How to raise a junk-food obsessed child – Part 1

“The junk food strategy is not just for today – it is for a child’s lifetime”  

– Ellyn Satter

Junk food. It’s the number one concern of most parents.

“My kids act like they have never seen it”

“They ask for it all the time”

“No matter how much they eat, it’s never enough for them”

Sound familiar?

Growing up, I had a friend who had a cupboard full of junk food which she could take whenever she wanted, and as much as she wanted.  I distinctly remember going to my best friend‘s house after school, and walking past the sweet shelf. It was not high up, and any time she wanted she could take something from it. Sometimes she would take a chocolate piece from a slab, or a biscuit and forget about it. It was constantly stocked with candy, sweets, and crisps and chocolate, and she didn’t really care too much about it. She did however love preparing her own salads and toasted tuna bagels.

I was in SHOCK. In my house (there were lots of kids) all treat food was devoured instantly.

In her house junk was as accessible and morally equal to an apple and chicken and carrots.

The result?

She ate it – in moderation, when she felt like it and forgot about it. It had no control over her, and she never felt the need to binge on it or eat more than her body enjoyed.

You probably think, that could never happen in my house. My kids are obsessed with sugar, and the more they get it, the more they want it.

But there’s another school of thought when it comes to junk food.

To deal with the massive topic of junk food we first need to go back to the beginning.

Junk food (low-nutrient, high calorie) food is part of the world

The first thing to understand is that these foods are part of the world and they are not going anywhere. As our children get older, we are going to have less and less control over what they eat. Camp, sleepovers, spending time at friends’ homes all mean that our children need the tools to navigate all foods. It’s all very well having no junk food at home and making your children swop party treats for toys, but what are they going to do when they leave the home one day? Will they binge on these foods and only eat them because they are so novel and restricted?

With that in mind:

The goal is for kids

  • to feel safe and comfortable around all foods – including high sugar, high calorie, non-nutrient dense food – think chocolate, sweets etc
  • to know how to manage themselves around all food – whether at home or not, whether you are there or not
  • to enjoy all foods – including junk foods – moderately, to satisfaction
  • to be relaxed around junk food

The goal is NOT

  • to get your kids to not like sugary sweet food by not letting them eat. Sugar is tasty.
  • to keep them from eating these foods as long as you can
  • to limit them from eating them when they are available and ration them out like they are so rare
  • to make these foods into a huge deal and freak out when they eat them
  • to lecture them about why these foods are bad for them
  • for kids to feel shame or guilt about enjoying junk food
  • to eliminate junk food from schools, parties and friends.

Your kids will grow up into adults with their own money, and then what? They need to have the tools to deal with the real world, which includes tons and tons of “junk” food. I am all for advocacy, but am a realist. If you can influence your child’s school, you are amazing. But you can’t change the food in every supermarket. So you need to equip them to be relaxed around these foods.

Why?

Because by restricting these foods and making them into a huge deal and so rare and off-limits, you are guaranteeing a junk-food obsession which lasts well into adulthood.

The way we TALK about them and the way we provide ACCESS to them means that our children become obsessed with them.

Our kids never know when they will get them, and that they can eat as much as they want. So they become those kids who pig out when they can – past fullness and enjoyment – out of fear of deprivation. Those kids at the party (mine sometimes) who cram jelly beans into their pockets, and won’t leave the sweet table?

You can pretty much bet that junk food is restricted, limited and controlled extremely at home.

So, does this mean offering chocolate every meal every day? No. It’s a whole philosophy rooted in the sDOR – Satter Division of Responsibility, but here’s how it looks in my house and how I recommend it to parents I work with.

(On a personal note – this was very hard for me to do. I was terrified of these foods, and tried to make sure my kids never saw them or ate them).

JUNK FOOD AT HOME

  • Offer it predictably, semi-regularly with no fanfare and NO LIMITS For example, at snack time a few times a week, offer a plate of cookies for everyone to have their fill and more, milk and apples. Let them eat as much as they can! We want to counteract the scarcity mentality which leads to bingeing/ overeating when it’s available. We need lots of opportunities to experience it, and normalize it. You may freak out! In the beginning they probably will eat a fortune. Then it becomes the norm, they eat a few and move on. I do this less now because I don’t feel they need it as much – they get tons on the weekends – and because I forget to buy it!
  • Dialogue I try my very best not to demonize food, or create food hierarchies. Food is food. There are different types of food, but none is morally superior. We talk about that all food is part of a balanced diet. I  don’t never use the word junk food or rubbish. By calling it junk, rubbish, unhealthy etc you are making it more exciting for your children. You are creating a separate category of forbidden foods, one which makes them want it more.
  • Lunch boxes I was always the “I can’t believe what parents put in their kids lunch boxes” type. Now, I consciously usually put a treat item in my daughter’s lunch. Why? Because everyone else does it, and I want her to not feel deprived and make her beg/ swap/ obsess/ steal in the future because she never gets it. 90% of her lunch is nutritious and  a bit of less nutrient food is completely fine
  • Enjoy it with them We often espouse the values of vegetables to our kids. Carrots make you see in the dark and spinach makes you grow. But when it comes to junk food – we look disparagingly as they eat their ice cream. We teach them to be ashamed, guilty and fearful of food. We teach them it’s not to be enjoyed because we feel guilty to eat it. We teach them to hide when they eat it because mommy gets upset. Or worse, it’s so unacceptable that kids sneak it, hoard it, hide it or wait for mommy to go out they can can eat that ice-cream in the freezer. Learn from them – watch how they savor each lick, eat the sprinkles one by one and jiggle with joy like my 3 year old. It’s a marvel watching him eat a cupcake. So I try sometimes sit with them and eat ice cream and talk about how yummy it is together and to make happy memories. Sometimes, if I am eating chocolate I will offer my daughter. No reason. She says, why are you giving me. I say, because I know you like chocolate and I love you. Or just because I thought you would want.
  • Ask them what food they want to have more of I learned this from an amazing mom on a FB group I am part of and I quoting her. I could not say it better than she said it. Her wisdom floored me.

“My 8 year old made a comment “eat as much cheesecake as you can because you won’t get any for a long time”.I asked her “if you knew you were having cheesecake again soon, would you eat as much today? Of course she answered “no”. This idea of eating as much as you can because you won’t see that food again was obvious in so many meals over the holidays. It led to conversations with my kids and a deeper awareness of the effects of this. I told them, If you are ever eating anywhere and feel like you want to eat as much as you can fit into your body because you know it’s the only time you can  eat it.. tell me about it and we’ll add it to the menu in the near future so you don’t have to eat more than feels comfortable right now. Now, hanging on the wall is a list of foods they love I’ll be adding to the menu more frequently.”


The result is that my kids eat junk food.I intentionally buy it – I never used to buy anything like it, but they are big enough to know now. But often they will stop half way through their cake and move onto their carrots, or run off to play. Sometimes they will come home from a party with untouched birthday cake because they were full.Sometimes I look in horror as they eat dozens of jelly tots at a party. But I trust them. And they trust themselves.Sometimes they take tons of junk food, and taste it and eat a few.

I don’t:

  • Give it whenever they ask
  • Explain why they cant have it
  • Tell them its bad for them or will make their teeth rot
  • Punish, reward or bribe with treat foods
  • Call it junk food (more in part 2)

I do say:

  • That sounds yummy, it’s not on the menu tonight but lets have it soon
  • Hmm.. that looks like a delicious ice cream. What’s your best flavor?
  • Maybe another day…

I am not being punitive, I am following sDOR. I do the what, when & where and they do the rest. I don’t need to justify my choices to serve apples or salmon or lentils or cake, as they don’t have to justify their appetites or likes or dislikes.

I don’t need to justify my choices to serve apples or salmon or lentils or cake, as they don’t have to justify their appetites or likes or dislikes. Have questions? Read part 2 of How to Raise a Junk Food Obsessed Child.

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