My Kid Likes Junk Food. And That’s OK.

Henry drinking pop

This is a guest blog post by Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

When my son Henry was two years old, we were out with another mom and her child when Henry pointed to a vending machine and squealed, “Pepsi!”

I was horrified.

I fell all over myself explaining that Henry had never tasted soda and we didn’t keep it in the house and he never saw commercials so I didn’t understand how he could possibly know what Pepsi even was.

Five years later, I know a lot better. I know that kids learn about pop and Froot Loops and Cool Ranch Doritos despite our best  efforts to shield them from it.  As much as we try to keep our kids in a bubble (made entirely out of flaxseed and unrefined flour of course), junk food finds a way in.


1. Because kids talk about junk food. They compare lunches and Halloween loot and boast about fast food they’ve had. You can probably still name the childhood friend who had the stash of sugary cereals–or the one with the bottomless candy drawer, right?

2. Because while you may serve the most delicious, all-natural, local and organic home cooking made with love, food manufacturers spend billions of dollars convincing your child that she’d rather have a Lunchable.

3. Because it tastes good. Seriously, have you had a Cheeto lately? This stuff is engineered to excite the senses, and it does.

Another thing that’s changed: I no longer try to shield my kids from junk food. We still don’t keep soda in the house. Ditto for a slew of other foods. But Henry’s allowed to have a root beer at Grammy’s house (see above). My children each pick out a small bag of chips for car trips, and I don’t make them choose the baked chips if they really want the cheese curls (and believe me, they really want the cheese curls).

We also talk a lot about “growing foods” and “sometimes foods”. Junk food is a fact in the food environment–and they’ve got to learn how to navigate it one way or another.

If your child would rather have one of your whole wheat date muffins for breakfast than a Wild Berry Pop-Tart, I am genuinely happy for you. Your life will be much, much easier because of it.

But if not, I’ll be the first to say: You haven’t failed. You haven’t done anything wrong. Stay the course. Stock your house with the foods you want your children eating.

But at the same time, remember all the times you stained your fingers Cheetos orange or went on a Gummy Bear bender–and cut your kid some slack when he wants those same foods.

How do you manage junk food in your child’s life?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She writes frequently about health and nutrition for consumer magazines such as Parents, Fitness, and Family Circle.



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  • FitMamaEats

    Love this, thank you!

  • Michele Hays

    THANK YOU!  Yes, moderation.  The problem is that moderation can be really difficult; the older your kids get, the more they have to navigate junk food on their own.

  • Andie

    Totally agree with you on this.. I don’t keep much junk food in the house.. Maybe a bag of cookies and sometimes ice cream if it’s on sale. I try to use the “sometimes” food rather than labeling some foods as “bad” because I don’t want the kids to make the connection that they are “bad” for eating them.

    • Sally Kuzemchak

      Andie, I totally agree. We never call foods “bad” in our house. But we do talk about their effects on the body and mind. I don’t think labeling foods as “good” and “bad” is helpful or healthy–and I like your insight that kids may think *they* are bad for eating it (or wanting to eat it). Thanks for your comment.

  • Brian

    Ruling you kids’ diet with an iron fist, will likely lead to a rebellion later. I feel it’s a good approach to educate them about what they are eating, and let them make some of the decisions themselves. Hopefully they come to the right conclusions, eventually. Also, teaching them that it is a treat and not an everyday occurrence is also a good way of helping them learn the appropriate way of eating. 

    Everyone likes to preach the moderation approach. Well, moderation of junk is still junk. It’s not going to kill you to indulge in junk food from time to time, but to justify it as moderation gives the impression that it’s actually healthy for you. That is simply not true. Acknowledging that you are indulging in junk is really what is going on here, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, given that you are not doing it on a daily basis.

  • Tom Arr

    Until this lax, weak, inconsistent, attitude which makes the parent feel good because they are not some tyrant that would prevent their child from eating all these things we have for years told them were no good. This is the true source for future rebellion as the message that has been sent to the child is the same worldly oppression that has happened over the years towards religious people that they should keep their views private and to themselves, as different thinking folks don’t want to hear about it. But what is the point in raising a child a certain way with certain values if those values only extend as far as the front door. Aren’t we supposed to be equipping them to go out into the world as we know they should with the tools to interact with the world and not be raised by the world with the ‘values’ the world holds(you know, the ones we have been telling them are incompatible with your way of life). Tell the truth to the child as you see it, and which is the reason why you have abstained from these items, because they are not food, and many of them are poison. Maybe the last line in this ladies bio will shed the truth of the matter–> “… for consumer magazines such as Parents, Fitness, and Family Circle….” “Consumer”, a label which, I imagine, doesn’t get placed on people who buy little to no processed foods. And the magazines she writes for which are largely paid for by advertising companies that want us to purchase the money makers for which she is advocating we relax on and let it happen outside our domain, as if that makes it ok.

    • Sally Kuzemchak

      Thanks for your comments, Tom. I hear what you’re saying, but I think it’s unnecessary–and unhealthy–to be so black and white with food, especially with kids who are learning and discovering and figuring it all out. You and I have a lot more experience with food and understanding of the world to make all-or-nothing choices (for example, I never eat fast food). But I want my kids to figure it out for themselves, with a lot of guidance and education from me. Please keep in mind that I’m writing about my experience and the philosophy I have with my own kids. As I say in my post, if your kids genuinely prefer healthier, unprocessed foods, that’s fantastic. I’m curious whether you have kids and what kind of philosophy you use at home with them when it comes to food–would love to hear about your experience and any advice you’d have for others. 

      • Tom Arr

        Taking a stance of black or white on drinking bleach would never be questioned, why should it be out of line when considering petrochemicals parading as food? All or nothing choices are apropos in many other life altering decisions from smoking cigarettes to driving drunk, and from consuming a ‘food’ laden with red dye #40 to sucking down a Monster energy drink, both items which have been proven to negatively effect brain chemistry for days after a single dosage. I do have three kids with a fourth on due in August. As I said previously, my wife and I tell them the truth, that these poisons masquerading as food will hurt them and will make them feel sick. We couch these ideas in words and thoughts that will convey the message effectively to them as they are still toddlers and elementary age. With our oldest two, when they are away from us at social functions, we encourage them to make good choices, while providing them daily with treats, that while high in sugar, fat, or carbs(as all treats should be)they come from God-made sources as was intended. Social conventions dictate that they sometimes participate in a treat at the same time as their peers, and in those instances we provide an alternative. We do not try and justify this act in our child’s mind by assuring them that what they have is special, just that it’s right for them. Sometimes when they ask why their peers eat those things, we answer them in private, that they just don’t know any better, but maybe they will one day. We calmly and seriously demand from every person that supervises our children, whether that’s a teacher, relative or a friends parents, not to feed them anything that is not pre-approved. We get a lot of accusations of ‘what will it hurt’ or ‘we’re just trying to be nice’ to name a few. We do not equate the frankenfood industry that sprang from the snake-oil salesman of the early 1900′s as a no-risk, what me worry, just a treat ideology espoused by the advertisers today. You can be unaware of the truth and naively suckle on that oil barrel labeled as ‘drank’ or even acknowledge the truth and do it anyways because it tastes and looks like you have been trained to think that food should. Then there is the third option, ask the question ‘Could my great-great-grandparents have eaten?(not withstanding the geographic limitations’ If the answer is no, you shouldn’t eat it.

        • Fooducate

          Tom thanks for your thoughtful reply. If it works for you and your children, more power to you. 
          Some parents discover that their ability to exert this level of control diminished significantly as children enter grade school and onwards. 

  • Lauren

    I like the idea that parents who are new to the healthy table shouldn’t feel it’s too late to make changes. However, I have to agree with Tom (below). I feel part of my boys’ education is teaching them about food, ingredients and health. Though my kids have had Doritos at friends houses, I don’t need to buy them “sometimes”. My kids have tortilla chips or potato chips but they don’t need preservatives and food coloring to taste good. I’ve also worked on grandparents and other family members suggesting alternatives to some of the things served and when approached without judgement these have been well received. I get the “kids will likely have oreos and soda in their lifetime” argument. I just feel that despite millions of dollars encouraging kids to eat Lunchables we still, as parents, should have more influence.

  • Phyllis Caynor

    I agree with educatin yhe kids about food!

  • Jat9er

    Hmm…  Going lax on junk food intake because you’re worrying that kids will rebel?  Seriously???

    • Sally Kuzemchak

      I don’t view occasional junk as being lax. There are loads of junk food opportunities every day that I have to navigate with my kids–the ice cream truck at the t-ball field, the ad for slushees at the gas station, the free cookies at the grocery store. We live in a world where this stuff is everywhere, and I’m trying to teach them how it can fit, if they choose to eat it. And I can certainly hope they won’t want to eat it, but I just don’t think that’s realistic.

  • Hdjdjka

    Ahhh… “sometimes”….. The biggest lie. For “half baked” health nuts.

  • Anonymous

    Yay for common sense! I suspect parents of younger children just have no idea what they are in for. Kids HAVE to learn how to live in the real world, and root beer in moderation someday becomes beer in moderation. Over-controlling just leads to their over-indulging as soon as they get away from you. I once heard a friend of my daughter’s who had allergies say “Oh good – Mommy’s not here. I can have wheat.” She hadn’t learned a thing about taking care of her own health – just Mommy’s rules.

  • Momskitchenhandbook

    Ever the voice of balance and reason, Sally. Thanks for sharing.

  • Yo

    First rule, don’t eat yourself the fast food you don’t want your kids to eat! Second rule, be creative. At my daughters birthday I offered the kids little grape tomatoes, sliced carrots, sliced apples, seedless grapes… those colours, that fantastic taste… they couldn’t get enough!! I admit, it is more work than opening a bag of chips, but so worth the trouble!! And yes, there was also cake, home made orange cake decorated. I’m a working mum with two kids, and this is possible.

    • Sally Kuzemchak

      You are so right. Kids love colorful food, whether it’s candy or fruit salad. That’s why I champion bringing fruit to kids’ sports games–they love it, and it’s a lot more refreshing and hydrating that chips or cookies. And you’re right, sometimes it’s more work. Cutting up fruit is more time intensive than picking up a package of donuts. But putting in the time is worth it–and if you don’t have the time, grabbing a bunch of bananas *is* as easy as picking up donuts! Thanks for your comment.

  • Rachel_2010

    So…. junk food is ok, as long as you are in the car going to grandma’s but god forbid you bring it to the soccer field?  You have rallied against parents bringing anything but fruit and home made muffins to Saturday soccer games, but it’s ok for your kids to eat junk at other arbitrarily assigned times, that you have control over.  Hmmmm. odd.

    • Sally Kuzemchak

      Thanks for your comment Rachel, and I understand why you feel this is contradictory. I believe parents should make the decision about when their children eat this kind of stuff (and when I allow my kids to have chips or soda at grandma’s, that’s my decision). When a team parent bring a box of donuts and a case of kool-aid to the soccer field every weekend, they’re making that decision for me. I suppose I could pull my child aside and tell him that while his teammates chow down, he’s not allowed to have any. But I don’t think that is fair. (I’ll be writing a post about that on my blog this week.)

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  • RDMom

    As a mom and dietitian, I agree.  If you never allow your kids to have junk food, they will want it more. Expose your child to as many healthy foods as possible (and most often), but relax and let your child have a cookie without thinking that you have failed as a parent . I promise they will be okay.

  • RDMom

    As a mom and dietitian, I agree.  If you never allow your kids to have junk food, they will want it more. Expose your child to as many healthy foods as possible (and most often), but relax and let your child have a cookie without thinking that you have failed as a parent . I promise they will be okay.

  • RDMom

    As a mom and dietitian, I agree.  If you never allow your kids to have junk food, they will want it more. Expose your child to as many healthy foods as possible (and most often), but relax and let your child have a cookie without thinking that you have failed as a parent . I promise they will be okay.

  • Anitanks

    Thanks for being a voice of reason on this. When I was a teen working at McDonald’s I was mortified at the parents who never let their kids have an orange soda or root beer with their happy meal. As I was of the ones who ordered the FRIED fish sandwich and a DIET coke. Lol. I also worked at Kmart and was annoyed by the parents who never had time for their child to ride the 25cent horsey. I vowed to be the parent who always had time for my kids to ride the horsey and to allow them to pick a drink for their happy meal. I feel like if you make those things FORBIDDEN then they become the treasure your kids will want most of all. It has worked out pretty darn well. Because I didn’t make soda forbidden, it was just one of the options tempered with education now both my kids ages 19 and 21 choose water most of the time and my 19 year old is studying health and nutrition in college. I do the same with the ten year old, yes you can have a dr pepper, just know it has 12 spoonfuls of sugar and it’s not a choice you want to make all the time. Teaching moderation works for us.

  • Maggie Caldwell

    Sally, what an interesting article, as well as all these thought-provoking comments. You inspired me to write a blog post of my own in response:

  • Sarah @ Semi-Sweet

    Wow – it’s amazing the strong reactions this post has engendered. I’m of the same mind as you, Sally. I have an 8-year-old and although I cook from scratch almost all the time and we focus on an organic, whole foods diet, she likes junk food too (as do I, I just don’t eat it very often and neither does she). That said, we do eat “treats” and we distinguish them from “grow foods.” She is at the point where she understands she feels like junk if she eats too much junk – after a vacation she’ll specifically ask for favorite snacks like strawberry/banana kabobs or tofu cubes b/c she “feels like” she needs fruit/something healthful. We’ve tried to teach her intuition and moderation. She’s going to be beyond our control most often, very soon – out in the world making her own choices. I want her equipped with the know-how to make healthful food choices, but I also want her to have fun with food – and if that means a bag of Cheetos once in a while, that is just fine with me.

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  • Candice Schreiber

    Sooo allowing your children to be marketed to by large corporations that spend millions of dollars to peddle nutrient devoid food is ok? And teaching them, as a dietician, that it’s ok to have said nutrient devoid food is ok because it tastes good and the other kids are doing it? Wow.