Having Your Cake and Eating it too….what to do about “junk food” for you and your family

IMG_7692Let’s face it. Do you really and truly think you should live the rest of your life without having a good old homemade chocolate chip cookie? The cookies pictured here were baked by my mother-in-law for a recent family gathering. I was fortunate to grab some that I packed away in a freezer bag for later cookie cravings. Anyway, after a recent post about childhood obesity and the damaging repercussions about an unhealthy food environment, I got some feedback about how children should not be restricted as this will likely contribute to binge eating, and an increased focus on food.

While I totally agree with the principles of hunger-motivated eating and “intuitive” principles of eating, I also know that it is not as simple as it sounds. My husband has always joked when I have said “listen to your body” because his body says to eat the entire bag of Lay’s! Of course this is not exactly true, and I have never seen him consume an entire gigantic bag of chips, however this is an issue that comes up often when “intuitive eating” and “listening to your body”is promoted. What is a parent to do when a child does appear obsessed with whatever sweets are in the home and can’t wait until he or she can get a hold of it? What is an adult supposed to do when they are dieting and truly craving something sweet? or salty such as chips?

We are a culture of “all or nothing” thinking. You have heard it before….the dangers of being “on” a diet, then “off” a diet. People follow the craziest and most restrictive diets for a variety of reasons, but when, inevitably, they can’t maintain the restriction (usually due to a powerful physiological response to starvation coupled with an environmental trigger, such as exposure to a particular food), well, after they break the diet, everything changes.

After having that cookie, or eating a handful of those chips, total mind games take over. The “all or nothing” mindset kicks in and people lose control (who wouldn’t?)

The problem is that if we want to encourage our children to eat healthy, but also don’t want them focused too much on eating and food, then we need to be careful about the messages we send. We want them to make healthy choices, however, we don’t want them to feel guilty about having a cookie. What is the best advice to promote a healthy relationship to eating and especially, to “fun food”? Here are my 5 Tips for Having Your Cake and Eating It Too….

  1. Never withhold food from a child, especially a sweet or dessert, until they have finished the main meal. This serves to reward them with sweets and teach them that something is very wrong with the food they are being served and something is very special about the sweet they are being rewarded for. Instead, let them have the sweet right along with their meal. This bothers many parents because they were brought up back in the day when sweets were used as reward, or withheld for punishment. Many of those brought up this way tend to continue to reward themselves with sweets when they are finally adults and can do what they want. I remember one patient I saw for binge eating. She had gained and lost hundreds of pounds over the years. Her mom used to restrict her to make her lose weight, so when she finally was out on her own, she was all about getting back at her mom and started to use food (sweets especially) as a reward for almost everything. Now as an adult, her mom still made comments about her weight and eating, and it bothered her, even though she was 50 years old.  I remember her telling me after her mom passed away that she still was feeling restricted and it was hard for her to accept now that her mom was no longer alive, she did not have to sneak or get back at her. It still was hard for her as she had been doing this for so long (binge eating sweets). So the message is, beware of restricting sweets or making them special as it will likely mess up your child’s relationship with eating (or if YOU have been restricted, maybe it is time to think about sweets in a different way?)
  2. Pay attention to your child’s reaction around food (and pay attention to your own feelings when food is around). Accept that everyone is different. You may discover that your child has little interest in eating (I see these kinds of kids all the time in the Feeding Team, where children are referred for feeding issues). Or maybe the opposite is true, and your child seems obsessed with food. This sometimes is due to a child’s food intake being restricted, or too much attention placed on a child’s eating or weight. Other times, I have seen it just be that the child simply enjoys food and eating.  Even as an adult, some people seem to be bored with eating (“eat to live”) while others are somewhat obsessed with it, love cooking, love eating, and spend lots of time on it. This is not a bad thing necessarily, however if it is due to previous restriction, or dieting as an adult, then this kind of eating and food obsession tends to come with guilt, not pleasure and enjoyment.  The bottom line is you need to pay attention and accept that everyone is different. If you have a child obsessed with eating for whatever reason, or if you are for whatever reason, then it is important to create an environment where everyone is able to enjoy food and eating, but not be triggered into binge eating. This means having those fun foods on a regular basis because you enjoy them, but not going to Costco’s to buy the mega cookie tray to leave on the counter where there is a child who is not going to be able to stop. Or do what I do, and put them in zip lock freezer bags so you can take out what you want when you want it. No one is deprived and no one is triggered. Yes, I have had patients who are not able to do this as they will binge on them frozen. Know yourself, and do what you need to do to have balance in your eating.
  3. Again, I have said it before and I will say it again. Don’t treat children (or adults for that matter) differently when it comes to sweets, or what foods you allow them to eat. If you want to make sweets or some other fun food (chips, fries) a part of a meal, let everyone, no matter what their weight or body size have it. Don’t make comments like “that is enough”. Let everyone have what they want and need. Encourage listening to your “tummy”. How do you feel? Do you feel satisfied, stuffed, still want more? It is important to help children, and also important for adults to learn how to eat ALL foods in amounts that make them feel good. Not stuffed, not uncomfortable, but good. Satisfied. The only way to do this is to have these foods on the menu.
  4. Talk about being healthy, and not about how “good” or “bad” a food is. I personally think it is ok to educate even children a bit about nutrition. It is ok to say “milk makes your bones strong!” or “this broccoli has lots of vitamins and makes us feel good” or “that has a lot of sugar in it, so we need to brush our teeth so we don’t get a cavity”. But is it not ok to talk about food and weight. Don’t say “cookies are bad for you! If you eat too many you will get fat!” Instead, have cookies as a part of a meal that provides some good nutrition (such as a dinner with meat, vegetables, grains, a glass of milk). It is really amazing how children will not devour all the cookies first as you would expect when they are given in a neutral manner, without judgement along with the rest of a healthy meal. Yes, if you have been restricting sweets, kids will go to them first. But after awhile, they won’t be special anymore. This will work for you, too. Although if you have been dieting or restricting excessively, you may need the help of a dietitian and therapist to guide you. Don’t feel bad if this sounds impossible. For many who struggle with eating disorders, it is. That is why knowing when you need help is important.
  5. Realize as a parent or as an adult, you make the decision about what your food environment will be. You go to the grocery store and you bring home whatever you buy. It is not restrictive or wrong to decide to predominantly have healthy foods in your home. If you know how to cook, healthy meals are really yummy! You are the one to decide if food is left on counters or in cabinets where children can help themselves. Don’t villainize the food, but instead, have it be a part of your normal healthy meals when you really feel it fits (and you want it). We all have our family favorites. When I grew up, ice cream was our thing. We would go every Sunday on long drives in the country and eventually stop at the same farm where they made their own ice cream. We all got what we wanted (I always asked for the green ice cream, also known as pistachio…still my favorite). In my husband’s family it was Grandma Harmon’s cinnamon buns. They are a pain to make, but when my husband does, he makes a lot, and we freeze them. We make them last!

So the bottom line is that it is smart to normalize “fun foods” so they are not so special after all. There is less need to be obsessed with them when they are treated neutrally, and when we get to have them. At the same time, we want to feel good. Therefore, it is smart to have our favorite fun foods as part of our normal healthy meal. It does not mean we need to have these fun foods at every meal. It could be once a day or a few times a week, or even a few times a day. As long as everyone gets the nutritious foods we all need to survive, that is what matters.

Also, it is imperative that we don’t talk about any foods in harmful ways (“this will make you fat”). Instead, talk about how yummy it is and enjoy it. With a focus on a healthy lifestyle (adequate sleep, fun physical activity, balanced healthy eating, relaxation) a normal amount of sweets, chips or other fun foods is fine.

So what is YOUR family traditional fun food?

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