The Junk Food Deluge: Is It As Simple As “Just Say No?”

Here on TLT I’ve written often – some would say ad nauseum! — on the topic of kids being offered junk food by people other than their parents and what, if anything, we should do about it.   But today I want to ask TLT’ers a question:  How do you personally handle this issue?  Do you focus exclusively on your kids (i.e., telling them to “just say no”) or  are you out there trying to change the junk food food environment, an environment which other parents actively, and sometimes angrily, defend?

artificialcolorcupcakesMost of us would agree, I think, that there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of times a week kids are offered junk food as compared to our own childhoods. In a recent US News & World Report piece entitled “Why Is Everyone Always Giving My Kids Junk Food?” Dr. Yoni Freedhoff wrote:

. . .  it never seems to end. Saturday skating lessons often include lollipops, kids’ grab bags from community races regularly contain chocolates, loot bags from friends parties might as well be renamed candy bags, libraries host events with names like “Donuts and Dads,” bending a blade of grass with soccer shoes leads to sugar-sweetened sport drinks on the field and often ice cream or popsicles when the final whistle blows, and so on and so forth. And don’t even get me started on juice. No doubt too, each and every time I speak up, there’s someone out there telling me I shouldn’t be so frustrated, as it’s just “one” lollipop, it’s just “one” ice cream sandwich, it’s just “one” chocolate bar. If only it were just “one.”

Here on TLT, I’ve documented numerous intrusions of junk food in the classroom, many of which never existed when I was a kid: parents sending in sweets for classroom birthday celebrations; the use of candy (and even soda) as classroom rewards; junk food offerings at schools’ weekend clinics and competitions; classroom parties that become sugar-fests; the use of junk food for pedagogical purposes (remember the marshmallow Torahs?); and the practice of schools giving students juice pouches and peppermints to keep them alert on standardized testing days.  (All of those things irked me enough to write my “Food in the Classroom Manifesto,” a document many TLT’ers have since downloaded and shared.)

soccer snacksI’ve also written about junk food outside of school, such as the sugary beverages and chips or cookies parents often bring for “soccer snack;” the day camp that asked parents to bring four liters of soda and two dozen cookies each week; the tennis coach who endeared himself to his players by offering ice cream sundaes after a lesson; the youth bowling league that set out a table of candy and soda each week, urging the kids to go to town; and many more such instances of junk food in previously unexpected contexts.

And I’m getting the feeling lately that a lot of parents out there are becoming very frustrated.

In addition to the Freedhoff piece, there’s been a spate of posts in the blogosphere on this topic.  Food activist Casey Hinds recently shared with me a post by a blogger named Blaze, succinctly titled, “Keep Your Crap to Yourself.”  Blogger Stacy at School Bites has been bemoaning the junk food onslaught at her child’s school.  And Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition and Dana Woldow of PEACHSF both recently objected to the fact that Valentine’s Day has become an excuse for school sugar-fests.

But whenever a parent complains, there’s always someone else out there telling us that, as one of my readers put it, we just need to “instill backbone” in our kids to resist whatever junk food they’re offered.   And this is true not only of those who don’t have a problem with junk food per se.  Last week some of us debated this issue over on the Facebook page of the non-profit Keep Food Legal and a seemingly health conscious mom supported the “just say no” approach.  She wrote:

 I wholeheartedly disagree with the sentiment that you can’t ask your kids to avoid candy and junk. I do it all the time. They simply say “no, thank you.” I’m not going to let the possibility that they might be outside the social norm be the deciding factor for my decisions. I hope I’m raising them with enough strength to not care what other people think of them.  Then again, they’re more likely to go on a diatribe about sugar than they are to let someone steamroll them for not having a cupcake!

So, I’m curious to know what you think, Lunch Tray readers.

For those of you who focus less on your kids and more on changing the food environment, have you ever encountered resistance or even overt hostility from other parents?  In the piece mentioned above, Dr. Freedhoff wrote:

My experiences have taught me that junk food as part of children’s’ activities has become so normalized that my questioning this sugary status quo genuinely offends people’s sensitivities and sometimes even generates frank anger.

(Also check out my 2010 Lunch Tray post “Why Kids + Food = Conversational Hot Potato,” in which I discuss why I think this is such a hot button issue.)

For those of you who do instruct your kids to always refuse junk food in these settings — the teacher’s candy reward, the donuts at the class party —  has that approach been difficult for you or for them to maintain?

Or perhaps you focus more on educating your kids about healthful eating and then trust them to make their own choices– accepting the fact that sometimes they’ll make the wrong choices?

I’d love to hear what you have to say.


In one of those moments of blogging serendipity, I just noticed that blogger Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition has a post up today which dovetails perfectly with this one.  She takes on the common argument, “We Ate Junk Food and Turned Out Just Fine, Right?”  Also check out my spiffy new “Snactivist” badge over to the right, courtesy of Sally.

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  1. says

    “And I’m getting the feeling lately that a lot of parents out there are becoming very frustrated.” We are. I handle it by giving my kids money or gift cards when they say “no thank you” to food as a reward and sugary treats but I’d prefer to stop the onslaught on all our kids.

  2. Kristi says

    I think it’s completely unrealistic to expect children to do what most adults have a hard time doing (turn down junk food when it’s offered to them). Think of the last time you or a co-worker refused the piece of retirement cake at the office party or the cookies offered after a lunch meeting.

    My approach is to both teach my kids to make healthy choices and to work for change. I suggested a “Naturally Red Tasting Party” for my daughter’s 1st grade Valentine’s Day party, and the teachers (and the kids!) loved it. The teacher told me that this is her go-to party from now on, and that she convinced several teachers to do this exact party next year. The principal came into the classroom and took pictures of the party, and the co-chair of the PTSA wants to meet with me to overhaul school food.

    So, advocate for change when you can. You will be surprised how many parents feel the same way you do once you step up!

    • mommm!!!! says

      I want to offer a perspective that hasn’t been discussed and that is the element of poverty. When you are raising children in poverty and you can’t provide the birthday parties that come with loot bags and Disney decorations, an ice cream sandwich at home (or two or three) becomes a little “splurge” that gives people living in a bleak situation a few moments of bliss. When this is all you can afford to give your children, I think it compounds the problem. Add to this that there are several “candy” holidays, other kids birthday parties, etc. Poverty stricken parents can’t send their child to all the parties their invited to because they can’t afford a gift. I mean it goes on and on. Now compound all of that by just how MANY parents are currently living with less than they did before the economic downturn and you have a LOT of people experiencing new poverty on varying levels. I can tell you that when all people have to give their kids is a sugary treat because their cheap, then you’re going to get a lot of pushback for the taking away of those items in all of the after school activities, during school activities, etc.

      It was a thoughtful conversation I had with a friend of mine recently and so I thought I’d share it. Because literally, there are many parents who all they have left to give is a $1.99 box of little debbie cakes or letting their kids have that gallon of purple drink. I think it’s a sleeping giant to be honest. People just want to feel good and in a life that’s filled with food insecurity, a cheap sugary treat gives a few moments of reprieve. The problem is ….how addicting does that behaviour become, etc.?

      • says

        From a post I’m working on: What Does Poverty Look Like in Kentucky? Gina Bigler answered the question this way:
        “Children living in poverty are suffering from obesity and malnutrition at the same time. Children are getting calories but not nutrition. Inexpensive foods are full of empty calories that do nothing… to nourish young bodies and brains. Poverty looks like a tired, overweight, hungry child. ..Poverty looks like pain.”
        While big steps are certainly needed to address poverty, each of us can help alleviate some of the pain with small steps.
        •Donate healthier, less processed food or money to buy fresh produce to your local food bank
        •Serve water and fruit at school celebrations instead of cake and sugary drinks
        •Ask your PTA and Booster clubs to switch to healthy fundraisers like jog-a-thons and citrus sales instead of candy and cookie dough
        •Don’t use food as a reward which can contribute to disordered eating
        And the recent expose, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, details Coke’s drive to sell the sugary drink to the poor and vulnerable. One of the executives had an epiphany on a trip to Brazil.
        “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.” It’s not just in Brazil.

        • mommm!!!! says

          Yes, I agree. I was just offering a perspective not often discussed or thought about, at least from what I’ve seen. And I read that article, which came from the book Sugar, Fat, Salt, which I can’t wait to read….which also just confirmed a lot of what I’ve been saying for a couple of years and I’ve posted a lot of those very same things here since I started posting here.

  3. Caron says

    We almost always say no and talk about why we choose “big and strong” food. but my kids are young and seldom without me in these settings – not sure what will happen when they get older. I do, however, worry that the constant refusal will have the reverse effect – and they’ll want it and eat it even more when they can. And, I really resent being put in the position where I always have to say “no” and my kids are always singled out as the ones not eating with the others. They shouldn’t feel alienated from the group b/c the norm is too eat junk. We need to change the norm. We are working to make changes to the preschool environment but that doesn’t work in dance class, at the dry cleaner, etc etc etc….it’s a long battle, and it’s exhausting.

  4. says

    When it has come to parenting in this world I have learned there are very few defenses we have. We are obligated to be strong and great examples of what we believe and always fight the good fight as we see it. We have five kids ages 11 years to 11 months. We pulled our kids out of public school or other reasons, but I am very happy that the food issue is no longer our issue. We are involved in other activities and the only saving grace I have as a parent is to always be prepared. I cannot change the world. I can inspire and influence it by my example. So if we are participating in an activity that I know will have junk served to our kids, and I feel that I want to fight that fight on that occasion, I simply bring or send an alternative.

    I’ve learned that people get offended no matter what. There are people who are offended we even have five children because of “overpopulation”. People were offended that my husband and I didn’t live together before we got married. People are offended that we homeschool. There is always room for someone to be offended. I honestly believe that when it comes to THIS issue, people get offended because they know you are right and in your actions they feel you are telling them that they are making a mistake or are wrong in their food choices. I know that is not what is being said, but I think that’s what triggers the hostility.

    We teach our kids the reasons why and set them free to make those choices. The older ones do well. The younger ones are still enticed by the bright colors and sweet flavors. I don’t expect my five year old to fully understand the gravity of the choice offered to them. That being said, I have found that for us in our house our children love good food. When their friends come to visit they get good food and love it too. I hope by the little daily choices we make everyday, we can show others the benefits of healthy eating and share the light we’ve been given on the topic.

  5. says

    What I can’t understand is why I should instruct my children to just say no, and have no one else take responsibility for what is a social issue, simply put. There is NO GOOD that comes of having junk food. None. Just as there is no good to be had from cigarettes, no good from alcohol, no good from drugs. People don’t want to see it that way because junk food is “food” and it’s easy, convenient, and popular with children — letting the adults off the hook from being the “bad guys” who MAKE the children eat what they don’t prefer — but the reality is that junk food has no net benefit. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
    So tell me why I should “instruct” my children to say no, while you continue to deluge them and their classmates with something that at the very BEST does them no good, and is in fact probably doing them harm? If that line of reasoning stood, we wouldn’t have a war on drugs — we’d tell the children to just say no, and we’d let OTHER people have drugs in school because, hey, the drugs are fun for them; if we’re uptight and don’t want our kids to use them, that’s our problem, right?
    I’m fed up. FED UP. That’s why I wrote this letter to my son’s principal after Valentine’s Day. Because it shouldn’t be on my kid to say no to something harmful that’s being pushed on him at school — it should be on the school to act only in the best interests of its students.

  6. Beth says

    I’m just entering the fight with a 4 and 2 year old. It’s already begun with preschool and then the little local children’s theater and the doctor’s office, etc. I’m trying to speak up when I can in the hopes that maybe if enough folks speak up, the message will someday get through.

  7. says

    Here’s my issue with “Just Say No”: our brains are wired to crave sweets, and our bodies are wired to crave salt. This is an evolutionary hold-over which served us very well when food was hard to get (and it was easy to identify what was “good” vs. “bad” [i.e. might kill you] by how it tasted.) Now that we have better ideas on what is safe and nutritious, and we have access to a constant supply of food, these cravings are doing us more harm than good. Evolution will eventually catch up, but genetic change is slow – and time is something we don’t have enough of (as individuals.)

    So (getting to my point), what is this “instilling backbone” nonsense, when what you are doing is telling your offspring to ignore thousands of years of evolution? Especially when (a) the stuff is everywhere, (b) it is being consumed by all their friends, and (c) saying no means they are excluding themselves from the social norms – which also goes against the evolutionary grain (unless you are a hermit by nature.)

    That being said: as you strive to change the system, remember Wheaton’s Law. This is good advice for folks on both sides of this issue (and pretty much any other issue.)


  8. says

    Up until a few weeks ago this wasn’t an issue. My son’s preschool has a no junk food policy that’s followed religiously (it’s a Waldorf).

    But I enrolled my son in yoga and there are one or two parents who consistently hand out candy after yoga (at 5:30 PM). They hand it directly to my son. He has asked me what it is (pretzels, kisses, lollipops), and I tell him it’s just garbage – give it to Mommy. Obviously I’ll have to come up with something better when he’s older.

    I either take it from him and give it back or throw it out before I get in the car. I’ve asked the parents to stop, but they just smile and tell me I should indulge my LO. This post just reminded me that I should send that e-mail to the studio owners asking them to ask parents to stop this. *off to do that now*

    • says

      Reporting back that I got a positive response from the studio owner, and she e-mailed parents reminding them to bring a snack for their children only.

  9. says

    Crikey, this must be a nightmare. In the UK we just don’t have this to deal with to anything like the same degree. Of course we have kids bringing sweets to school sometimes when they have been on holiday or if it’s their birthday (although in my kids school that happens maybe 5 times a year) and the parties at school (only 2-3 of them a year by the way) are a bit of a mixed bag of decent food and party rubbish.

    But I have not at all come across this idea of parents handing out food to other childrenwilly nilly at sports and activities. We are vaguely aware that parents seem to be responsible for providing snacks for each other at activities in the States (because we’ve seen it on The Simpsons or Everybody Loves Raymond – so it must be true, how educated we are…) But we don’t generally mix sports and food – at my son’s soccer he gets water. That’s it. At Tae Kwondo, they get nothing. At Brownies they get a glass of squash (cordial) and only if they have been running around. Otherwise nothing. If your kid will need a snack before or after an activity, you take one with you / send them with it, and if you’re caught short you might sigh and buy junk from a vending machine.

    Sometimes in holiday clubs where you leave your kids in a group for the day, the food they provide for snacks is less than ideal, but you always send a packed lunch so it’s only a small proportion of crap in the whole range of food they eat. And even then most of them make an effort to provide a bit of fruit. At that level it’s easy to shrug it off and think “They’re eating well 90% of the time, so a little bit won’t hurt”.

    What you are describing is more like a constant onslaught at every turn. The idea of having to fend off or otherwise compensate for everyone else’s food choices several times a week horrifies me. If any other UK readers have different experiences on the whole I’d love to hear from them, but it’s just not something I have come across.

  10. Adam says

    I stumbled across this conversation from a Facebook post, and am very like minded in many of the comments here.

    My wife and I try to raise our son with a knowledge of healthy foods and how they help keep him from getting sick, or keep him strong, both physically and mentally. I’ve even taught him about the necessary and often disregarded topics of the workings of his digestive tract.
    We have gone through the stages of him asking for certain junk foods, to pointing out to us that they are junk foods, to not wanting those junk foods, and he is currently becoming even more adventurous in trying newer home cooked foods that he has disregarded in the past.

    We started teaching him these things when he was 4 or 5 years old, and he is 9 now. I think that having open and honest discussions about our foods, why we eat this, why we don’t eat that, really helps him make better decisions. Also, not forcing foods on him too often probably helps a little 😉

  11. says

    I agree with Bri above: “What I can’t understand is why I should instruct my children to just say no, and have no one else take responsibility for what is a social issue, simply put.” It IS a social issue, and it reminds me a lot of second-hand smoke. Would we let our soccer coaches smoke on the sidelines? Would we just tell our kids “move away from the smoke if it bothers you?” Sounds like an exaggeration maybe, but with the rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and metabolic syndrome, maybe not! I can talk to my kids all day long about healthy choices, but it’s hard for ANYONE, much less a child, to resist junk when it’s everywhere all the time. We have to change the environment and our attitudes. Great post Bettina!

  12. stef says

    I think that many get frustrated and yet, many do not model the behaviour they want to see. (I’m guilty as well…but improving).

    I brought watermelon and oranges and water to the first soccer game. No one followed suit. But they *did* bring items that were allergy safe for my daughter. yay! I so appreciated that. But I also provided a list that include fruits some that can be bought on the way to the game…like tangerines and bananas…but it didn’t catch on.

    My other daughter’s team had no restrictions…so when it was time for our turn, I wanted to just bring 2 fruits and a water. But compromised with a fruit kabobs, water, and fruit based popsicles. one parent said his kid won’t eat anything that looks like a fruit so only had a popsicle (this was a toddler sibling). Donuts were a popular post soccer treat.

    I planned the class party because my daughter has food allergies and I wanted all the food to be accessible to the all students including her peers with allergies. But I still included some sugar, because I felt that the parents and kids expected that…and every class at school has it…so I didn’t want to stand out even more than I already did by managing the menu further. We included some sugar, but also had strawberries, watermelon and included water as a choice for the drink.

    I’m making small changes. But I haven’t gone so far as the Natural Red party…though I’ll consider it for next year.

    Our family gives out non-edible treats for halloween and food-free valentines.

    It’s hard to walk the talk when the environment at large is the other way. For all the parents who DO walk the talk. Thanks for setting the scene.

    For those of us in the middle, modeling the behaviour by making small changes to offer healthy alternatives all help and continue to move the needle.

  13. stef says

    saying “no” is hard for kids. why would we expect that to work? when adults can’t resist either.

    simple experiment…leave out any type of junk food at work…and it is gone by end of day. adults don’t say “no” either.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Just want to thank everyone above who commented and I especially loved Sylvie’s success story. That’s terrific! And turning to Bri’s analogy about drugs, just wanted to share a little more of what I wrote on Keep Food Legal’s Facebook page:

      imagine a teacher, a friendly shop clerk, a soccer coach and a bank teller each giving kids a single cigarette as “a treat” over the course of a week, week in and week out. We wouldn’t just put the onus on parents to train their kids not to take the cigarettes (though that would be a good thing in any event). We’d also ask why these strangers feel entitled to bypass parental consent and distribute something to the child which is demonstrably bad for the child’s health, perhaps not singly (what’s the harm of one cigarette, or one cupcake?) but clearly so when the child is receiving the cigarettes from many people in the course of the week.

      That’s how parents start to feel when it comes to junk food. We feel overwhelmed, circumvented and faced with the difficult task of either making our kids the weird “outlier” who has to stand in the corner while the other kids partake, or we find ourselves having to relax our own common sense limits on sugar and junk food.

  14. Lynn says

    Kids just need to be exposed to healthier foods in better ways. When new foods are forced upon them at school that are healthy, they’re reluctant to try them. However, if good food is introduced at home in tasty, healthy recipes, they won’t want to resort back to eating junk food.

  15. Kate says

    I wish I had time for a longer comment.

    I read the Freedhoff article and he mentions that he estimates his kids get an extra 600 calories a week from the “deluge”. In mentioning a calorie count, is his concern simply the extra calories, or that it is all junk food?

    I really don’t see the deluge to the extent that others mention. Certainly not 600 calories worth. If my kids are going to get access to junk food though, it is more than likely at a friend’s house, going somewhere with a friend(like the movies, etc.).

    I’ve said before I don’t really have a problem with the birthday cupcake. It doesn’t mean I openly support them either, or care if they go away. Knowing kids whose families don’t have cars to easily get to the store or the means to have a big birthday party, I do have some empathy for those who see a birthday celebration at school as something as simple as walking to the convenience store, buying some candy or cookies, and sending them with your kid.

    If schools reformulate policies, I think that we have to be careful about including these families. Do we send the wrong message by celebrating the mom who has the means and the access to buy an expensive fruit tray from the organic grocery store but scorning the mom who does not? Even with the celebrate the birthdays once a month sort of plans, do we make sure every family has a voice in the planning…I’m not sure that we always would…just based on my years of observation. I’m not a fan of saying no food in school…but perhaps I’d change my mind on that, based on some of my above comments. To the extent that public schools are something that many of us experience, and are funded with taxpayer money, certainly this would be an area where we could write different policies and laws.

    The soccer league my kids were in was staffed by volunteer coaches, and was run by a private non-profit organization. Not sure why soccer and snacks go together. If one wishes to change the culture, why not serve on the board of directors that makes the decision..or be a volunteer coach yourself. Otherwise, yes you can voice your concerns or elect for your child not to have the snacks.

    Freedhoff also made a comment about birthday parties. Certainly as a parent, we can choose to send our kids to these parties or not. I certainly wouldn’t presume to tell another parent how to run a birthday party.

  16. Kerry says

    I have had this conversation so many times! We have choose to home school our kids , ages 4 & 8. We are so lucky to have been able to surround our children with other like minded families. Our homeschool friends share healthy snacks only…fruits, veggies,humus, even some dairy or gluten free. Most bring their kids a thermos of water or tea. Rarely a packaged product. Lunch times usually are a pot luck of healthy home cooked foods. As for our home, we just do not buy junk food or packaged foods. I also pack a cooler with healthy choices every time we go out,to curb the need to buy a junkie snack away from home. If they only have an Apple for a choice, they will eat it! Yet….they are still bombarded by junk foods! Our issue is family members! My parents live with us and do not respect our food boundaries…munchkins donuts,lollipops,ice creams,cookies,packaged junk foods….I hear all the time,”it’s just a snack”. Then there is the bank, free samples at food stores, and birthday parties…it all adds up! My kids are well educated in making healthy chooses, but they are children. I take some peace in knowing that most of their food offered is healthy, so the sometimes junk is just sometimes. I will keep teaching them about food ingredients and hope it is a lesson they will grow up to practice.


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