In an ideal world, gummy bears, cookies, and kettle chips would have the same nutritional profile as a kale and quinoa salad. That’s just not how the whole eating healthy thing works. But, according to Maryann Jacobsen, a registered dietician and author of How To Raise A Mindful Eater, junk foods can and, in fact, should be a regular part of a kid’s diet.
This doesn’t mean you need to make Monday night officially Mallomar night. Jacobsen’s point is that a big part of raising a kid who has a healthy relationship with food is teaching them the benefit of the occasional indulgence. Because if you decide to ban junk altogether, you could unknowingly raise kids who shove Crackle bars in their gob whenever they have a free moment. Besides, you’re also missing out on one of the joys of fatherhood: sitting on the couch with your kid, eating a bag of crunchy Cheetos, and discussing the finer points of dealing with cheesy fingers.
Of course, junk food is just a start. As defined by Jacobsen, healthy — or as she puts it, “mindful” — eating looks like this: When someone eats for nutrition and enjoyment, listens to what their body tells them about being hungry and full, seeks out a variety of nutritious foods, and eats in moderation. Below, Jacobsen shares some key tenets for hammering this concept home.
Establish A Solid Routine
Listen, coming home from work at whatever time and eating dinner on the couch while watching back episodes of 30 for 30 on your iPad is pretty GD sweet. But it doesn’t fly when you have kids. Children, as you know by how early they wake you in the morning, thrive on routine. And a healthy eating routine requires a table, a set time, and no distractions.
Establishing as consistent a routine as possible around breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Jacobsen says, discourages grazing and helps kids (or anyone, really) eat what they need to feel full and energized until the next meal — no more or no less. When the brain is distracted by something else, you may not even remember what you ate. “Multi-tasking with food or not paying attention may mean we eat too much or not enough,” Jacobsen says.
Don’t Force Healthy Food On Your Kids
If you’re always preaching the gospel of good grains and leafy greens (in bulgur you trust), well, your kids aren’t likely going to make their way into the kale convent. Chances are, they’re going to rebel and follow the book of Taco Bell.
Okay, that’s a bit overboard. But, per Jacobsen, “forcing kids to eat something can give them a food aversion” that could stick with them for a long time. “We want kids to enjoy nutritious foods,” she says. “But If we’re always saying ‘eat this, it’s healthy,’ they won’t want it.” Of course, you need to make healthy foods a part of your kid’s diet. But just don’t harp so often about how much broccoli they eat or make such a big deal out of which foods are healthy and which aren’t. They’ll get there.
Let Them Eat Cake (Sometimes)
If a kid grows up pining after cake, ice cream, and Sour Patch Kids, they may overindulge in those foods once they leave your nest, says Jacobsen. So let your kids take down some cookies and cream (on occasion). And Jacobsen says to have a day when you let your kids eat however many treats they want. “This helps kids expect that sweets are enjoyable but that they can’t eat them all the time,” she says. “Focus on how often, not how much.”
Always Explain The Point Of Food
The old I-told-you-so-approach works pretty well when you’re trying to raise a healthy eater. Because, while you might explain to them why playing soccer directly after pounding a bag of Mesquite chips isn’t the best idea, kids need to learn this on their own. The post-game follow-up conversation — after you wipe that smug grin off your face, of course — should touch on how food is fuel and chips don’t often lead to greatness. It’s an ongoing discussion.
The Bigger Picture
Occasionally, a kid is going to fill up on bread or pasta and decline to eat so much as a single green bean. Let it slide. As long as they eat a varied diet, the occasional power-eat through a plate a spaghetti isn’t a big deal. As Jacobsen says, there’s no real normal when it comes to a kid’s diet. They just don’t eat perfectly balanced meals. Jacobsen says. The main point is to make sure that they slowly learn how to eat more balanced meals and that you understand this is a process that takes time — and make time for Cheetos.