Monday, July 16

whip-it {snacks}

So last week I wrote about my extremely expensive and technical pantry tracker. First up was chores. And this week it's treats...

the short explanation

Each kid has a little post-it tape flag. On Sunday nights we move the tape flags over to their name. And then each time they have a 'sometimes' food, the sticker is moved across to a number. After the third treat for the week, they sit tight until the week is done.

the long explanation

Towards the end of last year Brenden and I had a long, hard look at our family's food intake. We had to admit that although we were all eating enough of the 'right' food, we were also eating a fairly sizable chunk of the, err, 'other' food. Bren and I were both several kilos overweight and we knew we had to set a healthier example for the kids. So the two of us agreed to reduce our portion size, cook healthier meals, and to reduce our snacking. Funnily enough, we both started to lose weight - who knew?!

In those early days we didn't explicitly say anything to the kids about the changes. As far as they knew, meals keep arriving with reassuring regularity. If anything, they liked the lighter meals and snacks better! But after a few weeks of mindful eating, it began to dawn on Bren and I just how many 'extras' the kids were being offered every week. Of course, we were the main culprits. We realised just how often they had an after-school ice cream at McDonalds or chips in front of the TV on a Friday night. 

But we also noticed that the world at large was feeding our children with a ferocious intent. Cupcakes from classmates, lollies from sports coaches, well-done (!) sweets from hairdressers, cakes after church, congratulatory lollies from teachers, and promotional treats at shopping centres. This was on top of the usual round of birthday parties with their attendant lolly bags and seasonal occasions like Easter and Halloween and school fetes and school discos. And don't even get me started on the eat-a-thon that is Christmas!

It felt overwhelming. We knew something had to change. We could (and did) control what we fed the kids at home, but even then they were being offered sugary, fatty food nearly every single day. How do you ask your entire community to rein it in? Each person meant well and were simply trying to put a smile on the kids' faces. But as their parents we were the only ones who could see the big picture, and we felt we were doing our kids a disservice to just let it be.

The more we talked about it, the more we realised it went beyond the simple notion of monitoring  their food intake and refusing treats on their behalf. It occurred to us that the kids were passive recipients of food. They took it as it came (whether at home or not) and they were happy with that. We realised we had to educate and empower the children to make their own decisions about their diet. So we came up with a strategy.

The first thing we did was to start talking to them about food. Obvious, huh? Well, kind of. We wanted to create a framework for what was to come. Over a few weeks we talked about the nutritional components of the food - what carbohydrates, protein and calcium were all about. We talked to them about how nothing is good for us if taken in huge quantities (even water is toxic at some point). And we talked about how God created all food and called it good, even sugar. We told them that it's what we do with that food that determines how well our body will develop. We explained that there's a difference between what our mouth likes to taste, and what our body needs to thrive. If we feed our body first, then our mouth will eventually agree. And if there's any room left at the end, life is short so tuck in!

The last thing we wanted to do was create a mindset whereby some foods became inherently evil while others were cure-all sources of light. As a society, we expect an awful lot of food - we all celebrate, commiserate and medicate with it - so we were loathe for the kids to begin judging their friends and family about what was on offer. It was all about learning how basic foodstuffs interact with our body, and our ability to intelligently discern what we're eating and why.

So after those discussions, we got into the nitty gritty. One afternoon I got out the kitchen scales, the sugar bowl, and a selection of food from the cupboard. The kids and I spent a good hour reading nutritional labels and then weighing out the amount of sugar in the recommended serving sizes. Not only were the kids astounded at the sugar content, but the serving sizes left them flawed too. They realised their idea of portion control was wildly different to the manufacturers!

After this, we started talking about how to revamp their favourite foods to make them healthier. We made over nachos, pancakes, and lunchbox slices. This step was really quite fun - the kids were keen to see how much food they could pack onto their plate with the least amount of sugar, fat and salt. I was very proud!

So then this brings me to the treat tracker that we now have in the pantry. I was curious as to how many 'treat' foods was considered acceptable for children to eat each week. I consulted Dr Google to see what  she thought and the answer surprised me, even considering the work we'd been doing: one. One treat per week at home.  Gulp.

Now I don't know about you, but limiting 'sometimes' foods (lollies, chocolate, biscuits, chips, packaged snacks, fast food, and all drinks other than water and milk) to once a week is nigh on impossible, even in the best circumstances. So I took it to the kids. After all our discussions about nutrition I was hoping they'd be able to bring some ideas to the table. I asked them "how many 'sometimes' foods do you think a kid should eat every week?" and their unanimous answer was "one". Oh, okay.

So then I reminded them of all the activities they did and all the people we knew and all the places we go each week, and I asked them if they'd be able to stick to only one per week. And I got a more realistic "ummm... prolly not."  So we compromised at three. No, not what the nutritionists recommend, but certainly a better deal than the pile they were currently chomping through!

Out came the textas and scissors and up went the chart. The rules were as thus: the kids could have 'sometimes' foods whenever and wherever they liked, to the maximum of three per week. 

In actual fact, the rules were slightly more elastic. I didn't want the kids to fail at the first hurdle so I relaxed the rules from time to time. Oh don't get me wrong, I'm all for kids failing when failure is earned. But what we didn't want to see was them thinking it was impossible to maintain a well-balanced diet and thereby giving up any pretense of eating healthily. So I'd count birthday parties, for example, as one treat - but still I'd encourage the kids to look for healthy food and to have maybe one cupcake and not five. If they'd been particularly good I'd sometimes give them a bonus (a modest one). And I'd also let them count half-treats if they asked for a very restrained portion of something. In the early days it was all about learning self-control, not complete self-denial.

What happened next was really encouraging. The kids just seemed to 'get it'. For instance,  Abi bought a block of chocolate with her own money, read the nutrition panel to figure out a serving size, broke some off for herself and her brothers, moved their markers on the chart, and put the rest of the chocolate in the cupboard where it stayed untouched for another two weeks. All without prompting from me. On another occasion, Abi bought herself a Magnum after swimming lessons. When she cracked it open in front of her brothers they looked at me like "where's ours?" and I asked them how their chart was tracking. They both stopped, thought, and were like "oh, okay."

I can't pretend that it's all been smooth sailing though! One of the kids is notorious for their lack of impulse control. It's that child who struggles most with this system - they use up all their allowance early in the week on unsatisfying treats just because they can, but then regret it when the weekend rolls around. While it's hard to watch that child struggle, it helps to know that they're learning a valuable lesson in delaying gratification. I help them out by pointing out better quality food when we're out, like having raisin toast instead of a cookie at a cafe. And instead of feeling sorry for them and allowing a bonus every week, I gently remind them that it's in their power to choose, and they must live with the consequences of their choices. Not just with food, but with everything in life. A tough lesson to learn at that age!

And while most of our friends have been supportive - several mums have confessed that they, too, struggle to stem the tide of treats offered to their kids - some have been just baffled. I know some people assume I'm being fanatical or controlling. I see it on their faces when my kids check with me about how many 'sometimes' foods they've used this week. I won't quickly forget how bewildered Abi's netball friends were when she happily refused a lolly bag at the end of the season! I guess I just have to cop it on the chin. Ultimately though, it's Bren and I who have to account for how our children develop. I absolutely believe that kids should be kids, but I cannot argue with the overwhelming evidence regarding the lifelong implications of a poor childhood diet.

So that's my system in a (quite enormous) nutshell. I once heard that all kids eat like birds: some are vultures while others are sparrows... and I seem to have given birth to three vultures!  It's really important to Bren and I that we teach each child that their body is a wonderful gift which deserves to be treated with respect, much like the food that goes into it.

I hope it's been an interesting read, and I'd love your thoughts.

How do you discuss nutrition with your kids?
Do you have vultures or sparrows?!


  1. WOWSers - this is quite brilliant!

    right now with Mr 3 we try to do zero treats at home because he gets fed an awful lots of treats when he goes to my parents' place ... And every Tuesday night at Poppy's house he gets a Mini magnum ice cream after dinner. So I figure grandparents are for treats and home is not.

    But I love the above for the future when heis a bit older!

    1. Thanks, Kelly!

      You're right, we found it quite easy to keep it under control when Abi was 2 or 3 but after they get to preschool it's another story!

      Hope this comes in handy one day :)

  2. Love this, Karen.

    My girl is only 3 so we have pretty basic conversations about food - how it makes her feel, whether her head or her stomach is telling her she wants something to eat, things like that. But what you're doing is great for older kids, so I'm storing this away for future reference!

    I find the same struggles as you - it's easy to keep track of what they eat at home, but you're so right about how much they're offered outside that. And yes, some others think I'm quite weird about this stuff too, but I just think it's too important to leave to chance.

    1. Glad you find it handy! The degree of difficulty certainly increases as they get older and when they have siblings. More kids with more connections just means more food and more confusion about who ate what and when!

      And you're not weird at all! It's never weird to take your kids health seriously :)

  3. This is really interesting and one of the more balanced approaches i have seen. We allow a daily treat (varies from a couple of biscuits to a small bowl of ice cream or custard)and i know some who do very strict healthy food eating. I like your system though so will keep that in mind if we decide to cut back in our home.

    1. Thanks Deb! A daily treat is a great way to keep track. Anything to encourage mindfulness and restraint without being dogmatic is a good thing, I reckon!

  4. I think we need to do this for me and the Mr.

    1. You're not alone Melissa. I've surrendered a packet of mint slice to a work colleague - who is under strict instructions to dish it out medicinally (i.e. one in the morning and one in the afternoon). Works well...
      I used to be more disciplined.


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