Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I look back at parenting my two kids, now 10 and 14 and shake my head at the many mistakes I’ve made. But not one to dwell on the past, I keep on keeping on and remind myself (as does my teen daughter who likes to point out my many parenting flaws) that there is no ‘parenting manual’ and I’m doing the very best I can.
When my daughter was little, I was in clinical practice and seeing many seriously unwell children in my clinic. As a new mum, I was a little (okay, extremely) paranoid about giving her the very best start in life in every way I knew how. Feeding her only the very best, nutritionally balanced meals and snacks was my absolute focus.
However as she got older, I had less and less control over every morsel that passed her precious lips. Play-dates, birthday parties and play school celebrations meant she was exposed to foods she’d never even seen, let alone eaten.
I soon became ‘that’ health freak mum hovering near party tables trying to direct her interest away from the fairy bread and across to the fruit platter. ‘Move away from the junk food’ I’d whisper through gritted teeth. However, I noticed the more I hovered, the more she hoovered.
You see in my effort to raise a food loving child, I’d always encouraged her to try everything which worked well, as long as I was in control of the food in front of her. Turns out both of my kids just love a celebration and they also love food, the good and the not so good. Oh the dilemma!
Why is party food so attractive to kids
Sharing food with others is fun and I believe it’s so important for kids social connectivity. But one thing I’ve witnessed over the years is that the ‘junk’ food (especially the sweet stuff) is always exponentially more popular than the veggie platter and there is, a biological explanation for this.
You see the human brain contains a neural structure called the ‘reward system.’ It is a primal structure which exists to reward us with a bunch of feel good chemicals when we do something to improve our chance of survival – like eating (because eating is essential to our survival). One of these feel good chemicals is dopamine and when it is released, a child’s brain will register pleasure – in the short term it makes them feel good!
Food manufacturers and junk food companies know this, so processed foods are very deliberately engineered to target these evolutionary impulses and engage the reward system of the brain in a way nothing ‘natural’ can. Because the fat and sugar found in processed foods are not so easy to come by in nature, our brains have evolved to drive us to seek out as much as we can get. So you can see why junk food wins out! To understand more about why kids want to eat processed foods, click HERE.
So they are biologically driven towards processed foods, so what on earth is a whole food loving parent to do? To start with, talk to your kids about food and as they get older and are able to understand, give them a real understanding of the differences between whole foods and processed foods. This is SO important to help them to be able to make better choices themselves (in the short term, but more importantly the long term). I find focussing on the positives is imperative…though it’s tempting to rant about crap food, instead talk about how delicious and good it feels to eat real food.
Always discuss processed foods in an non-alarmist way. I love my hairdressers approach to talking to her very young kids about good and not so good food choices – she simply explains that some food is ‘tricky’ – that is, it tastes good and tricks you into feeling like eating more (your brain convinces you it’s ‘not so bad’). I thought this was just a brilliant analogy and one great way to explain and educate kids about widely available, well marketed processed foods.
I also try to give my kids examples of better choices for when they are faced with a table full of junk. For example, plain chips are better than yellow coloured things like Twisties. A cheese sandwich is better than fairy bread. Fruit is better than lollies. A home made biscuit or cake is better that an oreo.
Before we head to a party or situation where I know there will be processed junk, I also talk to them about manners and that if they eat two cupcakes, then one of their friends might miss out and be sad or upset that they had eaten more than their fair share. When they were little, I reminded them of this before each party or event where they had access to a spread of food.
Live and learn!
Back to my kids stuffing themselves at the party table whilst I loitered about anxiously- this was the point that I had to re-assess my approach. As hard as it was, I realised I had to find the middle ground, step aside and allow my kids to live and learn. Let’s face it – self regulation is an important skill and the party table is a great place to start with little ones.
I had to trust that I had laid the ground work, by talking to them often about foods that help them to be strong and healthy. I have and will continue to encourage them to make good choices (even though at present, any talk about how important food is to our wellbeing is mostly met with eye rolling… ah teenagers!).
I do my best to make sure I have always fed them a good meal prior to events where I know their will be junk. Though they both have very robust appetites (nice way of saying they are guts-aches lol) so I’m not sure if in my case, it helps to reduce the amount of party food they eat.
I’ve also always related their food choices to the way their body feels. My teen hasn’t made great food choices during the holidays, but I’ve given her enough of a food education for her to realise that the pimples that have appeared and her lethargy, is a result of those choices. I don’t even have to point it out any longer she just knows and tells me ‘mum I’ve had fun but I feel like I need to get back on track’. The pimples have motivated her to tidy up her diet, make better choices when out and she’s now back to her glowing self!
My 10 year old son is particularly sensitive to poor food choices. He has had two instances where he has overdone the party food and ended up vomiting – once on his sisters head (as she helped him take off his shoes) and the next time was from the top bunk of a caravan we’d hired to camp in. Again his sister was in the firing line on the bottom bunk. So they both learned valuable lessons from those parties!
Once we had a chat about social etiquette and manners and I moved away from the party table and allowed them to make their own choices, I did notice they developed a more balanced approach to party food (based on their experience and not feeling great after the last party). Yes too all, as they’ve grown up, they are absolutely able to recognise the better choices available to them when navigating party food and they certainly don’t gorge themselves as much as they used to.
For more info on ‘treats’ and how to best manage the oversupply – this post is useful (especially the part about implementing ‘treat days’), click HERE.
For more about the pressure to give your kids junk food and how to handle the well meaning shop keepers, friends, grand parents etc; who insist on giving your kids lollies, click HERE.