Let kids have some junk food

Banning sweet stuff from your children's diet may actually make them crave unhealthy fare

The forbidden fruit is indeed sweeter. So when children ask for snacks or junk food, experts tell parents that it is better to give them a little than to deny them altogether.

And that is what Ms Beryl Tan does when her 10-year-old daughter asks for something sweet. Ms Tan, 43, a manager, says: "My daughter loves sweets, chocolates, biscuits and cakes."

So when the girl asks for sweet stuff, she says she will consider it. "If she hasn't had something sweet in two weeks, or if she's going to a party and can share her sweets with others, I would say yes. Otherwise, I would tell her no."

 
 

Saying "no" straightaway to sweet treats or unhealthy snacks will only make children desire them more, says dietitian Jaclyn Reutens from Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants.

Instead, it is better to allow kids some junk food within limits - tell them how often it can be eaten and how much is allowed.

She says: "Give them a choice when they ask for it - ask them if they would like to have it now or later. If they insist on it there and then, tell them that the next round will have to be the next day or the day after, depending on whatever rules you have set for them."

Overconsumption of unhealthy food - especially those high in fat, refined sugar and carbohydrates - can lead to obesity. Obesity is a major contributing factor in Type 2 diabetes, which has seen a rise in recent years, even among children.

If they have more practice in making healthy food choices, they are more likely to continue this habit when they grow older and start eating away from home.

MS LYNETTE GOH, a dietitian, who gives her two children a say in what they want to eat

So it makes sense to start the battle against diabetes from young.

Ms Reutens says there are ways to reduce children's desire for sweets and unhealthy food. Give them three main meals and three nourishing snacks a day. Make sure they eat their breakfast so they do not end up snacking throughout the day. Also, keep them wellhydrated as dehydration can increase cravings for sweet food. And avoid bribing them with treats or desserts as it will make them value such snacks more than nutritious food.

Before giving in to children's tantrums for sugary food, Ms Reutens suggests that parents offer them naturally sweet alternatives such as raisins, sweet mangoes or strawberries.

Parents can also create a home environment where children are encouraged to embrace healthy food.

Ms Lynette Goh, 38, a mother of two children aged seven and four, stocks her kitchen with fresh food, vegetables and fruit so that there is less chance of her children eating something unhealthy.

While she has some chocolates and biscuits at home, these are available in bite-size portions to prevent her kids from consuming too much. She also lets them have a say in what they want to eat.

The senior dietitian at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics says: "If they have more practice in making healthy food choices, they are more likely to continue this habit when they grow older and start eating away from home."

To prevent them from overeating, she gets them to have balanced meals at regular timings.

She also reads them books and talks to them about the healthy plate, a visual tool which shows what a balanced meal looks like.

She avoids calling any food item "bad" as that could indirectly make it more desirable. Instead, she teaches her kids about "everyday food", which the body needs daily to make it strong, and "sometimes food", which are high in fat, refined sugar and carbohydrates and should be eaten only occasionally.

Her family eats at home on weekdays and "sometimes food" is reserved for special occasions and weekends, when they eat out.

Despite her efforts, she faced a minor setback when her daughter entered primary school last year. Excited at having pocket money and the freedom to buy food in school, her daughter opted for items such as fries, jelly and sweet drinks.

But she tried not to make a fuss about it as it might "cause my daughter to associate healthy food refusal with getting lots of attention".

"Instead, I politely asked her to avoid having it too often and I set a limit, such as letting her eat those types of food once a week."

Noticing that her daughter likes putting her leftover money in her coin bank, she encourages her to save her pocket money, instead of spending it on junk food.

She also got her to take healthy snacks and drinks to school, such as low-fat UHT milk and soya milk.

Part-time tutor Denise Philip, 40, also takes pains to ensure her four children do not overindulge in food high in fat, refined sugar and carbohydrates. Both her husband and father have diabetes.

She says: "At home, we alternate brown rice and wholemeal bread with white rice and bread."

Although her four children, aged four to 12, love sweets and ice cream, she and her husband allow them the treats only on weekends, when they are around to monitor how much their children eat.

She says: "We would let them have one snack after lunch and another after dinner."

It appears to work. She says her children do not ask for these snacks, which are kept in the fridge or in containers on an open shelf, on weekdays.

Eating out was more challenging as the children are exposed to more choices, including unhealthy ones. They eat out for lunch and dinner on weekends, usually at foodcourts, hawker centres or coffee shops.

Ms Philip says: "I usually let them choose rice or noodles, provided it comes with vegetables. Our meals are usually followed by cut fruit or fruit juice."

As soon as her children were old enough to understand, she and her husband explained to them the ill effects of eating food high in fat or sugar.

She says: "We told them that eating high-fat food can lead to obesity and showed them photos on the Internet about what sweets can do to our teeth."

Meanwhile, Mrs Shu Mei Winstanley, 28, and her husband believe in setting a good example by being mindful of what they eat in the presence of their 19-month-old daughter. While they enjoy cakes and pastries, they try not to eat them in front of her.

Mrs Winstanley, co-founder of parenting organisation Chapter Zero Singapore, says: "When she sees us eating healthily, she is more likely to learn healthy eating habits."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline 'Let kids have some junk food'. Print Edition | Subscribe