Junk food, or “sometimes” foods, is a common term thrown around when we describe foods that have “empty kilojoules” – that is, having lots of kilojoules but little or no nutritional benefits. These belly-bulging empty kilojoules are most likely coming from unhealthy fats and added sugars and increase children’s chances of developing childhood obesity, which is a risk factor for many health complications in later life. The combinations of salty, sweet and greasy flavours of these foods also make children want to eat more and more, and they become “too full” to eat the more nutritious foods that help them to grow and develop healthfully. Eating junk food regularly may also set them up for unhealthy eating habits and food preferences later in life..
Trying to get kids (or anyone else) off their go-to junk foods can be difficult and will often be met with resistance, screaming battles and tears. To take foods OUT means leaving a gaping hole in their eating routine, so it is just as important to focus on adding healthier food habits IN to replace the old less healthy ones.
Here’s 5 simple tips that you could try at home to wean your kids OFF junk food and ON to healthier, nutritious foods!
1. Train their tastebuds, and keep training!
Start introducing different fresh foods, flavours and textures from a young age. Familiarise your children with fresh fruits and veggies as well as different textures such as wholegrains – this trains kids to be more open to give new foods a try and will help combat fussy eating down the track. If you missed the window of opportunity in their early years, don’t worry – now is as good as any other time to start! Take it step by step and introduce one new food at a time. Make it fun and interesting – try one of our delicious veggie recipes here. Most importantly, constant exposure is the key – it may take many tries (sometimes up to 15 times), and offering them without an alternative and when kids are hungry increases the chances of the food being eaten.
2. Induct them into the kitchen
Show kids how fresh wholesome ingredients look, feel and smell before it all ends up on the plate. Getting them to measure out ingredients for a recipe, crack the eggs and toss the salad will help them practice important life-skills and being more savvy with handling foods makes them more likely to eat it! Letting them help you plate up the food will also let them visualise portion sizes, and getting them involved in putting together their own lunchboxes can increase the chances they’ll eat what’s inside.
3. Don’t leave room for junk food
Junk foods can slip into our diet when we are caught unprepared and need a quick fix. When hunger calls, always have something healthy and nourishing to offer so that the sneaky drive-thru and takeaway temptations don’t seem so shiny after a long day. Stash frozen vegetables, canned fish and microwavable rice for speedy low-cost meals that you can whip up even after a late soccer game. Be armed with healthy snacks when kids are nagging for nibbles and be firm about the options you offer – the family-pack chips and Tim Tams are no longer on the menu! Read this article for some nourishing, hunger-busting snacks ideas!
4. Go DIY for their favourites
Whether it’s mac’n’cheese, chicken nuggets, fish’n’chips or even pizza, make homemade versions to bulk up the nutrients and save you dollars. For example, make home-style fish’n’chips by crumbing fish to bake or panfry and serve with a side of oven-baked sweet potato wedges. Homemade versions are free of the additives and preservatives that are in commercial products – plus you have full control over what goes in (and what doesn’t!). Work towards adding more veggies into these favourites, such as grating carrot and zucchini into nachos and get the kids to use colourful veggies as toppings for a rainbow pizza.
5. Brace yourself for sticky situations
Even if you have the healthiest, junk-free kitchen in the country you can’t always control what your kids are offered outside your home. Kids might also feel like the odd-one-out if they are told not to eat the foods offered at the birthday party (and they may pig out behind your back). Let them know that they are allowed to eat these “sometimes” foods – suggest for them to choose 2-3 of their favourites and eat a small helping only. To prevent overeating or gorging, give them a healthy snack before attending the party. If appropriate, you could also offer to contribute a healthy platter to the party.
At the end of the day, it’s important to ensure whatever changes you make to wean your kids off junk food are sustainable for you and your family. Children are surprisingly observant of what adults are eating and doing (especially parents), which means that the best results are seen when the whole family gets on board and adopts healthier habits together. Walk your talk and show them that healthy eating is doable, applies to everyone and isn’t about deprivation or “boring” foods – so make healthy the norm AND fun for kids.
This article was written by Michelle Hsu, who is a dietitian intern at The Biting Truth. Michelle is currently studying a Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics.