A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Tortilla chips

Junk Foods? Why You Should Allow Them (in Moderation)!

The news is so full of nutritional advice it can seem impossible to know where to begin to ensure your kids eat well. What’s a parent to do?

Eating less sugar can decrease our risk of diabetes and cancer. Fiber is fantastic for preventing constipation and irritable bowel syndrome and is linked to a reduction in colon cancer and heart disease. Blueberries and walnuts have antioxidants that can help prevent cell damage. Salmon and tuna have vitamin D and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Yet eating too much tuna can be harmful as it has mercury. Drinking too much cow’s milk can lead to iron-deficiency anemia. Too much soy milk is risky as well.

How does a parent put all of this advice into action?!

My patients’ parents often ask questions about nutrition. I offer them a collection of nutritional soundbites. One bit of “wisdom” I always tell them is this: “Make snacks count.”

Snacks are a great chance to get in the foods we most want our kids to eat. You might offer cut up vegetables with hummus, sliced fruit, or a handful of healthy nuts. As a mom of 3, I try to follow this advice. Sometimes, though, I fail.

It struck me one July day at the beach, as I watched my 12-year-old gleefully eat her bowl of very sugary cereal complete with colored marshmallow bits, that something about summer vacation seems programmed to allow these failures.

My childhood summer vacations were spent on the beaches of Virginia and North and South Carolina, in the woods around my grandparents’ home on the Chesapeake Bay, and on a lake in the Blue Ridge Mountains – with long days of freedom, swimming, exploring, and happiness. Sand and heat, mosquitoes, crabs and fireflies, watermelon and Fritos formed the texture of the days.

Fritos? Yes. Looking back, many of my summertime memories centered around foods enjoyed only then. Some, of course, were healthy treats – like watermelon – but some were not. S’mores, Fritos, and the occasional bowl of sugary cereal were a wonderful break from the healthy diet my mother usually fed me. Now I realize I have programmed my own children to expect the same sort of nutritional holiday.

Sugary cereal never enters my house, and to their credit, the kids don’t ask for it either. They know, though, that on vacation away from home they’re allowed to get a box of the junkiest cereal their little hearts’ desire. It seems to me this kind of holiday has a place in their lives.

I may have benefited from being allowed to lie in a sunny spot on a houseboat with a bowl of chips. How? It taught me moderation. As the Roman writer Petronius said:

Moderation in all things, including moderation.

Perhaps if we allow our kids the occasional nutritional holiday, they’ll crave the junk less regularly. Outright prohibition doesn’t seem to work well, for adults or for children. Kids who are forbidden certain foods overeat them as soon as they get a chance – at school or a friend’s house.

Allowing junk food holidays at times provides us an opportunity to discuss why it’s usually not allowed. Maybe kids will appreciate junk food more if they eat it less. I do know for certain as I sit here now, I’m enjoying my bowl of Fritos.

Find more resources for parents:

My Doctor Online:
Eat Well, Be Active, Live Better

American Academy of Pediatrics:
Kids Need Fiber: Here’s Why and How

Ellyn Satter Institute:
Family Meals and Snacks

This article was originally published on June 21, 2018.

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