How To: Purge Your Pantry of Junk Food

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I am the room-mom for my fifth-grade daughter, and a few months ago, I organized the class breakfast party the day before winter break. I made my tasty buckwheat waffles for the class. And while I was prepping, one of the parent helpers asked me about my caramel-colored waffle batter.

“It’s all whole-grain,” I said. “Whole-wheat and buckwheat with olive oil, no butter. I make that pretty much every Sunday morning.”

“Well,” she said, “I guess if your kids are used to it, they don’t mind eating it.”

This mom’s attitude reflects a common misconception I hear from adults all the time—that kids are somehow genetically programmed to resist anything healthy and they immediately shut off their appetites unless they can find something deep-fried and sugar-coated.

In my experience, that’s just not always the case. At home, if kids open the refrigerator and they have a choice between an apple and a coke, they might choose the coke. If the pantry contains nacho-flavored chips and Kashi cereal, they will probably opt for the chips. You have to toss the junk. Stop buying packaged snack foods that you know are laden with salt, fat, and sugar. If it’s not in the house, neither you nor the kids can eat it.

But won’t they complain?

Yes. You may hear some whining, at first.

But, you know how to say no to your kids—the hard part is when you think you want the same thing they do, and you let them talk you into doing it.

When you’ve had a tough week at work, it’s easier to pick up bags of chips and dip, or to stock up on frozen dinners than it is to think about grilling some chicken and vegetables. And when you have one, two, or more kids (and perhaps a spouse, too) gnawing on your ear, asking for the chocolate-frosted mini-donuts, a part of you wants to give in, too.

Have a plan

What can you do when the world seems to be conspiring against your healthy-eating ideals? Start with a plan. No matter how picky your kids are, if they are hungry, they will eat healthy food, if it is attractive and ready to go.

Have snacks ready for when your kids or hungry spouse gets home. You can put these together in the morning and leave them where they are easy to find. What you prepare depends on what they like: my kids love fruit and oatmeal, so I try to keep these items in plain sight on the counter. Setting carrots and celery in a tray with hummus makes it look like someone exerted a little effort, and it’s a lot more appealing than eating carrots right out of the bag.

Go simple

Don’t try to make huge transitions, like switching from a steady diet of hamburgers and pizza to falafel and tofu dogs.

Make a healthier version of familiar foods. Try turkey burgers on multigrain buns. Make your own pizza on a thin, whole-wheat crust and use lots of oven-roasted vegetables instead of pepperoni. Switch from white rice to brown.

Once you get used to one set of changes, make another set of healthy switches. You don’t have to rush things, but try to make continuous improvements.

Give it time

Over time, your taste buds adjust to new foods. The problem isn’t that natural foods are “boring,” it’s that processed foods have so many additives that it’s like listening to your music with the volume turned all the way up: you can’t hear anything else.

If you turn the music down, at first it seems too quiet; but after a while, you start to hear all the birds, cars, and conversations around you.

Unprocessed food is the same way. Once you get off the salt and sugar, you will be able to taste the subtler flavors and textures of your food. Two years from now, you might be watching someone else’s kid drink a fizzy soda and hear yourself saying, “Well, I guess if they’re used to drinking that, they don’t mind it so much.”

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