THE BLOG
08/31/2015 05:44 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2016

I'm a Dietitian and I Let My Kids Have Junk Food. Here's Why.

Jade M. Sheldon via Getty Images

My kids ate Lucky Charms every morning for a week. Well, not quite a week. The Lucky Charms ran out by day three or four, so they switched to Honey Nut Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats. My dad brings a stash of these cereals to our annual family beach vacation, much to the delight of his grandkids. In fact, my 7-year-old refers to a beach house we rented one year as "the one with Captain Crunch."

This doesn't bother me.

Don't get me wrong. I strive for a diet rich in whole foods and don't buy Lucky Charms (here are the cereals I stock instead: My 5 Favorite Boxed Cereals). But I try not to be uptight when it comes to things like birthday parties, candy on Halloween night and vacation food. On our weeklong beach vacation, my kids stay up past their bedtimes, run around barefoot, eat sugary cereal, have soda when we go out to eat, and gobble up grandma's homemade cookies after lunch and dinner. (By the way, they also eat shrimp and farm stand peaches and watermelon and slices of crisp, salted kohlrabi from my dad's garden.)

I recently blogged about my vacation food philosophy for Parents magazine (read the full post here). Though most readers who commented said they were similarly easygoing while on vacay, there were some who disagreed with my approach. They felt that treating sugary cereal as vacation food elevated it to reward status, and that letting kids have junk food on vacation could undermine healthy messages and habits at home.

One woman commented, "I always struggle with posts like this from Sally, because I can never understand what she thinks it accomplishes."

I was really struck by that comment. I wasn't bothered that somebody disagreed. It made me realize that this was a good opportunity to think more deeply about what I DO hope to accomplish when I allow my kids to have sugary cereal or soda -- and what I hope to accomplish when I share those stories with you:

  • I hope for kids who don't grow up worrying that they are BAD because they think junk food tastes GOOD -- and who understand why it tastes good (it's engineered to be that way!)
  • I hope for kids who understand that it's okay to have junk food occasionally, who don't worry that junk food will poison them, but who also understand that there's a reason we eat oatmeal WAY more often than Lucky Charms, snack on fresh fruit WAY more often candy and drink water and milk WAY more often than soda.
  • I hope for kids who aren't obsessive about junk food, who don't feel they have to hide candy in their rooms or gorge on chips at friends' houses because they've been denied those things.
  • I hope for readers who don't feel ashamed because their kid likes the taste of Fruity Pebbles or Cheetos or Kool-Aid and who don't feel like bad parents or failures because they allow their kids to have these things on occasion.

How do YOU handle junk food in your child's life?

This post originally appeared on Real Mom Nutrition.

Follow Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD on Twitter and Facebook.