Salty and sugary snacks, desserts and sugary drinks are an undeniable part of our lives. They call to our kids from grocery shelves to TV ads, school parties, ballparks and everywhere in between. In our efforts to encourage our kids to eat healthier and limit these foods, we may be tempted to restrict or even forbid them. Research shows that this approach can backfire and create more challenging issues.
So what should parents do to help their children create a healthy relationship with less-than-healthy foods?
Rather than a long list of food restrictions, the key to success is to find a balance when it comes to food. Restricting access to food can actually make your child want it even more. It can create unhealthy food habits, like sneaking food, and power struggles. Allow your child to eat treats sometimes, with no guilt, so they develop a positive relationship with food.
Make the healthy choice the easy choice. The healthier the food we keep available, the more likely our kids are to choose them. Keep a fruit bowl on the counter, and keep cut produce at eye level in the refrigerator. At snack time, give kids a choice between a piece of fruit or cut veggies and different dips, like hummus, salsa or Greek yogurt. Bag up popcorn, nuts, cheeses or cut fruit and create “grab and go” bins in the fridge and pantry to make healthy snacking a snap.
Since the goal is to crowd out junk food with healthier food, it’s helpful to keep the junk food you do buy less available. It’s not about hiding snacks but making them less visible. Try the top shelf of the pantry or a separate drawer. If we see the chips every time we open the pantry, eventually we’re not going to say no. The younger the child, the more important this is: If they don’t know it exists, they can’t ask for it or crave it.
A few guidelines on snacking can go a long way toward limiting junk foods. Have your family agree that snacks should be eaten from a bowl and at the table—not in front of the TV. This can help prevent mindless munching. If you keep sugary drinks in the house, keep them in the pantry so you have to plan ahead to cool them down for drinking.
Some families find it easiest to limit dessert by keeping it out of the house and, instead, go out as a family to get ice cream on dessert day. If you choose to serve dessert at home, a good rule of thumb is to limit desserts to one or two times a week and try to couple sweets with something nutritious, like angel food cake with strawberries or brownies with nuts. When dessert is served, allow your kids to have some regardless of whether they ate their vegetables or cleaned their plate. Using dessert as a reward or bribe reinforces the idea that eating veggies is a chore and can also encourage overeating.