With babies and little kids, we often prioritise fresh and natural ingredients because our own diet isn’t good enough for them. We exclude certain foods from their diet because they are ‘not healthy for children’ – they may contain too much salt, sugar, fat or other nasties.
In my busy times of having a six-month-old and a two-year-old, my kids often ate better than I did, mostly because I planned their meals better and gave myself no other option but to give them healthy food.
No parent consciously thinks, ‘As soon as my child is old enough, I want to feed them sugary, fatty, and salty foods that have little nutritional value.’
Parents never intend to give their children junk foods as a way of providing nutrition. Unfortunately, when our children get a little older, most of us start to allow more junk food.
Junk stats for Australian kids
According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, our energy intake to maintain a healthy diet should not exceed 20% from sugars and 10% from saturated and trans-fats combined. Foods high in energy and low in nutrients are classified as ‘discretionary’ foods in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (NHMRC). They are not an essential component of our diet. Some foods that belong in this category are crisps, sweet biscuits, processed meats and sausages, commercial and processed takeaway foods, cakes, pies and pastries, ice cream, soft drinks and cordials, confectionary, and chocolate.
A 2012 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) on data from the 2007 Children’s Survey showed that Australian children eat too many discretionary or ‘extra’ foods. OK, this data might be a little old, but have we changed that much (and for worse or better?).
Some of the results:
• 41% of energy intake in children came from extra foods (i.e. junk)
• 75% of children aged 2 to 3 years exceeded the recommended sugar intake
• 60% of kids aged 4-13 years exceeded the recommended sugar intake
Time to rethink junk?
Our children are tempted every day to eat junk food. It’s all around them, even at school. “All the other children are eating it!” So naturally, our kids want it too. They don’t have the discipline or self-regulation, and they are still learning how to care for their health. They want instant gratification, and they only ever regret it if they feel ill after eating junk.
In our efforts to teach kids about a balanced diet and healthy food choices, we often call less-nutritious foods ‘sometimes’ food. Most of the foods we include in this ‘sometimes food’ category are junk foods.
As parents, we need to teach our kids to recognise healthy food choices. I believe we need to describe foods accurately and for what they are. This means recognising foods for their nutritional value (or lack thereof). Junk is junk (tell it like it is!)
Personally, I prefer to call junk food ‘junk’ or ‘not nutritious food’ rather than ‘sometimes’ food.
I feel it conveys the message in a way that children can understand. Sure, we have junk sometimes, but we appreciate it for what it is – food that may taste nice or be fun, but doesn’t nourish our bodies and or make us grow fit, strong and healthy (if they make us grow at all).
Another thing that can easily confuse children is that we often offer junk foods at parties, on special occasions or as rewards. By calling junk food ‘party food’, ‘special food’ or ‘treats’, we again fail to help them understand the true nature of these foods. Words such as ‘treat’ and ‘special’ make these foods seem even more desirable!
Fun treats can be healthy too
A treat doesn’t have to be unhealthy, and it certainly doesn’t have to be junk. By redefining treats and party foods, we can provide our little ones with nutritious ‘special’ food that they can enjoy as much as they may have previously enjoyed junk food.
Show your kids that treats are not just about the food – it’s also about sharing special times with others. A treat can be eating out at a local cafe or enjoying a picnic with all your favourite foods. It can be indulging in raspberries and cherries when they are in season, wholesome homemade muffins, or simply trying something new.