A food preference is the concept of liking certain foods over others. This is associated with many factors, most of which are learned and shaped by our experiences. We are born with some, however. For example, babies prefer sweet and fatty foods. Why? Breast Milk is sweet and high in fat! However, there are many other factors that start early in life that shape this preference that is forming in the first 2 years of your child’s life. Studies show that these early food preferences directly affect eating habits and are linked to a child’s overall health.
Guess what? It turns out that the food and beverage industry also knows this correlation so it spends 2 billion dollars a year on campaigns targeting children. Studies show that even very young children exposed to ads can develop food cravings for unhealthy foods they have never tasted, according to the AAP! Think about the grocery store - the candy and the children’s sugary cereal happens to sit at eye-level with your child. Trying to unlearn unhealthy behavior is SO MUCH HARDER than learning healthy eating habits from a young age.
What Parents Can Do to create a healthy relationship with junk food
Avoid negative language surrounding food.
Instead of using the words “sugar” and “junk,” you can help your child understand the nutritional value of various foods by using more descriptive words for how our body uses that food. I talk to my kids about our body being a vehicle that needs good fuel to run. So we can talk about food like “power” that helps our bodies grow and thrive or “empty” food that may taste good but won’t help our bodies grow and thrive. This allows them to understand the WHY behind why we often choose “power” food and limit “empty” food.
Avoid food restrictions
Research shows that restricting food can backfire. It can make your child want that food even more, to create unhealthy food habits like sneaking food, which can lead to power struggles. So, rather than a long list of food restrictions, the key to success is to find a balance when it comes to food. Help your child develop a positive relationship with food by allowing them to eat treats sometimes, without feeling guilty. In fact, letting them taste and explore different types of food is a part of supporting this healthy relationship with food.
Tip: Supplement take-out or unhealthy main courses with fruits, vegetables! Use our balanced bites plate to serve that Friday night take-out pizza. Fill up the remaining compartment with veggies and fruits! I typically serve carrots, broccoli or cauliflower, and berries, clementines, or apples. This helps teach children to balance their meals - it’s ok to have that pizza but remember to always make half your plate fruits and veggies at each meal.
Focus on healthy alternatives
Make the healthy choice the easy and accessible alternative. The healthier the food we keep available, the more likely our kids are to choose them.
- Keep a fruit bowl on the counter.
- Keep cut produce at eye level in the refrigerator.
- Give kids a choice between a piece of fruit or cut veggies and different dips, like hummus, salsa, or Greek yogurt, at snack time.
- Keep popcorn, nuts, cheeses or cut fruit in a small glass or stainless steel containers and create “grab and go” bins in the fridge and pantry to make healthy snacking convenient.
*tip: you can use Ahimsa balanced bites plates to use as a serving tray. Children love choices! Serve some fruits, vegetables, chickpeas, and cheese in a tray and leave them out for snack time. You will be surprised at what and how much they will grab when presented to them in a fun and exciting way that allows them to make choices themselves.
Make junk food less visible.
Since the goal is to crowd out junk food with healthier food, it’s helpful to keep the junk food you do buy less available. It’s not about hiding snacks but making them less visible. I keep my “empty” food on the top shelf of the pantry. You can also store it in a separate drawer. If we see the chips and cookies every time we open the pantry, even us adults can’t resist the urge to eat them! The younger the child, the more important this is: If they don’t know it exists, they are less likely to ask for it or crave it.
Tip: since food preferences are forming so early, offering and exposing babies and infants to healthy, nutritious “power” food without introducing sugar and heavily processed “empty” food can guide these preferences towards healthy foods, which ultimately positively impacts eating habits as they grow. My kids eat a variety of “power” foods because, well … they didn’t know anything different at a young age. Anyone can do this for their kids - it’s just all about consistency like everything else in parenthood ;)
Make junk food a plan-ahead treat.
A few guidelines on snacking can go a long way toward limiting junk foods. Have your family agree that snacks should be eaten from a bowl and at the table—not in front of the TV. This can help prevent mindless munching. If you keep sugary drinks in the house, keep them in the pantry, so you have to plan ahead to cool them down for drinking.
Tip: use our smart snacking bowls to hold a small portion of junk food or our conscious cup to limit juice or soda to 4 ounces. You can also dilute juice with water to limit the “empty” calories and increase some hydration.
Plan desserts for special occasions
Some families find it easiest to limit dessert by keeping it out of the house and, instead, go out as a family to get ice cream on dessert day. If you choose to serve dessert at home, a good rule of thumb is to limit desserts to 1 or 2 times a week and try to couple sweets with something nutritious, such as angel food cake with strawberries or brownies with nuts.
When dessert is served, allow your kids to have some regardless of whether they ate their vegetables or cleaned their plate. Using dessert as a reward or bribe reinforces the idea that eating veggies is a chore and can also encourage overeating.
So while salt, sugary processed foods are just a reality in our lives, now you have some simple tips to help your child navigate through these real-world choices as they grow. Remember, healthy habits start early, so teach away - children are the most capable learners out there!
Content-based on information from