When “Kid-Friendly” Food Might Not Be

Hi there, Mamas!  As L is getting older, my husband and I have been more apt to order her own meal when we eat out, instead of just having her pick off our plates.  This is fine in theory, but have you seen most kids’ menus?  Pizza, fried chicken strips/nuggets, high-fat mac and cheese (even at ethnic type restaurants)… Nary a vegetable in sight!  Sure, you can get milk at some places, but the refills aren’t free like they are for soft drinks (or juice is offered as a “healthy” alternative… more on this in a future article).  French fries are pushed over healthier sides, like veggies or fruit.  Don’t forget about the ketchup, salad dressing, or caramel for dipping!   Many restaurants offer complimentary desserts when ordering from the kiddie menu.

We're not doing our kids any favors by thinking "junk food" = "kid food"

We’re not doing our kids any favors by thinking “junk food” = “kid food”

“Kid-friendly” food from the grocery store is in many cases no better.  From the creepy marketing of kids’ cereals, to the fact that most foods advertised to kids are loaded with sugar, fat, and salt (ya know, the things we try to limit in our own diets, since they can contribute to heart disease and other chronic illnesses).  The American Psychological Association even states, “Advertising directed at children this young [under age 8] is by its very nature exploitative.”

For more on teaching healthy food behaviors, check out this RDN Mama article.

Why Do We Cave to “Kid-Friendly” Foods?

Cookies may taste good, but don't provide much nutrition for growing kiddos!

Cookies may taste good, but don’t provide much nutrition for growing kiddos!

It kind of seems like a lose-lose situation.  Foods that are marketed to kids taste good.  They are easy to like, so it’s easy to feed them to avoid disagreements at meal times.  Kids are designed to enjoy foods that are sweet or salty.   It makes sense – sweet foods likely have more calories (energy), that growing bodies need.

Historically, sodium (a necessary mineral) was in short supply, unlike today.  Bitter may have been an indicator of toxicity, so it’s like a defense mechanism for our kids to not eat poisonous berries (typically bitter, instead of sweet) or other harmful foods.  Some healthy foods, like vegetables, can have a bitter taste, so it takes time for kids to try and like those foods before they readily eat them.

Kids will learn to like foods that they are repeatedly exposed to.  Think of families in countries with less access to food than our own.  Do you think that those parents are making an “adult meal” and a “kids meal”?  I highly doubt it.  If you expect kids to eat what you’re making for dinner, they eventually will.  (An exception here would be a young child who physically cannot eat what everyone else is having – this RDN Mama article and this one talk about appropriate foods for young children.)

Have a picky eater?  Take a look at this RDN Mama article.

Putting Things Back in Balance

While it’s certainly alright for children (and adults) to have a treat once in a while, healthy, whole foods should make up the majority of everyone’s meals.  Here are some tips to ensure that your kids (and yourself) are getting nutritious eats – most of the time.

  • Start early.  Before babies are even born, they are tasting their Mama’s food through amniotic fluid.  Breastfed babies can taste the food their Mama eats through breast milk.  By eating healthy during pregnancy and beyond, you are priming your little one to enjoy nutritious noshes.
  • Be an informed consumer.  Know what you’re feeding your family.  Do some detective work and read the ingredients list and nutrition labels at the grocery store.  Read the menu description at restaurants.  If you have questions, ask your server.  For more on this, check out this RDN Mama article.
  • Use the MyPlate Method.  This ensures good balance and variety between food groups, plus it’s an easy visual for older kids who are making their own meals.  You can even use it to make healthy choices when eating out!

    MyPlate makes a great visual for older kids.

    MyPlate makes a great visual for older kids.

  • Cut back on the fried foods.  Not just fried, but “breaded”, “creamy”, “rich”, or “sauteed” are all signs that extra fat is added to your entree.  Try steamed, broiled, or grilled instead.
  • Serve healthy foods often.  Make sure that you have fruits, veggies, whole grains, and low-fat dairy (or substitute) on hand.  If these foods are easily accessible, you and your kids are more likely to eat them.  Frozen vegetables in microwavable-steam bags are a cheap, easy way to get veggies soft enough for your tiny tots who are still learning to chew well.
  • Don’t get caught up with “snack foods”.  Think of snacks as mini meals.  Kids don’t always need cakes, cookies, or chips.  Snacks are for keeping hunger in check until our next meal.  If your kids are drawn to less healthy snacks because of certain characters, buy some fun stickers and put them on snack baggies filled with apple slices or carrot sticks.   This RDN Mama article talks about building balanced meals and snacks.
  • Think healthy dips.  Dips are fun, but things like ketchup and Ranch dressing can pack in the sugar and fat.  Try more healthful dips, like seasoned Greek yogurt or hummus (or check out this yummy, protein-packed fruit dip for parties).
  • Be an example. I cannot say this enough!  (Really, I mentioned it here, here, and here.)  Kids will imitate what they see.  If you always have vegetables with dinner (even when eating out), your kids will pick up on that, and will be on their way to healthier eating outside of home.  Plus, if you always eat veggies at dinner, it’s likely your kids will have enough exposure so that they like them, too!

Need some help with getting started eating healthy?  Take a look at these tips which make Healthy Eating as Easy as 1-2-3


How do you make healthy foods kid-friendly, Mamas?

More reading:

Head to the Ellyn Satter Institute for more on child feeding.

Photo Credits:

“Junk Food” from digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Young Boy Eating Chocolate Cookie” from stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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