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Should You Let Your Kids Eat Junk Food?

Kids Should be Allowed Junk Food -- Some of the Time. Here’s Why.

Before I had kids, I worked in The Children’s Eating Lab at Penn State University. As a young, idealistic, somewhat naïve graduate student, I developed all sorts of ideas about how I would feed my future children. At the time, I was subsisting on a diet comprised of far too much pasta (it’s cheap) and beer (it’s a food group when you are in grad school). However, I had high hopes for my future self and my future family.

In The Children’s Eating Lab, I interviewed 7-year-old girls day after day. A surprising number of them already thought they were fat, felt badly about themselves, and knew far too much about dieting. One of my favorite parts of the research protocol was when we brought the girls individually into an interview room with a selection of highly palatable foods: potato chips, popcorn, pretzels, M&Ms, chocolate chips – you name it, everything you’d want to eat while sitting in front of the T.V. We’d tell the girls they were going to taste each food under the guise of a “taste test.” But first, we’d create an excuse to leave the girls alone with all that delicious food. Unbeknownst to them, the food had all been carefully pre-weighted and would be carefully post-weighted. We could tell exactly how much the girls had eaten while left alone with the goodies. A whole different sort of “taste test” was what we were really after – which girls would go to town on the sweet and savory snacks when left alone?

It turns out that the findings from this research are commonsensical, yet present a real conundrum for parents. The girls who weren’t allowed to eat these sorts of treats at home ate a lot more in the lab. In other words, parents who make these treats “forbidden foods” inadvertently also make them highly desirable foods to their children. (Turns out, as these kids were followed across time, they were also more likely to become overweight as they get older). As a parent, I now understand that moms and dads are trying their best to keep their kids from eating junk food, but it turns out that this strategy can backfire the minute these kids have access to sweets at school, their friend's house, or even in a research laboratory. What do they do the second they have access to junk food? They make up for lost time.

Thus, nearly a decade before I had children of my own, I had decided that strict restriction of “junk food” would not be a part of how I raised my kids. I wasn’t going to make the good stuff too forbidden. Of course, we’d try to eat healthily, but I wouldn’t be strict about food. In some ways, I’ve lived up to my idealized parental goals, but in many ways I haven’t. It turns out that this parenting gig is much harder than I expected it to be (developmental psychology isn’t an exact science)! It doesn’t help matters that both my kids were born premature, suffered from severe reflux when they were young, and have never been “good eaters.” I’ve tried to do my best considering these circumstances. I try to keep offering healthy options. I try to buy nutritious foods. I try to model good eating behavior. I try to explicitly explain why eating well matters. But, we all eat junk food sometimes.

My own daughter will be seven this month. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know much about dieting, she doesn’t think she is fat, and she has a surprisingly high level of self-confidence. But, she loves French fries, doughnuts, and candy. So, does her older brother. In a recent essay my son wrote for school titled “One Best Friend” he described his best friend as someone who would love candy and hate broccoli. It is moments like this that I feel like both a parental and professional failure. Why don’t my kids crave strawberries and select salad from the cafeteria line? Because they know that junk food tastes better. I mean, don’t we all know that?

You may be tempted to call me a hypocrite. I teach college students about the importance of healthy eating in my Psychology of Eating class at Rutgers Univeristy each year. I recently wrote a book about healthy weight management (preorder Smart People Don’t Diet: And, yet I’m willing to admit that junk food is not completely off limits in my house. Hey, I wish that everyone in my house only liked fruits and vegetables. I wish that we were all disgusted by sweets and processed foods. But, we’re not and I’m not going to lie about that. I think it is important to be honest about the complexities involved in eating well and doing what we can to get our kids to eat well. After all, it turns out that it’s not always obvious how to promote healthy eating and avoiding all junk food can actually make matters worse. So don’t feel too bad when you kids want ice cream for dessert – they wouldn’t be normal kids if they didn’t!

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