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Sate the junk food beast

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Dear Pickle,

We have two healthy kids under 7 years old. My partner and I are not crazy about our kids eating unhealthy food, but regularly find ourselves in situations where really bad food is offered to them or around them. We don’t want our kids to have a bad relationship with unhealthy food, like gorging on it when it is available or sneaking it. However, it is hard to watch them go manic, then melt into a puddle of tears, which is generally the quickest observable result of eating unhealthy food.

What’s your advice? Thanks!
—Hungry for Answers

Dear Hungry,
First things first: let me introduce myself. My name is Lauren Shows, better known as “Chuck” around the News office. Our former beloved advice columnist, Anisa Kline, has bid us farewell, and I have taken the helm in her stead. Like Anisa before me, I’m a serial fan of advice columns myself, and I get my advice fix mainly online, from sources reputable (Slate’s “Dear Prudence”), saucy (The Stranger’s “Savage Love”) and occasionally unhinged (basically all of Reddit). So when the chance to take over this column was offered, I snatched it tout de suite. Your question, Hungry, is the arena where my mettle will be tested.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me start by saying that my 4-year-old ate a donut with sprinkles for breakfast.

I know, I know.

Your question reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend recently, about whether or not the correlation between sugar and hyperactivity was an old wive’s tale. The Internet is replete with articles debunking the “myth” that sugar consumption leads to hyperactivity (and the corresponding crash) in children. Some of these are blogs, no doubt written by parents like me, who just don’t want to feel guilty about throwing Junior a Tootsie Roll every once in a while. Nevertheless, these articles all, in one way or another, reference two 1994 studies by scientists at Vanderbilt and Yale, the results of which seemed to find no link between sugar, aspartame or saccharine and hyperactivity in children.

Anecdotal evidence (i.e. Facebook updates) suggests, however, that parents continue to observe a link between sugar intake and how much wall-bouncing their kids get up to, despite these studies. But whether these observations are self-fulfilling prophecy or an actual correlation is, for all practical purposes, moot; whipping out the results of a study does very little to get your toddler to stop jumping on the bed at 11:30 after she broke into the candy drawer and guzzled all the Pixy Stix.

But joking aside, it seems as though your main concern is how to deal with raising healthy kids in an increasingly unhealthy world. There exist many, sometimes conflicting, ideas about what constitutes “unhealthy.” Some of us, for example, have kids for whom food is apparently so abhorrent, we rejoice when they take a nibble of pizza or gobble a couple of tater tots. But none of us can deny that junk food, in large quantities, is a poor idea, especially for growing bodies. (I would like to deny it, because my love for Cheetos and Pepsi runs so deep and so strong, but God forgive me, I can’t.) So how to keep the Dorito demons at bay?

If your kids are only hit with the junk food jitters when the family visits other people and places, do your best not to leave the house on an empty or semi-empty stomach. Temptation, for both kids and, possibly, for you, will tend to hit hardest when you’re away from home and near other options, especially if the tummy is growling. If you have to be out and about for an extended period, have other options on hand to sate the beast. A baggie of granola or grapes might do wonders to offset the sugar beast. Mixed nuts, perhaps, if salt is your game.

When it comes to dealing with others who may want to shove cookies in Little Hungry’s face, if you’re really serious about it, the only thing to do is to pull Grandma (come on, we all know it’s Grandma) aside and give her the rundown privately. If she refuses, that’s when you have to decide between what you think is the lesser of two evils: cutting Grandma time to a minimum, or lightening up on the cookie stance.

The trickier issue suggested by your quandary is figuring out how to teach our children to have a healthy relationship with eating. The first step, it seems, is to understand how you and your partner treat food. Do the two of you hold yourselves to the same food rules to which you hold your kids? Putting everybody on the same playing field is crucial. Do you openly and often obsess about what the kids are eating? Your kids may inherit this obsession, for better or for worse. As far as written resources go, you can go online to to read about FLOTUS’s “Let’s Move” initiative, which purports to promote healthy eating, though it has received a fair amount of criticism, so keep that in mind. There are also a panoply of books at your disposal via Amazon about childhood nutrition; I can’t recommend one, because I’m too busy feeding my kid sprinkle donuts to read any.

In the end, I think the most common sense advice is this: everything in moderation. I may get skewered for this admission, but I don’t think it’s child abuse to let your kid have a slice of cake at the birthday party; that is, unless your kid’s going to birthday parties three times a week. In which case, dang, how’d your kid get so many friends? Is s/he a celebrity? Can I have her/his autograph?

So don’t worry about the occasional treat. Most importantly, Hungry, don’t beat yourself up. No matter what you do, your kid is being fed, which is not only a privilege, but a blessing.

—The Village Pickle

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