Adding healthy foods to your diet doesn’t mean eliminating your favorite meals and snacks, but rather limiting foods high in fat, salt and added sugars. Fill your plate with a variety of dark green vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, oats, barley or amaranth. Include low-fat sources of protein, like eggs, poultry without skin, nuts, seeds and fortified soy products.
Megan Peavey didn’t think it would be a problem to send her 3-year-old son to school last month with a Pringles snack stack.
The school has a policy requiring “healthy snacks” for students, but Peavey didn’t consider the 100-calorie pack of chips to be unhealthy, especially when with other balanced snack options.
“Please help us make healthy choices at school!” read a message written in marker on the Pringles container, which was sent back home to Peavey.
“They snack-shamed my 3-year-old, (and) they snack-shamed me by writing that passive-aggressively on his trash,” Peavey said in a TikTok video.
Parents, guardians and caretakers want kids to make healthy choices. But experts say the key to making that happen may be to avoid demonizing certain foods as “unhealthy.” And many parents, like Peavey, are instead promoting the approach of everything in moderation.
What happens when kids are taught that certain foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’
“The less attention that is brought to junk foods, especially for preschoolers, the less on a pedestal they will be,” says Jennifer Anderson, registered dietician and founder of Kids Eat in Color.
And teaching kids early on that there are “good” and “bad” foods can inadvertently lead to bigger problems, she adds.
“They may want to eat the food more, they may become afraid of it, and they may think they are bad if they eat a bad food. It is also very confusing. Is an apple ‘good’ if my friend has an allergy to it? Is cake ‘bad’ when it tastes so good? And if it’s bad, why do parents it give it to their children on their birthdays? Is pizza bad if it’s one of the five foods that my neurodivergent friend can eat?”
Peavey was following a similar approach to the one Anderson describes. She said in a series of TikToks that went viral last week that she reached out to the school to say she does not “label things as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy,’ because that starts eating disorders.” Measures to label foods that suggest they’re good or bad, such as legally requiring restaurants to include calories on menus, have been proven in studies to exacerbate disordered eating.
She later told the school director in-person that she was disappointed the school didn’t reach out to her directly, and said the director in turn pointed out that they had previously asked her to send healthy snacks.
“I didn’t consider Pringles to be this unhealthy snack,” Peavey reflected. “I consider things like Cheetos, Doritos, Milky Way Bars, things like that to be an unhealthy snack. So I of course would pack Pringles with a granola bar, yogurt, fruit. I didn’t really think it was applicable to me.”
Another hurdle for families: Pre-packaged snacks are cheaper than fruits and vegetables and take much less time to prepare.
Following the back-and-forth with the school, Peavey received a message that the school no longer had a space available for her son to attend their summer program he had been registered for.
Anderson says the hubbub over the Pringles could have the opposite effect of what the school intended: “If Pringles are just a food in the lunchbox along with apples, they aren’t getting a lot of additional attention. But … the teacher thought the Pringles container was worth writing on. (The child then thinks) they must be special in some way.”
How can kids learn about healthy eating in a better way?
While Anderson isn’t against schools having their own wellness policies, she highlights how quickly they can get complicated, because “healthy” and “unhealthy” can have many different meanings.
“This is really impossible to enforce and easily causes shaming,” Anderson says. “What if a child has an allergy, a sensory processing difficulty, or has extreme picky eating and the ‘unhealthy’ version of a food is what they need? What if a family is struggling in some way (with) a death in the family, a miscarriage, a divorce and a parent is relying on all packaged foods? What if the packaged foods of one cultural group are considered ‘healthy,’ but not of another group?”
Even the USDA’s old food pyramid was retired in 2011 because it was deemed “overly complex” and replaced with MyPlate, a graphic that suggests half of a meal plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables, with roughly a quarter filled with protein, the remaining quarter with grains and a side of dairy.
Still, most children do not meet the daily dietary guidelines of eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, protein and oils, according to the CDC. Many are not adequately limiting calories from solid fats and added sugars. Over 40% are overweight or obese, per a 2020 dietary guide from the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services.
But amid a toxic diet culture where everyone has conflicting advice on the best way to eat well and corporations spend tons of money to market their food to children, many pediatric dieticians highlight the importance of parents helping their kids become more thoughtful eaters, rather than simply trying to “eat healthy.” Anderson recommends teaching kids about how “different foods do different things in their bodies,” such as explaining that chicken and beans help their muscles, rather than just saying broccoli is healthier than a cookie.
She adds: “Pringles aren’t ‘unhealthy.’ Eating only Pringles will make you unhealthy. Vegetables aren’t ‘healthy.’ Eating a diet that includes fruits and vegetables is one lifestyle activity that can help your body remain healthy.”
More on healthy eating
How to start eating healthy:Experts say you should start small, keep it simple
Don’t focus on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food.Your lifestyle habits are key to a heart-healthy diet.
What is a balanced diet?Knowing the answer can help you make better food choices.