“Can I Have Cotton Candy?!?” Tips for Handling All Those Junk Food Requests
|July 26, 2012||Posted by Stacy under Junk food|
Yes, I’m finally back in Idaho and still recovering from 2.5 weeks on the road solo with my three munchkins. My kids (ages 6 and 4 x 2) thoroughly enjoyed their annual trip to the Jersey shore and spending time with their aunt, grandparents, cousins and other family. We hit the beach almost every day, did lots of swimming, rode boogie boards, chased fireflies, did the boardwalk rides (twice!), and watched fireworks. And though our visit may have left me and my sister (who was hosting us at her lovely beach house) with a few gray hairs, I think my wee ones had the time of their lives.
As I explained in my last post, I was hoping to not let this year’s visit become a total junk food fest. I had grand plans to go berry picking and stock up on fresh produce at local farmers’ markets—which never happened. We did manage to seek out a yummy organic pizza place, attend a blueberry festival and make a couple batches of fresh strawberry sorbet. And we ate almost every breakfast and lunch at my sister’s place, allowing us to adorn our plates with a variety of colors, including green apples and broccoli, blueberries, red cherries, and orange carrots (some of which were eaten, some not).
During the course of our trip, my kids also downed more than their share of treats. En route to New Jersey, we had barely hit cruising altitude when they were handed their first package of cookies (at 7:10 a.m.!). Over the next few weeks, they devoured gigantic scoops of ice cream, cupcakes, s’mores, popsicles, cookies, Starburst, and even blue cotton candy. It all felt pretty impossible to avoid, so I didn’t even really try. Yes, I wanted them to experience the joy of eating without any talk about shoulds and should nots. We were on vacation, after all! Deep down, however, I couldn’t help but worry: How will they ever learn to eat right in a culture where every day is a carnival and fast food is the norm?
In talking to my mom friends, it seems a common concern. I’ve heard many lament over sugary treats, in particular. “They’re constantly asking for sugar!” my neighbor exclaimed about her kids the other day. “You should have seen the goody bag filled with candy!” said another mom following a 6-year-old birthday party that featured an all-you-can-eat buffet of chips, cookies, candy, juice boxes, soda, and cake covered with an inch of frosting. But what to do about it? Obviously, you don’t want to be too restrictive. And yet letting them go hog wild (even if just on special occasions and trips) does seem like sending the wrong message. So how on earth do you set limits without making your child feel deprived or turning it into a fight?
Last week, I interviewed Dina Rose, Ph.D, a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert for a freelance magazine assignment. On her blog It’s Not About Nutrition: The Art and Science of Teaching Kids to Eat Right, she dishes up helpful advice on dealing with all sorts of feeding dilemmas. During our chat, I asked her how to handle those endless requests for sweets and all the junk food that they’re faced with every time they leave the house. Her take: We need to teach our children how to manage their eating—much the same way that we manage our own.
By this, she means explaining to your child HOW you want her to eat as opposed to saying, “No, you can’t have more candy!” or “Eat your peas!”. “In my experience, talking to your kids about how to eat is one of the most effective, and most overlooked, tactics out there,” Rose notes. “If you want your kids to eat right, you’ve got to let them in on the game plan.” This does not mean lecturing her on vitamins and minerals or the hazards of a sugar-filled diet. Kids don’t care about nutrition and health! It does mean establishing how many trats your child can have each day or week and teaching her how to plan for them.
“Kids are naturally focused on the here and now, and while being in the moment may be a good Buddhist practice, it’s not the best technique for eating right,” Rose adds. “Instead, being able to plan for the future—parties, playdates, and visits by grandparents—is the essential skill kids need to have.”
Here’s exactly what she proposes on her website:
Actively teach your child to think of foods according to how frequently they should be eaten. Instead of teaching that foods fall into two categories—either healthy or junky—explain that foods fall into three categories. Tell your child the following as often as you can:
- Growing Foods are the healthiest. We eat from this group almost all of the time.
- Fun Foods are in the middle. We eat from this group some of the time.
- Treat Foods are the least healthy. We eat from this group the least often.
Decide how many Fun Foods you want your child to consume in a day—on average. Sometimes he’ll have more, sometimes he’ll have less, but knowing your target amount is important. Consider two per day as your optimal number. Clearly state this guideline to your child.
Decide how many Treat Foods you want your child to consume per day or per week—on average. I recommend 3 or 4 per week, but most parents settle on 1 per day. Clearly state this guideline to your child.
Give your child as much control as possible. You have decided how much, now let him decide when. Let him choose between Fun Foods: “You may have juice now or chocolate milk later.” With younger children, consider using a visual aid—a sticker or magnetic chart—to help your child remember when he’s chosen his limit.
Have your child trade Fun Foods for Treat Foods. When it looks like there are going to be a lot of Treat Foods—i.e., when your child is going to a party or Grandma’s house—it’s a good time to reduce the Fun Foods.
Curious to see how it would work, I decided to test out Rose’s advice. On a whim, I brought my four-year-old twins to our local farmers’ market for a healthy treat—pureed fresh frozen fruit with a touch of unsweetened juice combined to make a refreshing Just Fruit Zorbet. But unlike past years, the Just Fruit Zorbet stand wasn’t there! Fortunately, I had packed a cooler bag full of fresh hulled strawberries, red cherries and baby carrots, plus a couple packets of Justin’s chocolate almond butter.
We ended up sitting in a park right across from an ice cream stand. The twins asked for ice cream several times, with urgency in their voices. I explained that we wouldn’t be getting ice cream because we were planning on having dessert later—and one treat a day is our limit. They whined a bit, so I reminded them again: ice cream NOW would mean no treat later. And I had a special dessert planned—they didn’t want to miss it, right? They proceeded to gobble up the fruit and almond butter that I had brought from home and seemed perfectly content.
Later, in talking to Rose, she noted that my strategy probably worked because I told them exactly when they would be having a treat instead of just saying “No.” While I didn’t exactly offer them a choice (because I’d already planned on having dessert at home and had made a scrumptious buttery almond cake), I tried to phrase it so it seemed like they were getting one. The conviction in my voice probably helped, too, Rose pointed out. To be honest, before reading up on her website, I sometimes caved on their junk food requests to avoid a meltdown. Other times, I’d use an excuse like, “Sorry, I didn’t bring any money!” when my kids started clamoring for treats—which worked like a charm at the time but did nothing to solve the larger problem.
I’m interested to see how things play out moving forward. Last night, I started explaining the concept of “Grow Foods” versus “Fun Foods” and “Treats.” The kids seemed receptive, even interested, though I think it will take a lot of repetition before it fully sinks in.
Coping with Junk Food: A Cheat Sheet for Parents
1) Set a daily or weekly junk limit. Consider both the size of the treats and the frequency with which they’re eaten.
2) Point out upcoming events when junk will be eaten so your child can make the best choice. “We’re going to a party later where there will be cupcakes and candy. You can have a donut now, but then you can’t have the treats later. Which do you want?”
3) Let your child choose when she eats her junk.
Source: It’s Not About Nutrition
Have you tried setting limits for your kids when it comes to junk food? Do you talk to your child about HOW to eat? What strategies have worked and not worked for your family?