How to Talk to Your Toddler about Junk Food

It's never too early to start teaching our kids.

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My three year old was tearing up the grocery store like a hurricane. Pulling things from shelves, running far away from me, and not listening to a word I was saying.

She’s normally pretty well behaved and I wasn’t sure what had gotten into her.

Other shoppers were staring. I could see people quickly glance at us before looking away. I tried hard to get her to stop and listen, to take a breath and calm down. She was having none of it.

As my embarrassment was setting in and my temper rising, it finally dawned on me why this was happening. This was my doing, I realized. I had given her a chocolate chip cookie about a half hour earlier.

She was on a sugar high. And uncontrollable sugar high.

That realization helped me calm down. I finally understood that she wasn’t out to destroy my life. She was simply reacting to food and I needed to support her as she burned through the sugar.

Three years old is a bit young to talk about nutrients, good fats vs. bad fats, processed foods, or refined sugars. But, it’s not too young to start building the connection between food and how we feel.

So after the sugar high wore off and we got through the crash, I talked to my daughter about what had happened.

“Woah, that trip to the grocery store was no fun. You were completely out of control. Did you notice how you ate a cookie, and then you got lots of energy and your listening ears turned off? That happens to me sometimes when I eat a lot of sugar. Oh, and then I feel so sleepy after just like you did. Isn’t it pretty crazy how a cookie can do that?”

We have the same type of conversation when we have fried chicken and a sore tummy follows. “My tummy is so sore too. Why did we eat that? It tasted so good, but now it’s making us sick isn’t it? We’ll have to remember this next time.”

The key to this type of conversation is to talk about it with wonder and curiosity, not judgement and criticism. And it’s also important to ask your child questions, even if it’s confirmation that they agree with what you’re saying. This will make it seem more like you’re on the same side rather than you telling them how they feel.

The cool thing about kids is that they learn fast so after a few reiterations of this type of messaging, my daughter can now be found saying things like “Does this have sugar Mommy? I won’t be able to fall asleep if it has sugar, right?”

We are lucky that we eat mostly healthy, organic, home-cooked meals. This makes it much easier to recognize the link between food and how we feel. And because we don’t completely ban unhealthy food, it gives me to opportunity to help my daughter learn.

Now, she may not look at a cookie and decide to stay away, but she is building the awareness in her body and when she gets a bit crazy after eating sugar, she can easily recognize the link. 

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