Toddlers and junk food

Junk food is convenient and inexpensive, and it can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it is what it sounds like for a child’s diet: junk. The average American gets roughly 30% of their calories from junk food, and while the rare or occasional treat is okay, it’s also still important that your toddler gets their essential vitamins and minerals from a well-balanced diet.

What is junk food, exactly?

Certain junk foods are more clearly ‘junk’ than others. For example, candy, soda, and french fries are obviously junk food. But foods like processed cheese, white bread, and processed meats are a little trickier – many people see them as diet staples, but they’re unhealthy. In general, junk food is any food that has at least one of the following.

  • High amounts of chemical additives
  • Low nutritional value
  • Lots of processing
  • High amounts of fat, sodium, sugar, or all of the above

The problem with junk food

Children who regularly consume junk food are at a higher risk for a variety of negative health effects, including obesity, cavities, poor sleep, and energy levels that drop from high to low suddenly.

They’re also less likely to eat enough fruits and vegetables, and more likely to develop unhealthy eating patterns that follow them into adulthood. At this age, toddlers are also too young to fully comprehend the repercussions of eating junk food all day long, which leaves it up to the parents to enforce a healthy and balanced diet.

Junk food and toddlerhood: Tips and tricks

As your toddler gets older and eats a wider variety of food, you’ll probably find yourself needing to set up rules about your toddler’s junk food intake. Many parents struggle with this; it certainly doesn’t help that junk food is marketed in such a way that it seems almost irresistible to toddlers and adults alike. Fortunately, though, there are some things that parents can do to limit their toddlers’ consumption of junk food.

  • Don’t buy foods you don’t want your toddler to eat. This will make it much easier for you to resist that puppy dog stare your toddler makes when asking for an extra cookie.
  • Don’t use junk foods as a reward for eating healthier foods. It’s understandable that parents resort to measures like this one, but this just reinforces the concept of good and bad foods, and makes the ‘bad’ foods all the more tempting.
  • Don’t buy low-fat foods just because they have fewer calories. Whole-fat foods keep children fuller for longer periods of time, and they offer essential fats needed for brain development. For example, it’s recommended that children drink full-fat milk until age 2. Additionally, there is research that suggests a link between low-fat foods and obesity.
  • Do let your toddler reject food. If your toddler refuses to eat or finish their meal, cover their plate and put it in the refrigerator for when they get hungry later. Letting them decide when they are full teaches them to listen to their body’s hunger cues, which can help them avoid falling into the habit of over-eating later in life.
  • Do serve some foods that you are sure your toddler likes at mealtimes. This way they will have some foods to enjoy, even if they don't want to eat other foods on their plate.
  • Do buy whole, fresh foods whenever you can, including fresh fruits and vegetables and unprocessed, unprepared dairy, meat, and grains. It’s not always possible for busy families, but even switching one prepared meal for something made with fresh ingredients per week can be a great place to start improving the whole family’s health.
  • Do check nutrition labels on foods before you buy them. Foods with added sugar, including corn syrup and rice syrup, and other additives like sodium benzoate and disodium or monosodium glutamate, hydrogenated oils, and trans fats should be avoided as much as possible.
  • Do get your toddler involved in the kitchen. Your toddler can do age-appropriate jobs like stirring food or sprinkling spices, and cooking healthy meals together can be a great way for the two of you to have some fun. Toddlers who have helped (or “helped”) to prepare a meal can be more likely to be enthusiastic about eating it, and the two of you can be proud of your joint creations.

Junk food: Parents know best

It’s hard for any parent to resist their toddler’s advances towards the snack aisle, and for some parents, it’s nearly impossible. But as long as your toddler is this young, it’s your responsibility to help them try and learn to enjoy a variety of nutritional foods. This sets them up for healthy eating habits in the future, and helps your toddler’s body grow and develop in the ways every toddler should.

  • “Toddlers at the table: Avoiding Power Struggles.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, 2016. Web.
  • Laura Markham. “Feeding your toddler.” AhaParenting. Dr Laura Markham, 2016. Web.
  • Maya W. Paul, Jeanne Segal Ph.D., and Lawrence Robinson. “Healthy Food for Kids.” HelpGuide., May 2016. Web.
Get the Ovia Parenting app
Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Google Play Store Get our app at the Google Play Store