An essay about junk food… and a simple chocolate pudding!

Homemade chocolate pudding, as opposed to processed junk food to avoid

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.

A toddler enjoying real food, so junk foods will be less attractive

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!

A child's table with a homemade chocolate pudding that is healthier than junk food

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.

Junk food: teaching our kids to make good food choices

30 thoughts on “An essay about junk food… and a simple chocolate pudding!

  1. Hi Helene! As a passionate 'hater' of junk food, I very much enjoyed reading your post. My little darling doesn't really understand the 'concept' of chocolate yet, but I shall keep this lovely recepie for the near future. We had though an interesting experience recently at our play group. As Easter is coming, all the children (13 to 18 months) were given chocolate Easter eggs…but whilst other mothers were happy for their little ones to eat them, I hid mine!!! I must have looked as such a bad mummy, but my little girl has never tried chocolate (yet) and so far she is happy! Raminta

    1. Thanks so much, Raminta. I also waited til quite late to give him a taste of chocolate (15 months, in France, and oddly enough, it was chocolate cereal our friends had). At that age, no need to push it on to them. This pudding was quite the special treat for him. As far as treats go though, I much prefer good quality chocolate over candy or processed salty snacks.

  2. Man, I love your perspective on this, and if I were having a baby, you are the first person I would want to talk to. Filing these tips away from the future!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read this one, Shanna (I sometimes feel I might be pushing away non-parent readers with posts like this, but I try to balance it out…). Something tells me you will have all the right instincts as a mom 🙂

  3. I love your article! I am a British mum but for some reason have been brought up with the French attitude to food. I think years ago in the uk we had a better way with our children before the advent of junk and 'kids food'. My parents would never have allowed us to snack before meals and we were always expected to eat the same as the adults. I have three daughters aged 20,6 and 1, they all have the same upbringing when it comes to food. You will be pleased to know your attitude is fantastic and will benefit your child as an adult, they will thank you for it as my eldest daughter does now! Talking to your children about how to have respect for good food is the way to go! My two eldest daughters know junk food has its place and they have never felt they missed out because I have never denied them it, but I educated them in a fun way, the way you describe and it works. They choose what to eat when at parties and are able to balance themselves, my eldest is a brilliant cook and my middle daughter already likes to discuss what we are going to eat and how we are going to cook it! She is not interested in many of the gimmicky foods which our children are bombarded with. She also loves to bake and we have always had our goodies for afternoon snack which I was surprised to find the French tend to do too. Carry on with your plan for your child, trust your instincts because children deserve more respect and are able to make their own choices about what to eat!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your invaluable experience and confirming this works! This is so great to hear 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  4. Oh how I love this post. I'm doing pretty well (most of the time) with our evening meals, but lunch needs work. A lot of work. And so do I with my attitude. So I have a 'for instance'. Today we went to a friends house to play. She prepared a lovely lunch of pork loin roast and sweet potato gratin and salad. Something J would definitely have eaten at dinner. But because he was more interested in playing and because I had brought cheese crackers (homemade) and dried fruit, I had to encourage him to eat the pork and try the sweet potatoes. He ate 4 pieces of pork and a bite of sweet potato. Usually he has quite a large lunch. What should I have done? Should I not encourage him to eat? Do I just put the food in front of him and if he eats he eats? How do you offer dessert? Is it just a part of the meal if he eats dinner or not? I usually offer yogurt with fruit but only if he eats his dinner.

    1. Hi Robin, thank YOU for bringing that article to my attention, when you asked me my take on this, I started giving it a lot of thought and decided to do this post. To answer your questions, I think in the context you describe, at someone else's place with lots of distractions, I would have done the same thing you did, telling myself he'll eat better at snack time if lunch was on the light side. If the same thing happened at home, however, before I let him off the table, I would try a couple of things, because I noticed Pablo sometimes gets antsy at the table after the first course, despite being still a bit hungry. Often, this happens because I get into a conversation with my husband or mom at the table, and he's feeling a bit ignored or disengaged (I wouldn't like that either if it were done to me!) So I first try to engage him in conversation, talking about things he likes or interests him, asking him question about his day etc., I also try to engage him with the meal, what are we eating, how did we make it, where does it come from, what does it look/smell/feel like (mindful eating). And also, I often offer to put on some music he enjoys. I would say 99% of the time, he resumes eating and things go smoothly til the end of the meal. Worth a try. As far cheese and dessert, I do offer it no matter what because I don't want to make it sound like he can't have it if he doesn't eat the rest (that would dessert way too attractive!) So if he tells me he's done with the main course, I ask him if he wants cheese, and then yogurt, and comply with whatever his answer is. Hope this helps! Thanks again for your always stimulating and inspiring questions and comments 🙂

    2. Jacob has just turned three if that helps with perspective 🙂
      I've been using dessert as the 'reward' for eating dinner but it's felt wrong. I don't want to force him to eat if he's not hungry. It's so hard to know how much an active three year old actually does need to eat but he's not puny (he's huge) so he must be getting enough.
      J definitely gets antsy if I'm not focused on him. Of course so does my husband 😉
      Thank you for answering all my questions – i know I have a ton. I'm trying to figure this all out, especially before J starts school.
      Do you let Pablo get down and then come back? Or is it that once he is down, he's down?

    3. Pleasure, Robin. Yeah, trying to steer away from using food as rewards or "bribes" of sorts, as well as trusting that he knows how much to eat, is key, I think, but is often easier said than done, for sure. As far as getting down from the table, I would give him I think one chance to change his mind, if he told me he was done eating, and then told me he was still hungry (and if we're still eating), I would say, "OK but you come back and sit in your chair to finish eating." I always try to lay down boundaries with humor and kindness rather than having a very "strict" style, to keep the good mood around the whole food experience…

    4. That's very important I think – to keep it being a pleasureable experience rather than a war of eating and behavior. Thank you!

  5. It IS so hard already! We are at 23 months. Even when I just go to playgroup, all the other kids and moms are munching (or eating their lunch between 10:30 and 11:30 which is too early for us, and so naturally my son is wanting all the crackers and goodies everyone else has. Sometimes I just let them share with him since it's a once a week thing, but it reminds me that it is only going to increase in frequency as he gets older!

    1. I know, it IS hard, hang in there. Like you said, once a week and in moderation is fine, in a situation like that, I would just tell Pablo that it's just a taste, that we're going to have lunch soon and we don't want to spoil our appetite… Thanks for taking the time to comment and share, Jodi! 🙂

  6. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog and like your perspective in this post. We are in the process of cutting out random snacking at our house. It makes a huge difference in what my 22-month-old is willing to try and the amount she eats at meals. It has been a tougher journey with my 4-year-old, who is continually offered snacks at play-dates, school and activities. She is very willing to try new things, thanks to my not being a short-order cook.

    I have noticed that there is less resistance to scheduled snacks and meals when food is presented well. Your photographs are beautiful, and I really love the dishes you used for the pudding. Where did you find them?

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, and for sharing your experience, seeing a concrete difference with the snacks with your daughter. And the fact that your older one is open to trying new things is so wonderful! Completely agree with you on the presentation, it matters a lot, definitely. As for the dish I used for the pudding, I can't remember for sure where I got it, maybe World Market…

  7. what a great post helene. that's exactly the way I feel about food and snacking. I don't even think there is something essentially wrong with sugar, everything is alright in the right amounts, and I'm more than happy to have a sweet treat made with sugar and ingredients I know the origin of. ANd kudos about the no guilt thing. I read somewhere (and I've been believeing this ever since i read it) that stressing about 'unhealthy' food is probably worse than just eating it.

    p.s. lovely photos, pablo looks adorable with chocolate smeared over his face 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, Shu Han! So glad you could relate to this post even as a non parent, I too find it applies to me as an adult just as much as to Pablo. Glad you like the pix, I just couldn't resist sharing the chocolate face 😉

  8. Great post as always. I love everything about your blog and use many ideas and recipes for our family meals. I have used numerous recipe ideas for baby food.

    I just made the pudding and it tastes great. I was looking for a simple good recipe for pudding this past weekend but did not find any I liked (most of them involved cornstarch or eggs). Mine turned out very dark and strong taste of cacao (chocolate). What cacao did you use and did yours taste more like a real dark chocolate? Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much, what a great feeling to know that what I share here is actually helpful 🙂
      Yes, this is definitely a chocolate lover's recipe, with a strong taste of chocolate. I used 100% organic cocoa powder. I read some recipes using hot cocoa mix, but that's usually sweetened, so the sugar quantity would have to be adjusted… I thought the same thing when I first tasted the pudding, but the next day when we had it again, it really grew on us… 😉

    2. Hello Helene,
      You are right the next day this was excellent, like a real dark chocolate melting in your mouth. I highly recommend this recipe to others. My toddler loved it too (I gave him only few teaspoons), such a great treat. I wonder if this would be ok to make with the tapioca flour (starch) too.

    3. Thanks so much for coming back to let me know! Glad you and your little one enjoyed it 🙂 I think tapioca flour would work, worth a try. 🙂

  9. I love this article and agree very much with you thoughts and ideas regarding snacking and meal times as a whole. I cant wait to give my son chocolate! I would like to hear some of your thoughts on milk and weather you serve with every meal or not? Also, if gouter is typically at 4:30pm what time is dinner and your other meals? Thank you 🙂

    1. Hi Melanie, I hope you enjoy the pudding! Dinner for us is currently around 7p (bkfst ard 8am, lunch 12a, gouter 4-430) – we bathe Pablo before dinner, as most French families do, and it works out well, we can all have dinner together and have it be the relaxing conclusion of the day to then unwind through the bedtime routine. As far as the milk, you might want to check out the FAQ section I recently posted (I just added a link in the blue header above to make it easier to find), with similar questions on the topic. I don't serve milk with meals, at almost 2, Pablo is down to 2 bottles, early morning and early evening, and I try to keep it at least 45 mn from meals… Thanks so much for taking the time to comment 🙂

  10. Hi Helene! I loved your post because we use many of the same approaches with our son who is almost four. I'm not French but my husband is and we live in France. We actually used the British based Baby Led Weaning with him and in my opinion it really paid off in the way he approaches his eating.

    I do have to say though that from my experience things are not as clear cut in France anymore. People are constantly offering food (including candy) to my son when he's out and about grocery shopping or running errands with us. And I am the one who will refuse not my husband. lol He has also told me that his teacher gives him candy – something I need to investigate- it might just be wishful thinking on his part though.

    But on the whole the approach to food and meal times here is very positive, and my friends and family back home in the Caribbean are usually surprised at the fact the my son will eat just about everything, and more importantly will willingly try new foods.

    1. Hi Francine, thanks so much for sharing your perspective as someone living in France. Of course, when I speak of "the French", it is a vast generalization based on my experience growing up there in the 80's and 90's, and some of my friends there today, but I'm sure things vary a lot from family to family and community to community. So good to hear this approach worked well with your son! Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

  11. Oh that chocolate stained face has inspired me – I am going to make this chocolate pudding this weekend for my son! I have not given him chocolate yet and really he has had minimal sweets and I appreciate the point you make in this post about avoiding guilt and that special treats and sweets (especially homemade) are ok to have in moderation. I really need that reminder! I think I get so over focused on health at times that I forget that food is so much about family, pleasure and fun too! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Sarika, I hope your son enjoys the pudding! Chocolate can be as healthy as it is delicious 🙂 I am remaking it this weekend too for an Easter treat.

  12. This site post is excellent, probably because of how well the subject was developed. I like some of the comments too though I could prefer we all stay on the subject in order add value to the subject!
    Diet chart for children

  13. My French husband and I have recently moved to France with our 2 small children. One of the things I was expecting was relief from the onslaught of sweets and junk foods at all hours. For the most part, there is some relief. But it isn't nearly as pure as depicted in so many books and blogs comparing French culture with American. Everytime we visit homes of friends/family, my children are always offered juice or soda or water with syrup. And every time we ask for just water, people are surprised. "What? Just water? Are you sure? Here's some water with peach syrup." And the afternoon snack is obligatore. From what I've seen at other homes, it's a full meal of desserts. Now I avoid having my kids at other homes for quatre heure. They never want to eat dinner after that giant meal of desserts. And when I go to the bakery, it's to buy bread. But I know at least some of our neighbor kids get candy every single time they go to the bakery (which is everyday). Btw, the bakeries in France are basically candy shops for the kids. I can go on and on. Just a reality check about life in France.

    1. Forgot to add that those sweets at quatre heure are not made with love at home. Very few mothers here stay at home. There's a full aisle at every hypermarché dedicated to processed gateaux. Another full refrigerated aisle dedicated to cold processed sweets (chocolate mousse, crème brulèe, flan, etc). The selection is amazing. My strategy is to expose my kids to good quality foods so that they'll reject the low quality processed junk that is all around us. Even in France!

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