We need to talk about food in specific ways, like how nutrition helps our bodies rather than labeling foods as "good" or "bad." Parents.com's 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., suggests making sure kids have access to nutritious choices without completely banning certain foods.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
January 29, 2020
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Credit: Illustration by Emma Darvick

Dear Kitchen,

Our bodies were actually designed to crave sugar and starch as rare energy sources to stock up on, back when nuts and plants were far more plentiful. Unfortunately, this evolutionary design has not changed at the same pace as our food supply! Our brains crave the very foods that we now deem "unhealthy," and since kids' brains do not put a check on impulses like ours do, children love junk food.

The solution, however, is not as straightforward as the biological reasons for the cravings. As most of us know in this culture of hyper-focus on dieting, weight-loss fads, and enormous portion sizes, the mixed messages about food abound. When it comes to wanting our children to develop positive eating behaviors and relationships with food, we are competing with the cultural forces of these mixed messages and access to excess.

As a parent, our most basic drive is to nurture our children. Emotionally, this means we love and comfort them. Physically, this means we feed them. From the first days of nursing and formula feeding, this act of nurturing combines love and comfort with food. From the days of watching our toddlers throw lovingly home-pureed vegetables all over the kitchen, we often feel like we might be failing.

When our kids are older and not accepting our wisdom about nutrition with open arms, this fear that we are not nurturing our children how we "should" can resurface in full force. Especially because they have so many opportunities to choose food far from the healthy confines of our kitchen tables.

How we can address this comes down to a few key points: messaging, access, and moderation.

Navigate Messaging About Food

You may have noticed it doesn't work to tell your daughter to stop eating junk food. In fact, some evidence suggests that putting certain foods off-limits can make it more likely your child will want them, which can even result in sneaking food.

As in many areas of parenting, we have to use some clever workarounds for our kids to accept our wisdom. In the case of junk food, think of yourself as a marketing strategist. How do you brand more nutritious eating habits in a way that your child wants to listen?

First, we know from research on eating behaviors that it can be counterproductive to categorize foods as healthy or unhealthy, or "good" versus "bad." This can set up a pattern of certain foods feeling taboo, which then leads to unhelpful emotions about food like guilt. The less food and eating can be emotion-based, the better.

Instead of focusing on what not to eat, reframe the messaging to center on what food does to help our bodies. Use specific, utilitarian language, like "this gives your body the energy it needs to keep growing." Explain that some foods are better at this than other foods, and we need to make sure our bodies get enough of the food that give it energy so it can help us run fast, think better, and not get sick.

Monitor Her Access

Ask yourself, what are your child's typical food choices in the house and at school? As tempting as it may be to ban junk food from the pantry or forbid fried goodness at school, this isn't the answer, as children can be experts at finding ways to obtain the illicit. But you can think of ways to limit less nutritious choices, and increase efforts to make more nutritious choices available.

As my school-age children have discovered all the goodness of snack foods that include cheese dust, I have made a more concerted effort to have fruits and vegetables out and available. Some days, I even muster the effort to put a snack tray of more nutritious options on the counter so it's what is easiest to grab. My kids may still reach for cheesy puffs, but they will end up munching on cucumbers and strawberries without fully realizing it.

Personalize Moderation

The research on parenting approaches and eating behaviors in children support what is usually true in the canon of parenting science: The most effective strategies lie in moderation—some limit-setting without all-out bans of certain foods; and—drum roll—it depends on the child!

Have you noticed your child has a mind of her own? Well, it's scientifically true. No matter how stellar our parenting may be, individual temperament and traits matter. Some children are more impulsive and will eat what tastes the best for as long as the food is in front of them; some children are more sensitive to texture, which puts them at risk for the opposite problem of not getting enough food. So, what's effective in your parenting can depend on these individual child characteristics as well.

The bottom line is we need to approach our children's food choices and eating behaviors as if this is a marathon, not a sprint. We are preparing them for a lifetime of how and what to eat—no doubt with some junk food mixed in with the fruits and veggies.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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