How to Wean Your Kid from the Junk Food Joneses
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses.” It used to mean creating a life-style that had quality, pizzazz, and followed the “trends.” But what if you live in a culture where “the Joneses” our kids see every day on TV commercials and media ads are endorsing low-nutrition, heavily processed fast foods and soft drinks?
Getting the whole family to eat healthy meals in a culture where some kids think that a potato chip is a vegetable can be a real challenge. But there are realistic, easy-to-implement strategies that can help you to gradually wean your children away from poor nutritional choices and toward delicious more wholesome foods.
Just Because You’ve Seen the Light….
It’s highly unlikely that your children are suddenly going to wake up one morning and stop eating junk food just because you’ve seen the light about healthy nutrition, or just because you want them to. Our children are bombarded by the fast-food culture from the day they enter this world, and they know the names of the fast-food chains even before they know their colors.
It isn’t by chance that there is an entire market of convenient processed foods positioned just for kids. These foods are very savory and appealing, usually salty, sweet, or easy to chew. Microwave pizza, macaroni and cheese, soup in a cup, and canned spaghetti are all examples of the kind of foods that are highly addictive to children’s taste buds.
Unfortunately, these foods provide very little nutritional value. They can cause your children’s health to decay and can make them overweight. Even worse, your kids become addicted to the flavor and short-term energy rush that junk food provides them.
The challenge is to learn how to create healthy family meals that are not only user-friendly for adults, but realistic options for the kids. The following strategies will help you create meals and snacks that are not only nourishing, but also fun for the whole family.
Get Your Kids Out of the Junk Food Ghetto
To start with, don’t let your kids live in a junk food ghetto. How many times have you and your children sat down to meals that were separate and nutritionally unequal? Adults eat chicken, steak, fish, salad, baked potato, and vegetables while kids eat hotdogs on white buns with a side of potato chips, macaroni and cheese, and/or pizza. Just because these foods taste good doesn’t mean they are healthy for your kids. You have to wean your kids away from “kid’s food.”
Another version of the junk food ghetto are the microwavable kids’ meals aimed at busy working parents who have to face a roomful of cranky, hungry children at the end of the day. While these frozen taquitos, pizzas, and breaded chicken nuggets will temporarily satisfy your children, ultimately, they are filled with bad carbohydrates, saturated fats, sugars, and chemicals, which give them their good flavor. The end result is not a nutritious meal that will help your child to grow and develop in a healthy manner, but high-fat, high-sugar foods that may contribute to hyperactivity, poor cognitive ability, mood swings, and poor sleeping patterns.
And, don’t think you are immune just because you are an adult. If you eat these junk foods yourself, you will have the same problems. In some instances even Mom or Dad can be the junk food Jones. One client at my nutritional clinic told me recently that she knew her son had become overweight because he was eating “just like his father.” Dad ate nothing but junk, and was none too healthy himself.
Creating “Bridge Foods” for Your Kids
Once children get used to eating processed foods, they become addicted to the flavor and the short-term energy rush. So, how do you wean your kids off these unhealthy foods and introduce them to healthier eating patterns?
To rescue your child from the “junk food Joneses,” you need to slowly wean them away from the foods they are used to by introducing healthier versions. I call these “bridge foods,” nutritious foods that you can slip into unhealthy meals. Here are some suggestions.
If your child’s favorite meal is instant macaroni and cheese, start by serving them a plate that is ½ the old food and ½ a new healthier version, made from whole wheat or organic noodles and organic or low-fat cheese. You can then increase the percentage of healthier food until your child is used to eating something better. You could even mix in turkey meatballs with their mac and cheese to give them a higher percentage of lean and nourishing protein.
You can do the same thing with fast-food burgers. Start by giving them half of a fast-food burger, and half of a lower fat burger that you have made at home. You can gradually wean their taste away from the high fat meat by buying leaner and leaner ground beef, eventually mixing it with ground turkey, serving it on a whole wheat bun, and melting organic cheese on top.
To wean your child from cheese quesadillas to baked chicken, you could start by slipping some chicken into the quesadilla. Or, instead of pepperoni pizza, try pizza with chicken and vegetables. If your kids want a sandwich, instead of using bread, wrap their turkey or tuna fish in whole wheat pita bread or lavash—or make the sandwich a burrito wrap and add in some vegetables and black beans.
If your child wants a sweet snack, instead of candy bars, cookies, or cake, give them an apple or a frozen banana with some kind of natural (without added sugar) nut butter, or yogurt with fruit and raw almonds, or even jelly and peanut butter on pita bread. Another great bridge treat is an energy bar (Clif Bar, PowerBar, etc.) with nut butter.
Creating Lifetime Habits of Good Nutrition
A lot of times parents who are trying to improve their children’s eating patterns at home feel powerless about what their kids might be eating away from the house. Because many schools have experienced budget cuts in recent years, school lunches certainly aren’t what they used to be nutritionally. Many times these meals are high in starchy foods and low in lean protein and fresh vegetables. But unfortunately even grade school kids don’t feel that it’s cool to brown bag it—even when that would mean getting healthier fare.
And—let’s face it—the temptation to enjoy after-school fast-food snacks at the homes of peers can be well nigh irresistible.
What should you do? My answer is this: don’t sweat the stuff that you can’t control. As long as your child gets good nutritious meals at home, he or she will be able to develop lifetime habits of good nutrition.
Try these strategies and see how well they work with your whole family.