We’re often so focused on getting our kids to eat vegetables that we forget it’s perfectly normal to go for dishes that taste good. Here’s why you should stress less about the fries and pizza and accept that happy meals can be healthy.

By Virginia Sole-Smith
Priscilla Gragg

"You can have more pasta when you eat five bites of broccoli.”

“If you’re not hungry enough for a carrot stick, you’re not hungry.”

“Don’t let my kid know you have cookies or he’ll never eat any lunch.”

Have you said stuff like that? I’ve definitely said stuff like that. (Hi, my name is Virginia, and I once tried to ban chocolate milk.) Increasingly, parents everywhere are saying and thinking stuff like that. Millennial parents are almost twice as likely to worry that their friends judge how their kids eat compared with Gen X parents, according to a Time magazine poll of 2,000 moms and dads. Thanks, Instagrammed lunch boxes.

But it’s not only that we’re worried about what other people think. We’re deeply uncomfortable ourselves about how much our kids love pasta, crackers, chips, chocolate, and other carb-heavy, sugar-laden “comfort foods.” We talk them out of wanting a second or third helping of mac ’n’ cheese. We insist they finish their green beans before they take another dinner roll. We barter french fries for cucumber slices.

Of course, some of this is just age-old parental anxiety about whether our kids are getting what they need to grow healthy and strong. But it’s also what happens when modern diet culture, with its Paleo plans and clean-eating fixation, infiltrates how we think about feeding kids. As we’ve become more focused on the grams of carbohydrates and added sugar in our own diets, we’ve decided they shouldn’t take up too much space on our kids’ plates either. But this obsession with nutrition has led us to forget something pretty fundamental about food: It should taste good.

In fact, it needs to taste good. Babies are born with an instinct to eat; they seek out a nipple within the first few hours of life. They get the nourishment they need only because they find the experience of eating to be pleasurable, satiating, and comforting. If eating becomes uncomfortable or unsatisfying—due to a poor latch, acid reflux, or any other of the myriad factors that can make nursing and bottle-feeding such a challenge in those early weeks—a baby will start to resist it.

My older daughter, Violet, stopped eating completely when she was a month old because her congenital heart condition left her too weak, and the trauma of subsequent surgeries made eating feel unsafe. She needed a feeding tube for nutrition, and it took almost two years for her to be willing to eat by mouth again. Guess which foods helped her finally turn the corner? Chocolate milk and pasta with my homemade tomato sauce.

For some reason, we assume that food should stop offering comfort once a child is out of diapers. Older kids rarely link eating the foods we want them to like with physical comfort, and we try to avoid the kinds of meals they do consider “comfort food,” whether that’s candy and cake or hash browns and toast. But there’s one thing I learned while teaching Violet to eat and then while talking to other parents and kids when I was writing my new book, The Eating Instinct: Comfort is essential to every child’s healthy relationship with food. Here’s why we need to reclaim comfort food—for our kids, and for ourselves too.

Comfort food helps kids grow.

Let’s deal with our nutrition fears first. Yes, children benefit from having a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and protein sources in their diet. However, by age 5, a growing child’s brain uses twice as much glucose per day as an adult’s brain, says Maryann Jacobsen, R.D., a family nutritionist and coauthor of Fearless Feeding. Glucose is the simple sugar that circulates in the bloodstream and brings energy to every part of the body—meaning your child needs foods containing sugar and other carbohydrates, which break down into glucose more quickly than fat or protein does. Kids have even been found to crave more sweet foods when they’re having a growth spurt.

If you have a picky eater, comforting carbs are especially important. “From a purely mechanical standpoint, mac ’n’ cheese is going to be easier to eat than a salad,” notes Jennifer Berry, an occupational therapist in Alexandria, Virginia, who specializes in feeding issues. “The texture is softer and more uniform. The flavor is more predictable, which makes anxious eaters feel safe.” And while carbs are nutritious foods in their own right, they’re also what Berry calls the perfect carrier foods: Pasta pairs well with an endless variety of sauces; crackers can encourage a child to try hummus or another vegetable dip. And many kids are most comfortable with meat when it comes sandwiched between two slices of bread.

Comfort food improves family meals.

You know all those studies that show how kids who participate in family dinners get better grades and are less likely to do drugs? It’s not because their parents are forcing them to eat kale salad. It’s because they’re enjoying each other’s company and talking—about what everyone did that day, about what’s happening in the world, about if you could have a third hand, where you would want it to be. (That last one might only come up at my dinner table.) You can’t have those conversations if you’re busy bargaining over bites of asparagus, which is why Berry and other experts encourage families to follow a model of feeding called the Division of Responsibility. It was created by nutritionist and family therapist Ellyn Satter, R.D., author of Child of Mine, who realized that kids can’t listen to their body when parents interfere too much. Parents are in charge of providing the food, and kids get to decide what and how much to eat.

With my child who flat-out wouldn’t eat, I was initially stumped by the Division of Responsibility. It sounded like the advice I got from friends who said, “No kid will starve herself—she’ll eat when she’s hungry.” However, Violet had proven quite dramatically that she would, in fact, starve. And kids of all ages who struggle with pickiness can out-stubborn their parents when faced with a plate of unfamiliar food.

But Satter argues that part of our job is to serve meals that include our child’s safe foods alongside new or more challenging ones. And that’s where comfort foods are key, because most of them—a basket of rolls, a side of pasta—are easy to throw onto the table with the rest of a meal. Offer comfort foods and less familiar foods to the whole family, but let the kids serve themselves. Then relax, enjoy your meal, and talk about anything other than what everyone is eating. Almost right away, your meals will become more enjoyable. “If they like the foods they’re eating, they’ll like food,” says Berry. “And if they like food, they’ll feel more comfortable reaching for something new.”

Comfort food teaches moderation.

When kids were told they had to finish their soup before they could have dessert, they liked the soup less and ate less of it than kids who were allowed to decide when they were finished, found a famous study by Leann Birch, Ph.D., a childhood-obesity researcher at the University of Georgia, in Athens. “When children have strict rules about certain foods, it can make them anxious and prone to fixating on those foods,” notes Katja Rowell, M.D., a family doctor who specializes in feeding issues and is the coauthor of Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating. “A child who has no sugar at home may hide in a friend’s bathroom to eat an entire package of Oreo cookies.”

It’s best to serve your child’s favorite foods reasonably frequently—weekly or even daily for smaller treats. And let her know when they’ll be coming (Tuesday is pizza and ice cream night; she can have cookies as her after-school snack) so she can relax because she knows what to expect.

In fact, you should even consider embracing this counterintuitive food policy: If your kid goes crazy for chips or cookies, try serving them more (in small portions), not less. Having regular access to comfort foods takes their allure down a notch and will help your child develop a keener sense of what she really enjoys. “My own kids have something sweet every day, and they’re very choosy about it,” says Jacobsen. “If they don’t like the treat they’ve been offered earlier in the day, they’ll wait until we get home so they can have their favorite. It’s fascinating to watch them learn to balance all foods so they are satisfied while still getting the nutrition that they need.”

Comfort food inspires adventurous eating.

Now 5, Violet would happily eat mac ’n’ cheese, pancakes, or Cheerios for every meal. But she also loves going out to eat, especially at our local Indian restaurant. Many parents dread the idea of taking their kids to a restaurant with an unfamiliar cuisine (especially one known for being fragrant and spicy), but here’s a secret: Every culture loves carbs. Pretty much anywhere you go in the world, you’re going to find some kind of bread, rice, or pastry served as a cornerstone of the local culinary tradition. So when we go out for Indian food, both my girls happily inhale a basket of garlic naan for dinner, while my husband and I enjoy our curries. When we order Chinese food, Violet eats the crispy wonton strips. With Mexican, she likes flour tortillas smeared with guacamole and cheese.

I usually serve milk to drink and put a bowl of fruit on the table if we’re eating take-out at home. But I otherwise don’t worry that they only eat carbs at these dinners because my goal here is familiarization, not nutrition. By finding the safe comfort food on every new menu, I’m building positive associations with all kinds of different cuisines and instilling the idea that we, as a family, enjoy all sorts of adventurous eating experiences. We’re also working on restaurant etiquette, learning to read menus, and acquiring a bunch of other useful skills that will matter more in the long run than what the kids eat for any individual meal.

Someday, I hope they’ll be inspired to dip their naan in my chicken korma sauce and eventually even order their own. But in the meantime, our restaurant tab is cheaper and everyone is well fed and happy. “This shifts the focus from comfort foods versus non–comfort foods to comfort mealtimes,” notes Dr. Rowell. “When meals are enjoyable, safe spaces and you aren’t negotiating over every bite, then any food can be a comfort food.”

This story originally appeared in Parents magazine as “Make Peace With Kid Food.”

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