Simple Steps to Improving Your Kids’ Food Quality

By Jean Antonello, RN, BSN, obesity and eating disorders specialist and author of The Great Big Diet Lie, How to Become Naturally Thin® by Eating More, Breaking Out of Food Jail and Naturally Thin® Kids,

A mother of four raised her hand at my seminar and asked me how she could get her kids to stop eating so many cookies. She was serious.

I suggested that she stop buying cookies. “You mean, don’t have any cookies at all?”

“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, I couldn’t do that,” she said, incredulously. “ We have to have some cookies. They’re the kids’ favorite snack!”

Many parents think like this. They have become so accustomed to serving their kids poor-quality (though tasty) foods that they can’t imagine eliminating them. I think some genuinely fear what their kids might do if their favorite low-class snacks and treats disappeared. Just as adults, kids get used to the way things are in their lives, and they tend to resist change at first. But eventually, and usually sooner than adults, kids adjust whether they like it or not. As long as the changes we impose upon our kids are not abusive and are done with the kids’ welfare in mind, kids generally, if not quietly, accept new patterns and expectations within a few weeks. It’s helpful to keep this in mind during their protest phase.

Is it absolutely necessary to eliminate these not-so-great foods in order for your kids to avoid obesity and eating disorders? No, it’s not. If your kids are not famine sensitive and almost always eat on time, poor-quality food is not evil, nor can it single handedly cause weight and eating problems.

So why urge ever kid caregiver to restrict the availability of these foods? I think kids should eat the best food they can at home because they’re likely to eat poorer-quality food when they’re away. This is a fact unless you have an extremely unusual kid.

Let me say it another way:

When hungry, kids will eat quality foods they like that they find around the house, and kids will not eat foods that are not there.

These are such a profound statements that they merit further discussion. Let’s look at the first part first:

When hungry, kids will eat quality foods they like that they find around the house.

This statement is so simple that it seems almost moronic to explain. But, as with most simple but profound ideas, there are some important things to say about it just the same. Let’s dissect it to understand all its subtle implications.

When hungry

Hungry babies, children and adolescents don’t have to be forced or even encouraged to eat. Hungry kids want to eat good food they like when they are hungry. The only times adults have to coerce them to eat is when they are not hungry or they don’t like the food.

Forcing a kid to eat when he isn’t hungry is abusive. Abuse breaks down trust in a relationship, so forcing kids to eat when the kids aren’t hungry damages the relationship between the kid and the adult doing the forcing. Usually, adults who insist that kids eat regardless of their hunger level are genuinely concerned about their kids’ nutritional needs. But right motives don’t excuse wrong behavior.

Concerned parent might better simply state their concern: “You say you’re not hungry, but you hardly ate any breakfast and it’s after noon. I’m afraid you won’t get enough good food to stay healthy and grow up strong. If you’re sure you’re really not hungry yet, your body must be doing OK for now.”

Sometimes kids refuse good food they like because they are getting sick and a depressed appetite precedes other symptoms. Parents admit that loss of appetite is the signal they have come to identify with an impending illness in their kids. This is another reason to respect kids’ body-controlled eating patterns.

Most kids will refuse to eat foods they don’t like and this can drive the adults in their lives crazy. Parents can keep encouraging their kids to try new foods, but never force it. You’ll likely reap the same consequences that result from forcing kids to eat when they are not hungry.


This term is more inclusive than you might imagine at first. Naturally, it refers to children, from infancy through the late teens. But the fact is, this statement may apply to any person living within a household—mothers, fathers, grandparents, kids in their 20s and 30s, aunts, uncles, and nannies. One might even venture to say that all people of all ages will eat the foods they find where they live. So it is impractical to provide a high- quality food supply for your kids and a lower quality food supply for anyone else living in your household at the same time.

Will eat quality foods they like

We’ve already established the fact that hungry kids will eat good food that’s available.

The words quality foods and they like are the key phrases to providing the optimal food availability for your kids. We’ll get to them in a minute, but before we get to specific food quality and kids’ food preferences, let’s finish the first phrase:

That they find around the house

Kids eat the foods they find in their homes—in the cupboards, in the refrigerator, on the countertops, in the freezer. It’s so simple. If it’s there, and kids like it, they’ll eat it. This makes the task of controlling kids’ food quality at home extremely simple. If you want them to eat it, buy it. If you don’t want them to eat it, don’t buy it. Period.

“Well, what about Troy’s house. He’ll just go over there for cookies,” one mother protests.

But I’m not talking about the neighbor’s food supply, I’m talking about yours. Let’s not give up just because everyone doesn’t understand these concepts as we do.

Kids will not eat food that isn’t there

By now you’re probably chuckling or irritated at my overstating of this point. But have discovered that it needs overstating because parents and others who supply food to kids tend to leave their common sense outside the grocery store door. They seem more concerned with the cheers and smiles they may get from kids discovering their favorite goodies at home than they are with the health and nutritional needs of those kids. And they also seem to be willing to set themselves up for fights over treats vs. good food, spoiled appetites, and cranky moods from high-sugar, low-class eating.

Let’s assume that you want to provide excellent food for your kids at all times. Where do you start? You start at a very simple spot: the grocery store. Buy plenty of high quality ingredients and easy to prepare and prepared foods that kids like. Then work consistently to make these foods available, day in and day out. That’s it in a nutshell.

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