junk food

When my son was about five, we had our first grocery store temper tantrum over a bag of chocolate chip cookies. You’d think this would have happened much sooner in his life, but I had always managed to successfully steer him in the direction of a healthy choice like a banana first and then follow up with a tiny bag of fruit-juice sweetened animal crackers. But on this day, the healthy food planets weren’t aligned and my son wanted chocolate chip cookies now, now, now, now. “We have chocolate chip cookies at home,” I told him, but he was wild, like a tornado.

Other shoppers shot me the evil eye and were most likely thinking: Hey lady, just give him the cookie. But there’s a point to be made about making healthy decisions. (Especially because my son already had three cookies before he got to the store. Did I leave that part out?) 

Once we got home and he calmed down, I schooled him on a little food shopping 101. He was at the age where he could understand the bigger picture about cereal commercials, shelf placement and healthy food decisions.

The reality is that the cookie aisle at Whole Foods is relatively tame. Go into any supermarket in the US, and you are bombarded with long rows of preservative-laden, sugar-heavy and food-colored options that are more challenging to steer your child away from. Here are a few ways to manage through the junk food aisles:

1. Make a list of the best fruits and veggies

Download the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” on your iPhone (if you’ve got one) or print it out. Their list of contaminated fruits and veggies will help you decide what produce is an organic must and allow your child to determine what can go in the cart. This great tip, via Kiwi, allows older kids to be involved in choosing the “cleanest” fruits and veggies.

2. Watch out for the dairy aisle

You might think you’re safe here. Yogurt, cheese, milk. What could be bad? But experts say kids’ yogurts are packed with sugar. Always check to see if sugar or high fructose corn syrup is the first ingredient listed. Or try to steer your child in the direction of Greek yogurt that often comes with honey. (My daughter loves the plain Fage yogurt with a spoonful of honey on the side.)

3. Ask them to eat a healthy option first

I promise you, my banana first trick worked like a charm every time until our one-and-only cookie incident above. My only mistake: Not prepping him before we got into the store. So, first, decide if you’re going to allow a cookie. If yes, then tell your child they can choose healthy first. Giving your child the fruit first option makes them feel more in control of their diet.

Please know, I’m not suggesting that you open a package of Newman’s Own Crème Filled Chocolate Cookies and go to town. (No, that’s for later when the kids are asleep. Kidding!) But there’s nothing wrong with offering one. Your child has to agree to this option before you open the bag. This is also a great reward for toddlers.

4. Read the labels on cereal boxes with your child

The cereal aisle is the great white shark of the market. It will suck your child in and eat them alive. To survive this lane, teach your child words like fiber and sugar. Don’t rush through to avoid altogether; use it as an educational experience if they can tolerate it. Make it a game and ask them to scan nutritional labels and compare ingredient lists to see which cereals have less sugar. The more they understand what they’re looking for, what to avoid and why, the more they’ll be able to manage their own cravings.

5. Educate them before you get to the store

Comcast made a brilliant move by running old episodes of The Flinstones. Or so I thought until I watched the Fruity Pebbles commercial at the top of the show. It was like witnessing a Pavlovian response. “Mom, can we have Fruity Pebbles?” Jake said before Fred even hollered “Wilma!” Marketing is nothing new in the cereal industry—which has been marketed to kids since the days of I Love Lucy—but it was news to my boy. So I paused my DVR player and explained what just happened.

“The company that makes Fruity Pebbles wants you to buy their cereal,” I said. “They think kids will watch the show and then will want the cereal.”

“Well, I do want the cereal,” he said. “It’s part of a complete breakfast.” (That’s how fast messaging works.)

“Do you think a cereal full of sugar is good for breakfast?” I said.

“No, that’s probably more of a treat,” he said. And then he scratched his chin. “So does that mean I can have it for dessert, Mom?”

Now that’s an entirely different lesson.

image: TokyoLunch