As parents, we decide what foods our babies try first. We control the menu and set the standards of “what we eat.” But at some point, those kids encounter the outside world and the insane cramming-junk-down-our-throats consumer culture.
How can we keep them on a healthy diet when there’s so much pressure to eat junk?
It’s tough to swim against the tide. But now that I’ve seen how the food habits my parents taught me have persisted through my whole life, I recognize some early basic teachings that really do make a difference. As my first child approaches his teens, I’m seeing these same principles reflected in his behavior…some of the time.
I’m feeling okay about allowing some rebellion against my food standards. With these core principles embedded in their minds, I trust that my kids will make healthier choices, anyway, than if I just gave up on trying!
Even in my most junky eating phase, the habits my parents taught me had a role. At every age, given a choice of foods without parental supervision, I tended to choose a little more healthfully than my peers.
Honestly, I found that I was unable to eat constant junk to the extent that some kids did, for more than about 24 hours, because I would start feeling terrible. I’m still not sure if they were really metabolizing it better or they just thought feeling terrible was normal!
As soon as I moved from the dorm to an apartment with a real kitchen, the meals I made for myself improved. In my late twenties, I got more interested in health, food safety, and my food’s effect on the environment–and that led to big changes that brought me closer to the way my mother cooks.
Related: The Best Cooking With Kids Videos
Benefits of Creating Healthy Habits
I think that by starting kids off with healthy foods, we set their bodies’ expectations. By showing them how home cooking is done on a regular basis, we teach them that it’s a normal part of life. By talking about why we eat what we eat, we teach them lessons they’ll remember even if they rebel against them for a while.
Anthony E. Wolf makes a great point about rules and rebellion in his book Get Out of My Life! But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? [Here’s my book review.]
There should always be rules. They do have power. They sit inside of the teenager’s head and exert a constant pressure. And teenagers, though they would like to, can do nothing about these rules unless the parent abandons them. This is how, without recourse to threats or punishment, parents do exert very real power over their children.
I think of that when (for example) my 12-year-old Nicholas comes home from a party carrying a pound of Twizzlers. I feel despair at the amount of junk he’s already eaten and the obvious excess of junk other parents bought for the party and the constant tide of junk infiltrating our home.
I take a deep breath and put the candy in the top of the cupboard. If anyone asks for it, they can have one piece after a healthy meal.
This rule applies to me, too! It was my parents’ rule. It sat inside my head and exerted a constant pressure even when I was home alone or hanging with other teens and I binged on candy. I still knew the rule. And I felt the consequences of breaking it even if my parents never knew.
Hey, let’s see what’s up there in the top of the cupboard right now!
Those Twizzlers came home in February, I think; we still have about half of them. The jelly beans in the jar are from the Easter before last! When my 3-year-old Lydia asks for jelly beans, I let her choose the 4 colors she wants and then put the jar away; they last a long time at that rate.
The jelly beans in boxes are weird flavors (some of them disgusting) and Nicholas was briefly enamored of them…but 3 months later, one box is still in the shrink wrap. Fortune cookies are fun, but they don’t taste like much. The lollipops and Tootsie Rolls in a jar are from the Fourth of July parade, and they’ll last until Halloween!
Limiting candy consumption and putting it out of sight works! Here are 5 more basic principles for raising healthy eaters.
1. Healthy Food Is Everyday Food.
It’s easy to focus on what we don’t eat: Some families are gluten-free, grain-free, or vegan; some have food allergies; some avoid certain foods on principle. What we don’t eat can be important for our safety–but for establishing kids’ healthy habits, it’s best to focus on what we do eat! Food nourishes our bodies, minds, and spirits.
My mother taught me a general principle we’ve come to call We Eat This: Some foods that seem strange to outsiders are normal in our family. By treating them as normal foods, we teach our kids to accept (or at least try) things the average American might say “kids don’t like.”
Set your children’s tastes early, and relax your standards later.
Be diligent about what your babies and toddlers eat. Get those tiny tongues and tummies accustomed to a variety of vegetables, a balance of protein and fiber and carbs, foods that are not too sweet. Do your best to protect them from relatives who want them to teethe on French fries!
Somewhere around 4 to 6 years old, children become much more aware of how other people (especially other kids) do things. They want to try doing what others do.
This is developmentally normal, and cracking down too hard on your kids’ desire to experiment can trigger rebellion or lead them to feel ashamed of their interests. At this age, open up to occasionally trying some of the things other people eat. Think of it as a cross-cultural experience!
This cuts both ways: When your kids’ friends eat at your house, they’ll try the things you eat, and maybe they’ll like some of them! I’ve had parents email me after a playdate to ask what kind of peanut butter we buy or what is the recipe for Green Ribbon Lentils because their kid liked our food so much.
As kids get out into the world on their own, they’ll be eating more of their meals and snacks without your supervision. All you can do is trust and pray that they’ll make good choices.
Talk about what they ate, and listen to what they thought of it. Nicholas often has been hilariously critical of the low-quality food served at school and at birthday parties! On the other hand, he often asks for foods he enjoyed elsewhere.
My son Paul wrote a real cookbook!
He and 4 friends have published a cookbook by kids, for kids, all healthy foods — Chef Junior.
If you want to see how kids write to kids and get some fab bonuses for supporting these 5 teen authors, buy the book and then redeem the bonuses the kids created!
I managed to make my own version of the packaged chipotle simmer sauce his friend’s mom served. At times, I’ve agreed to buy (or to allow him to buy with his own money) things he demands “so that we can eat like normal people”: white bread, granola bars, less-nutritious cereals, Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing, frozen pizzas, etc.
It’s interesting how some of these mainstream foods are things he binge-eats for a while, but others are things he wants on principle but ends up barely touching.
My mom started out as a classic 1970s health-food mama, who made almost everything from scratch and served me snacks like
- apple slices with unsweetened peanut butter for dipping
- strips of cheddar cheese arranged to spell my name
- Pink Tasty: frozen strawberries and cottage cheese mixed in the blender, with very little added sugar
- soft-boiled egg, chopped up with butter and salt
- Pooh Bear Snack: strips of buttered homemade whole-wheat bread with honey for dipping
I feel loved when I remember those snacks! But I also remember that those weren’t things I wanted to eat much by the time my brother and I were in elementary school. Even when our friends weren’t watching, we mostly wanted to eat more “normal” food.
My mom, eager to foster our independence so she could do other stuff, began buying more packaged foods so that we could make our own snacks and summertime lunches. Ramen noodles, boxed mac-and-cheese, hot dogs, and canned soups became staple items in our home.
We even got sandwich cookies (the kind with a patty of “frosting” that’s basically trans fat, corn syrup, and artificial coloring and flavoring) and the super-cheap lunchmeat that came in a plastic envelope! It was sort of fun but, in retrospect, sort of gross.
The point is that, despite being allowed to eat those things routinely, my brother and I gradually got out of the habit of eating most of those things as adults. I think our healthy start helped with that!
Some foods are for special occasions.
In my childhood home, soda pop and chips (other than plain corn chips) were only for birthday parties and New Year’s Eve. Super-sweet cereals like Apple Jacks and Lucky Charms were not in our house–but we were allowed to eat them when we visited our grandparents, about one weekend a month.
Candy from Easter, Halloween, and parades could be enjoyed without limits on the holiday, but after that it was one piece per day. Family dinners were not followed by dessert.
Limits like these don’t just reduce the amount of unhealthy food kids consume. They also maintain the “specialness” of extreme sweetness. Because I didn’t get used to huge amounts of sugar rolling across my tongue every day, I experienced sweet foods as quite a treat–and I still do.
I think that keeping sugary foods in the role of “treats” does tend to lead kids to binge somewhat when they have the chance–but those binges aren’t any worse than the normal eating of kids who’ve been raised with junk food constantly available!
My two best friends in elementary school lived in homes where soda pop and Kool-Aid were always on hand. They drank them literally every day. So did I when I was over there. But because I wasn’t in their homes as often as in my own, my total sugar consumption must have been less.
Plan to eat balanced meals.
My mom asked me to help plan the family dinner menu starting when I was 8 or 9 years old. Every dinner had to include a protein, a starch, a vegetable I liked, and a vegetable my brother liked. (Our veggie preferences didn’t overlap much.)
Planning balanced meals got me into the habit of remembering to eat veggies and protein every day. Without learning that rule, I might have eaten nothing but noodles, rice, and cereal!
On my own in college, I did eat some carb-heavy meals when I cooked in the dorm. But when I ate in the cafeteria, I focused on veggies, yogurt, eggs, and meat. I figured that eating a balanced diet over the course of each day was almost as good as eating balanced meals.
Recently, I’ve seen that idea in advice to parents: If your child rejects veggies at one meal, just keep offering different veggies and trust your child’s natural instinct to balance her diet over the course of a day or week.
In the long run, the idea that meals are supposed to include vegetables is likely to get your grown-up kids to eat them. Learning through experience that too little fiber leads to painful constipation helps, too.
When I knew I needed veggies but the college cafeteria was serving only veggies I’d never liked, I made myself choke ’em down anyway–and it turned out that my 18-year-old tastebuds accepted flavors my 8-year-old tastebuds hadn’t!
The variety of vegetables I’ll happily eat now is much larger than when I was a kid. So don’t despair if your 8-year-old only eats raw carrots and cooked cauliflower with cheese–keep talking about balance and offering variety, and watch his palate expand with maturity and experience!
2. Be a Cynical Consumer
My dad built our television from a kit. He decided to keep the speaker separate, connected to the TV by a wire running over the ceiling and down the wall, so that we could set the speaker on the back of the couch.
This allowed us to use a lower volume to avoid disturbing people in other rooms of our thin-walled house. He also put a knob on the outside of the speaker box so that (in those days before remote controls) we could turn off the sound during commercials.
Boy, did we have fun with that! We made up our own words for commercials! Sometimes this was pure silliness, but often my parents took the opportunity to slip in some critiques of products and/or the way they’re marketed:
“Oh, this bread is so convenient! It’s 92% air! No more backaches bringing home heavy bread from the store! White flour and plenty of sugar gives my kids energy that lasts about as long as this commercial!”
That kind of thing. I do this with my kids sometimes, using the remote to turn off the sound.
My dad’s fondness for Mad magazine also taught me a lot about advertising. We had the book Madvertising, a hilarious yet insightful explanation of 1960s marketing techniques, and I read it over and over again. (The Madvertising currently on the market is a 50-year anthology of Mad‘s ad spoofs, which I haven’t read.)
Kids love to learn about tactics that are trying to fool them so that they can feel clever by seeing through the trickery! Although Mad often exaggerated the tactics, I was able to spot versions of them in the real world, like a product in “New! Improved!” packaging that was two ounces smaller for the same old price.
Cynicism helps kids spot things like “wheat bread” that contains more refined flour than whole wheat or “yogurty coated fruity flavored bits” that contain no real yogurt or fruit.
Here’s an example we spotted recently: Kool-Aid says it’s a “good source of Vitamin C,” but if you read the back label you’ll find it has only 10% of the Daily Value. Tang, an equally convenient beverage mix sold at the same price, has 100% of the Daily Value. (But if you can choose juice, that’s better for you than either of these artificially colored and flavored drinks!)
My grandma got me a subscription to Penny Power, the children’s magazine Consumer Reports published in the 1980s. I wish it was still around! (Here’s an article about its launch in 1979.) Penny Power clearly explained practical skills for choosing the best things to purchase, finding the best price, complaining about defective products, and seeing through advertising techniques–all with plenty of humor and an engaging style.
It was a huge influence on my approach to spending money, and I led my parents back to a money-saving strategy they’d kind of forgotten.
3. Comparison Shopping Saves Money, and More
When you do most of your shopping accompanied by young children, it’s easy to fall into the habit of buying the brand you know is good in the size that looks most useful. My parents were in a rut before Penny Power taught me to compare different brands and sizes of the same product to find the best price.
I started asking questions like, “Why do we buy this applesauce, when that one is the same size for 15c less?” and my parents pounced on the opportunity to make me practice my arithmetic skills while also helping them save money!
These days, many stores have shelf tags that tell you the price per ounce, per pound, or per individual item–the “unit price.” That makes it easy to compare packages of different sizes. For example, consider this array of yellow mustard. The 8-ounce store brand has the lowest price, $1.50.
By comparing the price per ounce instead of the price per bottle, you can see that the 14-ounce Heinz is cheaper, and the very best value is the 20-ounce store brand. (In fact, if you catch this sale, that big bottle costs less than the exact same mustard in a bottle less than half the size! Its regular price is 8.9 cents per ounce, the same as the 22-ounce Plochman’s next to it.)
I’ve been pointing out unit pricing to Nicholas since he was a toddler, and he’s often used it when helping me shop. Now that he’s 12 and likes walking to Target with his friends, he’s teaching them to look at the unit price!
Penny Power also taught me about blind taste tests, in which you compare two samples without knowing which brand is which. This is a great way to learn what you really like! Kids love to do taste tests–check out this test of O’s cereal and applesauce that I did with my Girl Scout troop.
Comparison shopping has led me to try many strange brands. Usually they’ve been just as good as the big names! I have fond memories of Scotch Buy, the lime-green plaid store brand of my childhood supermarket. (Look, here’s a silly TV ad for it!)
A discount store I shopped as a young adult had so many Festal brand canned foods at one time that my boyfriend and I had a Festal Festival meal! And then there’s Lake Shore canned pumpkin, whose label depicts a scene so bizarre that we’ve had it on our kitchen cabinet for years and it still makes us laugh sometimes!
Another type of comparison shopping is reading labels to see whether two brands, or different flavors of the same brand, differ in nutrition, ingredients, or country of origin. My kids and I do this a lot! When my Girl Scouts compared products, we learned that
- a single bottle of apple juice “may contain” juice from 10 countries on 4 continents!
- the cheapest mac-and-cheese in our store is far healthier than the second-cheapest!
- some canned veggies have almost zero vitamins!
- one can of soup may contain the Daily Value of sodium for an entire day!
Sometimes, you find the same appalling information on all the varieties of a product…and that might make you decide that you’re just going to eat a different kind of food instead!
4. Stock Up on Staple Foods
I grew up with certain foods always in the house or at least on the shopping list. Exactly what is a staple food for your family depends on what you choose to eat regularly. Keeping staple foods in stock means you’re always ready to make something to eat. It helps you avoid impulsively spending money on restaurants or convenience food that costs more and may be less healthful.
When I moved out of my parents’ home, I wanted to cook some of my meals in the dorm to save money…so where was I going to store my food and dishes? My dorm room was only 7×12 feet, and we had to walk through it in an S-shaped path to get from the hallway to my roommate’s room (and then through her room to the bathroom).
I had to be super-organized to store all my stuff in that little room and keep the path clear! I didn’t even have a closet; part of my floor space was taken up by a big wardrobe cabinet. My clothes and books and stuff filled all the furniture.
I put my out-of-season clothes in a big cardboard box and put it up on top of the wardrobe. Then I realized that the space around it could be used to store things in smaller boxes. I set up a very effective pantry using cardboard boxes turned on their sides!
I got sturdy boxes with a center divider, which originally held 30 pounds of frozen French fries, from my job at University Dining Service. The entire perimeter of my wardrobe became pantry space, which I could reach by hopping up on the bed or chair.
I don’t have good photos of my dorm room, but that wardrobe was about the size of a refrigerator. Nicholas and I set up a temporary cardboard-box pantry on top of our fridge to get photos of this storage setup!
If your kitchen is lacking storage space, this is a great solution! Here are some tips on specifics:
- Put heavy stuff toward the back to help boxes stay in place.
- Cut the top flaps off the boxes to maximize space inside and make a flat bottom. (We just folded in the flaps because we wanted to take the boxes back for other uses.)
- Choose a box for canned food that allows you to stack cans 2 high and have space for the can opener on top. Convenient! (A stack of 3 or more cans is too unstable, when you’re reaching over your head to get them.)
- Store dishes in a separate box from packaged food so your dishes stay clean–and clean that box as well as you can before you put the dishes in it.
- Another separate box can serve as your “medicine cabinet” and/or store cleaning supplies away from food and dishes.
- Store utensils in a cup for easy access.
- You can make your boxes more attractive by gluing wrapping paper to them.
5. Don’t Waste Stuff!
My parents definitely set an example of making use of what we have and not buying things we don’t need. They taught me lots of techniques for using up odds and ends of food, fixing broken things, and making stuff last as long as possible. They were pleased whenever I came home with a new strategy for something like using bar soap more efficiently.
My parents also were critical of excessive packaging and tried to reuse and recycle what they could, years before it was fashionable. I grew up storing leftovers in glass peanut-butter jars just like I do now.
We used to reuse metal coffee cans a lot, too–those are hard to find these days, but now I reuse plastic yogurt tubs for similar purposes.
Sometimes my parents told me I couldn’t have the individually-packaged food other kids were bringing in their lunches because it was too wasteful of both money and resources. I resented that, but now I tell my kids the same thing!
As with junk food, wasteful habits can be appealing to kids when “Everyone else is doing it,” marketing makes it look fun, and the consequences aren’t readily apparent.
Many preteens or teens will go through a stage of spending their money on over-packaged food or cheap disposable stuff partly because it drives you crazy but also because they want to try out consumer patterns different from what you’ve modeled, just to see what it’s like.
Let them find out.
I had a proud moment as a Girl Scout leader when we were planning to host a meal and I asked the girls to decide whether we would use and wash the dishes owned by the church where we met, or buy disposable dishes.
One of them said, “Why waste our money on instant garbage?”
Because it was their money, hard-earned by hours of selling cookies in the cold, they were motivated to use it wisely for long-term goals. We had a blast cleaning up together after the dinner and then spending our cookie money on a riverboat cruise!
There are other times when kids choose to spend their own money differently than you’d choose. They are learning who they are and what they value. In the long run, they’re likely to turn out a lot like their parents and to laugh over the peabrained decisions they made when they were younger!
A Good Foundation Makes a Lifelong Difference!
I’m grateful that my parents taught me to eat healthy food, save money, and take care of the environment. It’s a lot easier to do all of these things when you’ve grown up with good habits!
Reading blogs about people who turned in a healthier or more responsible direction after becoming parents, I’m often startled by how much some people have to unlearn.
For me, it’s just been a matter of improving some specifics; these 5 general principles have been part of my life all along. That motivates me to hold firm with my kids.