Healthy eating isn't just about personal responsibility, says one pediatrician. Today's food environment is downright harmful and unhealthy for kids. Here's how it should change for the better.

By Sally Kuzemchak
January 23, 2018
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
pediatrician's wishlist for a healthy food environment
Credit: Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock

Ever feel like you're fighting an uphill battle when it comes to feeding your kids healthy food? You plan a well-balanced lunch—but then your daughter gets a donut and fruit punch at her morning soccer game. You pack a nutritious lunch for your son—but he begs you for the Lunchable he saw in a commercial.

Pediatrician (and mom) Natalie Muth feels your pain. "The food environment directly and severely impacts children," says Muth, MD, RDN co-author of The Picky Eater Project and member of the Executive Committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Obesity. Childhood obesity rates have climbed--and led to a higher risk among kids for high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, and fatty liver disease, conditions that used to only be seen in adults.

Here's Muth's advice for everyone from the government, to the food industry, to parents at home:

  • Stop the marketing of junk food and sugary drinks to children and teens.
  • Eliminate juice from the WIC package (a federal food assistance program for low-income women and children), preschools, schools, and other places where it may be perceived of by parents and kids as healthy. It's healthier and just as easy and cost effective to offer kids fruit rather than juice and to highlight water as the preferred beverage.
  • Restrict sugary drinks and candy in programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and instead, have incentives for purchasing more fruits and vegetables.
  • Tax sugary drinks. Many cities have adopted an excise tax on sugary drinks and evidence from these initiatives suggest they are effective at raising needed funds for the communities and positively impacting health.
  • Severely cut the amount of sugar and salt added to proceesed foods, especially foods targeted at kids.
  • The federal government should implement and support existing regulations aimed to improve nutrition, especially those that make school lunch healthier and include added sugar on nutrition labels.
  • Ensure every child has ready access to clean drinking water at home, at school, and throughout the community.
  • Give every child ready access to a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Celebrities should stop promoting junk food and sugary drinks. Teach kids to recognize and critically evaluate advertisements.
  • Stop using food as a reward. This means schools, parents, and other adults. Even though food rewards are effective at getting the behavior you want in the moment, in the long run it does more harm than good.
  • Stop bringing large amounts of junk food as snacks after sporting activities.
  • Families eat more meals together.
  • Families eat at home and cook more often.
  • Grandparents support parents in raising healthy eaters. This will help to increase the impact of your efforts through consistency of message and approach. It also may help prevent accidental or intentional sabotage of your plans.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.