When my preschooler was a baby, I was already thinking about how I would navigate the sometimes-less-than-stellar food choices he would face at school, at parties, and pretty much anytime I wouldn't be there to dramatically dive in front of him screaming, "Noooooooooooooo!" when someone offered him cookies, cereal, or doughnuts.
Now, four years later, I don't bat an eye when he tells me he had cookies or cereal during snack time at school and I happily take him out for a doughnut almost every Saturday morning.
As a nutritionist, I understand the importance of teaching my kids how to make healthy food choices. The eating habits they form as children will shape their health and dietary tendencies even into adulthood. That is a pretty huge responsibility for any parent, not to mention someone like me who people often turn to for health advice.
What I've learned since those (admittedly naive) early days of parenthood is that we cannot control every situation and every choice our children will make. We could try, but we would most certainly all drive ourselves crazy in the process.
Sure, I could send a detailed list of acceptable foods to his grandparents when they babysit and leave every birthday party before they sing "Happy Birthday" and serve the cake, but what would he learn from that? In my experience, when children are completely forbidden from eating treats, they are more likely to go all Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on every sugary snack that comes their way once they are no longer under your watchful eye.
Instead, we discuss which foods make him big and strong, like eggs, carrots, apples, cheese, and turkey. He knows that we only eat the foods that aren't very healthy for us — like the aforementioned cookies and doughnuts, but also ice cream and candy — every once in a while because they don't help to make us big and strong.
When it comes to nutrition, my philosophy is all about balance and making healthy choices 90 percent of the time. This leaves plenty of room to enjoy the occasional treat without any lasting health implications (barring any allergies, sensitivities, or medical conditions, of course). In my eyes, life is meant to be enjoyed, and that includes ice cream cones in the Summer and sneaking a few of Santa's cookies in the Winter.
In the spirit of my balanced nutrition philosophy, I chose to loosen up on the reins just a bit when it comes to my kids' food choices. Instead of packing their lunches with only nutritionist-approved foods for the entirety of their school careers, I plan to have an open dialogue about food, steering them toward healthy options most of the time, while also letting them indulge and learn how to make their own choices. When my preschooler eats something that makes his belly feel sick, we talk about why that might happen so he can begin to make the connection between what he eats and how he feels. As much as I may want to control every single thing they eat, that is in no way going to prepare them for the real world (although, the thought of them eating fast food does spike my anxiety just a bit).
So, bring on the cafeteria food, the party treats, and the Halloween candy! I no longer look at these as ticking time bombs that I need to defuse. I now see them as a learning opportunity and a chance to simply let kids be kids. After all, is a life without chocolate really even worth living?