First things first: before offering my essay on junk food and how to help our kids avoid junk food… happy spring everyone! It’s official, t’is the season of rebirth, and I for one, am excited about it. Secondly, a bit of “spring” housekeeping, I have finally posted a couple of new pages which I hope will be helpful…
– The 8-12 months section of “Feeding Baby” (finally!)
– A new FAQ page, with various questions I have received from readers and my answers.
Now… (deep breath, it’s a long one…)
This article written by Yoni Freedhoff, MD, called “Why is everyone giving my kids junk food?” was recently brought to my attention, and several people have asked me (and I have been asking myself!) how I would deal
with the onslaught of junk food out there in the world towards our children, whether at school, at birthday parties, playdates or at any other kid events and venues.
I have been baffled to encounter this even as early as now (Pablo is 22 months), in a toddler art class, as I shared previously. From the looks
of it, it’s going to happen a lot more in the coming years. This is certainly a dilemma I never expected, which French parents mostly don’t have to deal with. Without overgeneralizing, I can say that it is widely accepted in France that you do not eat between meals or snack indiscriminately throughout the day, that children will eat vegetables and have a balanced diet and not eat n’importe quoi. (An expression particularly hard to translate into English, used to designate things done without care or attention or reason.) So French parents don’t have to have that impulse I think a lot of us have (given the response to that article, there are quite a lot of parents in this boat), to protect our children from the world and the “assault”of junk food given everywhere. And actually, I wouldn’t be too happy about not just junk food, but also snacks and juices, however “healthy” they may be, given at any occasion outside of meal times. (And I do have the somewhat convenient excuse to give to other adults in these circumstances, that being French, we don’t do that; the cultural explanation has sometimes been my easy way out, I must admit.)
The author did a good follow-up article on helpful ways to deal with the institutions or people that might be giving the junk food, which I highly recommend. And the good news is, more and more parents in the US (and perhaps other countries where this might be happening?) have objections to it, and so I think the seeds of change have been planted in that area…
That said, how will I deal with this, how will I teach Pablo to avoid junk food, in the coming years?
Well… I’ve decided I’m going to do my very best to trust him.
The fact is, our children don’t live in a bubble. They will be confronted with all kinds of undesirables throughout their childhood and life, that are out of our control, whether it’s the food they’re offered, or the entertainment
they’re offered, or disrespectful children and adults they may encounter…
That’s life, isn’t it?
We can’t remove all the undesirables. But we can prepare them to deal with them (and potentially learn from them). We can’t fight all of our children’s battles for them. And I don’t think that we should. My goal is to raise a resilient human being, who feels capable of sound judgment, capable of going through the process of dealing with the world, capable of developing a filter, his own filter, before doing something. And as hard as it can sometimes be for me, I am committed to let my child experience trial and error. I feel I would otherwise be robbing him of a valuable learning opportunity.
BUT… we can lay the groundwork to make it easier for them to steer clear of junk food.
The first couple of years of life are so crucial this way (though I do believe you can do it with older children or adults too, it’s never too late, perhaps just a little bit more challenging). And so here are some of the things we are doing now, and have been doing ever since we begun this journey of Pablo’s education of taste, which will hopefully help him make better decisions later on.
1. Nurture his ability to listen to his own body
I find this fascinating about babies and toddlers. This is an ability I envy
very much, and which I’m relearning with my son. As a teenager, I definitely went into emotional eating to fill some voids and gaps in my life, and it’s taken years (still a work in progress) to become attuned to my body again and regain a healthy relationship with food. Young children do know how to listen to their body. And I am convinced that if we provide the right environment or context to nurture that ability, it will grow and stay with them. They know when they’ve had enough to eat. Basically young children can hear their body loud and clear, provided there is no interference, from us. They even know what foods their body needs. And we want them to keep listening – to themselves. That’s why I steer away from any emotional association to food (no, “one last bite to please mommy”, no “come have a cookie to make you feel better”, no “no dessert if you don’t behave”, you get the idea…) If he lets me know he no longer wants to eat, I comply. I also let him feed himself as much as possible, so he knows he is in charge of his intake.
I have found that the 4 meals a day structure with no additional, on demand snacks, as well as eating slowly and in courses teaches delayed gratification. And it helps differentiate between the “desire to eat” vs. actual hunger. If we give a snack to a child every time he “feels like eating”, whether truly hungry or not, they don’t get to really sense hunger (I’m talking reasonable hunger here, not starvation obviously.) Just before mealtime, Pablo is definitely hungry (which is why he eats so well, and gobbles with amazing appetite his watercress soup and boiled leeks in vinaigrette under my proud eye ;-)) He has an awareness of his body
telling him it needs some nourishment. The experience of that bodily sensation, in part due to delayed gratification, I think contributes to keeping this symbiotic relationship between mind and body. (I have actually experienced this myself as an adult.)
2. Prevent emotional eating later on
In a much broader sense, insuring a healthy secure attachment to our children (I found much wisdom in author Daniel Siegel‘s work, as well as in RIE and Janet Lansbury‘s work in that area) also makes it possible for
them to listen to their body, to learn from the world, and develop a sound body and mind. I found in my own experience, that emotional eating can come from a void in that area. And attachment issues certainly have been known to affect a child’s way of dealing with peer pressure, which can come into play when it comes to eating junk food.
Ideally, food isn’t a tool, a means, emotionally speaking. For reassurance, for comfort. Yes, it a means of nourishment obviously, but I think it should be considered an end in itself. This way, it is separate from other activities,
which we do also as ends in themselves (more on this here). We eat because
it is a pleasurable experience and an opportunity to connect with our loved ones.
3. Avoid GUILT like the plague
One instance where I have seen older children “binge” on sweets or junk foods at parties, is because they feel they should do it while they can, as a product of frustration. And then the whole guilt vicious circle kicks in, which tends to stay with us through adulthood. I have talked about this telling study I read in Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything of most
Americans’ response to the picture of a chocolate cake, vs. most French
people’s reaction: Americans think “calories” and “guilt”, the French think
“pleasure”, “celebration”. I find this so revealing. Nothing like guilt and
dieting to make you want to inhale a whole chocolate cake or pint of ice
The French tend to talk much more about a balanced diet, than a healthy diet, they talk about “paying attention” to what they eat, vs. dieting or self-depriving.
French children definitely enjoy sweets or savory treats, and mostly, I
think they do so guilt-free. Snack time (430p ish) is usually the opportunity
to have a sweet treat, for example, a piece of cake, a pastry even, something
of their choice usually. It makes those treats, in moderation, commonplace, no big deal, not something to pine for and gorge on at the first opportunity. A lot of French families bake together with children on weekends, and the cake is kept for snack time, creating a wonderful sense of anticipation, and creating a pleasurable experience.
The French would also let their kids have things like a few pieces of candy, French fries, some potato chips or cheese crackers, a soda or juice, on special occasions, on vacations, for the occasional apéritif (pre-dinner snacks and drinks usually offered to guests at a dinner party, to munch on before sitting at the dinner table.) So instead of creating guilt around those things, they create a sense of pleasure, celebration, and moderation at the same time. A sense that these things are special, to be enjoyed thoroughly – which is a nice little lesson in the enjoyment of the present moment as well. Guilt-free.
That will absolutely be my strategy with Pablo, while emphasizing enjoyment, the “special” factor, moderation, the need for balance. I don’t want to instill in Pablo a sense of guilt every time he has, or wants a “treat”. The fact is, there are times where we all feel like eating something, even though we may not be hungry. Denying that is futile. Acknowledgement, enjoyment and moderation are key.
4. Explain it to him – junk food isn’t worth it!
That each family has their way, that we don’t snack indiscriminately so we better enjoy meals together. I have done this already. At 20 months, he understood that we didn’t eat the popcorn offered in art class because we’re
going to eat lunch soon, and it’s going to be delicious and we don’t want to
spoil our appetite. Basically, let’s wait for something better. (And I guess a prerequisite for that, is that lunch is in fact better, i.e. that we eat well, things that are really good and enjoyable and flavorful. That argument
might be less convincing if we were going home to eat boiled broccoli with dry chicken.) Which brings me to my next point…
5. Show him how good, good food can be
Meaning, cooking delicious meals, making the food taste good. And this is a commitment, for sure. A lot of people have told me they just don’t have the time, and absolutely, this is a significant time, and to a certain extent, financial commitment: to buy quality products, variety, to spend the
time to cook them in different ways.
6. Be a model
Really, this is the most important way in which our children learn anything. They’re watching us, all the time. If we snack all throughout the day, yoyo diet, binge on junk food and then deprive ourselves of everything (all things I have done in the past, before I had Pablo), then that’s the model we give our children. In our family, we have really found a balance which I’m happy with as a model for Pablo: we eat well during mealtimes, do not eat
between meals, we rarely have junk food, we splurge on little treats once in a while, in moderation, and this guilt-free, thoroughly enjoyable way to eat has, quite simply, improved the quality of our life.
Well, if you’ve made this far into the post (sorry, it’s a bear!) you deserve a sweet treat… (Oh, sorry, we don’t use food as rewards, forget that then ;-)) I have recently made chocolate pudding for Pablo’s “goûter”, inspired by a type of pudding I used to love as a child in France, named Danette (a household brand name in France). You have gathered, I’m sure, from some of these images, that Pablo enjoyed it thoroughly!
This is very easy to make, and incidentally, it has the same quantity of sugar as a fruit compote, if not a little less. Chocolate has many health benefits as well (cocoa is high in magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron…), and French children eat it in moderation, guilt-free, especially at snack time.