junk food

Let’s Give Parents A Break

by Sally on December 11, 2014

Let's Give Parents a Break

I try very hard to make this blog a no-judgments zone. Except when it comes to food marketers. I have no patience for junk food marketing that tries to lure kids with cartoon characters, video games, and thinly veiled promises of being cool.

But a funny thing happens whenever I gripe about this: Some readers immediately jump to the company’s defense and suggest that parents simply need to do a better job of saying “no”.

This always strikes me as odd. As parents, we all know how hard this job can be. Most of us know what it’s like to be juggling a handbag, sippy cup, buzzing phone, and grocery cart while a toddler whines for the box of sugary cereal or Dora gummy fruits snacks that are (conveniently enough!) right at her eye level. When they’re older, they may start asking for Lunchables and sports they’ve seen on commercials or McDonald’s Happy Meals they got a coupon for at school.

Even if you’re a parent who routinely denies those requests, some kids will continue to make them. This makes life hard.

Marketers know that. And they know that some parents will give in to nagging and begging. Because nagging is aggravating–and sometimes effective. There’s actually a name for it: “Pester Power” is a term used to describe the power that children have to influence their parents’ buying behavior.

Smurfs CookiesConsider what parents are up against:

  • Kids see more ads for fast food than any other food and beverage category, followed by cereal. ¹
  • 70 percent of food ads on Nickolodeon are for unhealthy foods.²
  • Half of the $700 million spent on fast food marketing is on toys.³

Even if your kids aren’t the pestering kind, junk food marketing can still affect them. Here’s how:

It changes how kids think about food.

“Food marketing not only affects what our kids want to eat, but it helps to define the social norm for eating for children, what kids think of as food. And unfortunately, it has helped to define kids’ food as junk — as gummy fruit-flavored snacks shaped like their favorite characters, brightly dyed white-flour goldfish crackers, overly sweetened cereals, and various concoctions of sugary drinks.”–Margo Wootan, D.Sc., director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Let's Give Parents a Break

It creates brand loyalty, sometimes among kids too young to understand.

For decades, McDonald’s, Coca Cola and the junk food industry have targeted children from a young age – attempting to create lifelong brand loyalty with no regard for the health consequences. The science is clear. Marketing to children is deceptive and manipulative because young children still developmentally do not understand persuasive intent. This is why major health agencies from the American Academy of Pediatrics on up to World Health Organization have recommended restrictions on marketing to children. –Sriram Madhusoodanan, a campaign director for Corporate Accountability International (CAI)

Let's Give Parents a Break

It purposely undermines parents’ messages in sneaky ways.

Marketers go too far when they use the “parental responsibility” argument to imply that they themselves should not be held accountable for egregious intrusions into children’s lives—especially since marketers are increasingly going out of their way to circumvent parents, seeking out children in venues where parents aren’t present. Overextended parents should not be forced to raise children in plastic bubbles while marketers enjoy free reign to accost kids who unwittingly venture into a commercial world by simply attending school or a public library. The fact that parents hold primary responsibility for teaching children positive values does not imply that corporations should be allowed to undermine parents and saturate kids with harmful messages. –“Kids Unbrandeda guide from Center for a New American Dream, an organization that helps raise awareness of the negative impact of a hyper-consumer culture

Here are ways you can fight back, courtesy of food activist Casey Hinds of the blog US Healthy Kids:

Read about my trip with CAI to McDonald’s Headquarters, where we asked them to stop marketing to children: What Happened When I Went to McDonalds HQ

¹ Trends in Television Food Advertising to Young People: 2013 Update from Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

² Nickelodeon: Marketing Obesity to Kids from Center for Science in the Public Interest

³ “Child-Directed Marketing Inside and on the Exterior of Fast Food Restaurants“, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, October 2014.


How I Handle Halloween Candy Craziness

by Sally on October 15, 2014

How I Handle Halloween Candy Craziness by Real Mom NutritionMy name is Sally. I’m a dietitian. And I hand out candy to trick-or-treaters.

In the past, I’ve doled out bags of pretzels, small tubs of Play-Doh, and sheets of stickers too (and see nothing wrong with going that route). But mostly, we hand out candy. Usually chocolate.

If you’re a regular on this blog, you know I can get riled up about junk food. Especially when it’s on the sidelines of kids’ sports every weekend (read: Soccer Mom Soapbox). I’m that mom calling the summer camp director to ask about switching from Powerade to water. I’m the lady stopping at the front desk of the rec center to chat about the junk in the vending machine. I even advocate for healthier school Halloween parties.

Yet when it comes to trick-or-treating, I’m cool with candy. Why? Because I think it’s okay to celebrate some occasions with food. (If goodies aren’t handed out every day for made-up special occasions like t-ball practice, it’s easier to do this.)

But I also know that trick-or-treating can spiral into candy craziness, so here’s how I make it work in our house:

1.  I wait until the very last minute to buy candy. Ideally, I’m at the store at 3pm on the day of trick-or-treating. Once upon a time, I made the tragic error of buying Halloween candy in advance, which of course meant we ate it, bought more, ate that, and bought more.

2. I give my kids free reign. We eat dinner before trick-or-treating, then all bets are off. They can eat as much as they want, which often comes with its own handy life lesson: If you eat too many sweets, sometimes your belly hurts and you feel gross.

3. I play the Switch Witch. After my kids return home to dump and sort their stash, they reserve a pile of their favorites. The rest (the stuff they don’t like or don’t like very much) goes into a bowl on the dining room table. While they’re sleeping, the Switch Witch arrives to take the candy and replace it with a toy or game. This is optional at my house. My kids aren’t forced to turn over their candy, and last year they kept a pretty sizeable amount. I know not everyone is a fan of the Switch Witch (read Red, Round or Green’s take in this post, “Switching Off“). But I like that this fun tradition teaches them to value what they like best–but not waste time on the stuff they don’t, simply because it’s there. In our culture of omni-present junk, that’s a useful skill.

4. I put them in charge of their stash. In our house, we have a one-treat-a-day policy which works most of the time. You can have your treat whenever you want: in your lunchbox, after school, after dinner, even WITH dinner. My two boys’ Halloween candy is kept in separate bags in a cupboard they can access. We decide together what a reasonable portion is (usually a fun-size bar or two small pieces of candy) and they serve themselves. They don’t obsess. There’s no sneaking of candy.  (Well, sometimes I sneak a piece and get caught when one of them finds the wrapper in my office garbage can.)

So that’s how it’s done in our house because this seems to work well (for now at least!). You may do things differently, and that’s okay. You may toss out everything with artificial colors, only buy GMO-free goodies, or hand out temporary tattoos. Or maybe you’re that fabled house with the full size candy bars. By all means, do your own thing.

But if you sneak your kids’ candy, do a better job than me of hiding the evidence.


My Number One Trick For Eating Right

October 6, 2014

I don’t have the stamina for junk food anymore. As a kid, I could suck on Sour Patch Kids until my tongue was raw. I could wash down greasy pizza and Cheetos with a Cherry Coke and be no worse for the wear. These days, a donut for breakfast would send me crawling back to bed in a sugared […]

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Want To Improve Camp Food? Now Is The Time To Act!

August 27, 2014

You may be in back-to-school mode, but if you were unhappy with the snacks or meals your child received at summer camp this year, now is the time to speak up. Why now? Because camps are sending out end-of-summer evaluations and surveys–and there’s plenty of time to look at parent feedback and make improvements for next summer. This summer, […]

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School Wellness: 3 Ways To Get Involved This Year

August 18, 2014

School is starting in the next few weeks. Are there are changes you’d like to see in your child’s school, like less sugar in the classroom or more events that get kids moving? If so, make this the year you get involved! Here are three ways to jump in: 1. Attend PTA meetings. It’s the very best way to know […]

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Why I’m Not Lovin’ McDonald’s New Go-Gurt

June 24, 2014

The news that McDonald’s is including yogurt as an option in their Happy Meals should be, well, happy news. Especially since it’s a specially-formulated version of Go-Gurt that contains 25 percent less sugar than Go-Gurt sold in stores. But I’m not cheering. When I attended the McDonald’s shareholders meeting last month with Corporate Accountability International (read, […]

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Are Artificial Food Dyes Safe For Kids?

June 10, 2014

If you’re wary of artificial food dyes, you’re in good company. A lot of parents are questioning whether these rainbow hues are safe for their kids, while scientists are working to get to the bottom of this decades-long debate. I recently spent months researching and writing a feature for Parents magazine about artificial food dyes […]

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Soccer Mom On A Mission…Watch It!

March 13, 2014

Two years ago, I tromped around the soccer fields in my community, snapping photos of the snacks I was seeing. I set the photos to music and turned them into a video slideshow called “Soccer Mom On A Mission”, with the hopes of raising awareness and mobilizing a new wave of Snacktivists to create change. After […]

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What Are The Olympics Teaching Your Kids About Food?

February 11, 2014

“McDonald’s is, like, the official restaurant of everything.” That’s what my nine year old said to me as we were watching the Olympics the other night. That’s because every 10 minutes that McDonald’s commercial was on the screen. You know which one I’m talking about: the split-screen showing an Olympian biting their gold medal on […]

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A Call for Candy-Free Valentines

February 4, 2014

Remember Valentine’s Day as a kid? If your school was anything like mine, you found an old shoebox, cut a slot in the top, and decorated it with paper doilies and puffy heart stickers. You stationed it on your desk at school and made the rounds in the classroom, giggling and dropping valentines in your […]

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