Help, my child won’t eat anything but junk food! Learn how to get kids to eat healthy with 8 little known tips and tricks while keeping your sanity…
I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve had a parent tell me, “My child won’t eat anything but junk food.” And let me specify that there’s a difference between your child liking junking food and it being the ONLY type of food they eat. When you start to witness your child systematically only accepting the chips, cookies, and crackers, while NEVER considering to eat a fruit, veggie, or maybe even a protein like meat, nuts, or cheese, it can become a cause for some serious concern. At this point, the way to moving past eating junk food all the time is to figure out how to get kids to eat healthy.
Yeah, I know that seems impossible. But there is a way, in fact, I have 8 little known strategies to help your child that won’t eat anything but junk food begin eating other foods that won’t stress anyone out! First, we need to talk about why your child is stuck on junk food and if you actually need to be worried about it.
Why Your Child Won’t Eat Anything But Junk Food
I’m sure you know the most obvious reason that lies on the surface, it’s the reason many adults eat lots of junk food… it tastes good. Plain and simple, right? Well, there’s actually a little more to it than that. Some kids start off only accepting junk food, even from a very early age because eating typical foods like diced fruit and toast was literally too challenging for them to eat. In this case, it is very possible that a child may have had some underlying feeding difficulties, which is very common. You can read more about that in Why Kids Refuse to Eat.
Junk foods are easier to eat because they have a flavor that kids respond to, and most junk food is carb based. Children are literally wired to eat carbs. Seriously, they seek out foods that are sweet from a biological perspective because it gives them energy and a super long long long time ago, it helped prevent them from putting poisons in their mouth that they came across in the wild. Not to mention that a few years ago, a study found that kids may actually become addicted to junk foods from a physical stand point, you can read more about the study here.
Also, many junk foods are crunchy, and this is a texture that many picky eaters prefer. Believe it or not, in a lot of cases, the crunch actually makes it easier for kids to eat than soft foods like a baked potato because kids can feel exactly where the chip is in their mouth. The mushy potato either feels weird or they lose track of it in their mouth while they’re trying to chew it. (Find more about sensory issues with foods.)
Once a child won’t eat anything but junk food, it can spiral deeper as the child gets older and continues to never be exposed to or be presented with other healthier foods. And, I know that it isn’t always for a lack of trying! Your child may scream, tantrum, or even gag when they see a piece of broccoli or fish on their plate, or even at the table. Take it a step further and if a child tries other foods or even used to regularly eat fruits and vegetables, but then has a major illness or is hospitalized, the traumatic events from being sick can make them eliminate large categories of foods.
If your child is at this point, they likely have a food aversion or fall into the extreme picky eating category. While that sounds scary, it really just helps us understand that your child, for a variety of reasons, may be legitimately unable to just pick up a carrot and take a bite. When eating has reached this point, kids will continue to only eat the foods they know are okay for them, even if those foods happen to be junk food, which they commonly are.
Before you start worrying, remember, by the end of this post, you’ll have solid strategies from a feeding therapist and mom (that’s me) to help you successfully introduce new foods into your child’s diet. But, if your child eats a wide variety of foods, but is simply obsessed with goodies and sweets, then you’ll want to check out this advice on how to manage the freak outs for another lollipop here.
Do You Need to Worry About How Much Junk Food Your Child is Eating?
The short answer is no… probably not. Most of us don’t want to see our kids eating massive amounts of junk food and never a real meal, and working towards eating new foods is a great goal, but if your child is growing on a curve (according to their doctor) on their growth chart, they are probably okay.
I’m going to try and keep my soap box tucked behind my couch, because I can get really passionate about the culture around food, especially in America. But, it is important to know that junk food IS a part of our American culture, and unless you’re living on a commune with no television, internet, or grocery stores, children are going to be exposed to it and honestly given the opportunity to eat it at times.
I know you’re here reading because your child is eating junk food all the time, but when we demonize or label the junk food constantly as healthy or bad for their bodies, it sends mixed messages and can make them feel badly.
If your child is ONLY eating junk foods and never eats any other types of food, I would highly recommend using at least some of the strategies you’re going to learn below because there are obviously other nutrients and vitamins that will greatly benefit them. While its temping to totally freak out about their current state of eating, it really can improve with some patience and consistency. Feel good about your long term goals and look for the small wins each week. If your child is moving in that direction, then you don’t need to worry!
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How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy
I have 8 strategies below to help your child begin to eat new foods instead of only eating junk food, you don’t necessarily have to use all of them, but the more you can implement, the quicker you’ll see success!
Also, PLEASE keep in mind that I use the term healthy very loosely. While I love healthy foods, sometimes we can get really caught up in that label, the goal is to expand your child’s diet and have a decent selection of foods they will eat. Everyone’s definition of what is healthy is different. If you want to focus specifically on vegetables, you can read about how to get kids to eat vegetables there or get tips for helping kids eat meat here.
1. Keep Healthy Foods in the House
It may seem like a waste to buy them, but it’s important for our kids to see us buying fresh food in the store and unloading them onto our shelves. In fact, these are great activities for your child to help with. When you’re in the grocery store, ask them to go get some tomatoes or pick up the bananas and load them into the cart. Have them help you unpack the bags when you get home and show them where these foods go. Just make sure you don’t slip any comments in there like, “Are you going to try these bananas today? Mommy is buying them for you!” this will make the activity have a negative light on it and turn your kid off to trying them at all.
2. Model Eating Healthy Foods
Make sure you eat those healthier food options you bought and eat them with your child, even it they’re not. Again, you’ll want to avoid any comments like, “See Mommy is eating the banana, its so good. A banana will make you strong, how about you try a bite?” Comments like these will have the same effect, just let your child witness you eating the food and at the most, without any pressure, you can talk about the food neutrally. Something like, “This banana is sweet and sometimes people put into cookies because of it’s flavor and sweetness. It’s also very soft and easy to chew.”
3. Serve Healthy Options
Without pressuring your child to eat other foods, begin serving them healthy foods alongside the junk food they prefer. Start with just one healthy food, keep the amount small, and let your child know they don’t have to eat it. If they have a total freak out, trying taking baby steps backwards. Offer a divided plate, we use these ones in my house, or even a small bowl next to their plate until they can tolerate it. Then take baby steps back to getting the food actually on their plate. This may take a few meals or a few weeks, I told you that patience would be needed!
4. Buy Less Junk Food
If your child is making some progress with eating healthy foods, try to cut back on how much junk food you buy, when it isn’t in the house it isn’t there to eat. If your child won’t eat anything else but junk food, you’ll have to be very careful here because they do need to eat something! It’s very important that at every meal, they are served at least one food you expect they will eat.
Another trick I like is to buy healthier junk foods, there are lots of brands now that duplicate the most popular junk foods, but keep an eye out for the food dyes and preservatives. Look for those by reading the back of the package. Learn more about what preservatives and additives you might want to look for in your child’s food. At the same time, you can make your own healthy versions of junk foods with recipes like these healthy gummy bears or these amazing homemade french fries (I’ve tried them and they are really good!)
5. Don’t Lecture About Healthy Foods
It’s soooo hard not to lecture our kids about what healthy foods are and why we should eat them, but this creates an atmosphere of pressure kids just turn against. It also does the opposite and creates a negative association with food. The same goes for guilting them into eating, like when we say, “This food is so good for you, don’t you want to be big and strong?” Read more about how NOT pressuring your child to eat can be a total game changer.
6. Prepare a Meal or Snack Together
Have no expectation of your child actually eating the food, that will save you a lot of disappointment, but get them involved in rinsing the vegetables or chopping up some foods if they are old enough, click here for kitchen skill by age. If they refuse to help, let them know earlier in the day this is something you’ll be doing together and give frequent reminders throughout the day. Make it fun, put on some music. Any interaction with healthy foods is a wonderful opportunity for them and will help in ways you might not see immediately, but will have long term gains.
7. Cut off Endless Snacking
Junk food is easy to eat all day, a lot of it has MSG in it that physically creates a craving for more. When our kids aren’t eating well, it’s really tempting to let them eat whenever they want because at least they’re eating, but that’s doing way more harm than good. Set up a schedule and aim for kids having nothing but water in between their meals. I like to space meals out every 2.5-3 hours because this creates an appetite cycle that actually has them hungry when they sit down to eat.
This is one of my top tips to improve a child’s eating, get the rest on a free printable here.
8. Plant a Garden
This can be as simple as a single pot on your patio or porch, and while it takes some effort, the rewards are worth it. I’ve seen it happen over and over again in my home! Kids are invested and interested in foods they’ve watched grow in a way that is otherwise had to replicate. Read more about the benefits of starting a garden for picky eaters.
Having a child that won’t eat anything but junk food can be frustrating and worrisome to say the least, but these tips you learned can be the start of getting your child to eat healthy foods. To have an even huger impact on your child’s diet, and your sanity, save yourself a seat in my FREE WORKSHOP: 3 Keys to Turn Around Picky Eating.
You could have amazing results like Ninya, who emailed afterwards and said, “I’ve been applying the strategies I learned in the workshop and my boy has now tried cucumbers and fish sticks….. which he would have rather died than trying before. Thank you!”
More for the Child that Won’t Eat Anything But Junk Food
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 17 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.