsenal at home … ever. I draw the line at any soda, colored sugary cereals, and almost anything with cartoon characters on the packaging. I can be flexible, but those are my bêtes noires!
And although my kids will eat occasional food-like "stuff" with zero redeeming nutritional value, I have to secretly smile to myself when they ask me if they can eat an apple during our weekly family movie night. Score!