About a month before the event I had set myself a challenge. I wanted it to be junk food free. It was a noble goal stemming from my desire to prove to a fellow parent that it would not be a total flop. While attending another party I had tried to convince my then three-year-old son to go easy on the candy that was enticingly laid out on display at kid-height. One of the Dads noticed, rolled his eyes, and gave me a look that said “lighten up and let the kid live a little.”
I could see his point. Even celebrity chef-turned anti-junk food crusader Jaimie Oliver who’s known for saying “If you're giving your young children fizzy drinks you're an ****hole,” recently stated that he thinks some parents are taking things too far in their efforts to encourage healthy eating. “Life is about having some treats,” he said at a recent press conference here in Australia. “Let them get sick [on lollies] ... because once you’ve had too many sweets, you’ll tend not to do it again.”
Indeed, research does show that restricting access to food, whether self-imposed or by parental control can have potentially negative consequences, including creating a heightened desire for restricted foods and a tendency for subsequent overeating when limits are removed. In fact, a review of kid’s eating behaviour found that the highly restrictive approach was associated with weight problems.
So after seeing “the look” from the Dad at the party and listening to his insistence that junk was just “part” of what makes celebrations special, I decided to drop the issue and watched my son happily gorge on white bread sausage sandwiches followed by a truck load of lollies. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that what followed later that evening was a three-year-old mood crash of epic proportions. My son had eaten nothing of substance all day and was running on fumes. He just couldn’t keep it together.
At this point, the investigative health journalist in me has to put a caveat on my anecdotal story. Despite the bad reputation that eating sugar and other processed foods have earned in recent years for being at the root cause of spontaneous bursts of delinquency in our kids, as this piece in the Spectator highlights, there’s actually scant robust evidence to prove it. In our little study of one for example, there’s nothing to say that my son’s stormy mood wasn’t caused by lack of sleep, or even genuine torment that his bath had too many bubbles in it.
Having said that, there is a link between unhealthy dietary patterns and poorer mental health in children and adolescents overall. And herein lies my point. As I wrote in my post Why “Everything In Moderation” Is a Bad Idea, our modern-day moderation set-point is currently way off balance. If you look at a typically Western diet, many of us are eating excessive amounts of cheap, nutritionally-deficient, low-quality food on a regular basis. It’s not “sometimes” food. It’s “all-the-time” food and we’re eating way too much. Here in Australia, recent research by the George Institute found that junk food portion sizes have risen significantly. The average slice of cake has increased in size so much it now contains almost 1000 kilojoules more than it did two decades ago. (For those wanting a specific definition, researchers have determined that “moderation” when it comes to candy means eating between 50 to 100 calories a day. For the record, that’s about half of a Kit-Kat finger, or nine crisps.)
As a health journalist with a chronic health condition which is worsened by unhealthy lifestyle behaviours including bad diet, who is all-too aware that the eating habits established in childhood can last a lifetime, this bothers me. And so, with all this in mind, I set out to prove to the raised eyebrows of the Dad who gave me “the look” that it is possible to host a great party without also having to host excess sugar, processed oils, and empty calories.
It was a risky move. I didn’t want my son to be that weird kid with the fanatic mother, so I had to be stealthy. I swapped out the usual cupcakes, cookies, and party pies with whole foods such as apricot bliss balls, colourful fruit salad, and BBQ seafood. Instead of lollies in their party bags, the kids found a home-made mask and cape I’d sourced from a wonderful Etsy store holder to wear when Superman put them through their paces in superhero school. When guests asked what they could bring to contribute, I requested salads and dips rather than crisps and fizzy drink. The result was a veritable smorgasbord of colourful whole-food. To be clear, there was a birthday cake. A delicious, sugary, floury, decadent home-made masterpiece by one of my fellow mother’s groupies which was positively devoured, but this was a party void of bowls of chocolates, fries, pastries, or any of the other so-called “obligatory” party affairs.
So what happened? Snide comments? Quiet complaint? Outright protestation? Nope. Nothing.
As the day wrapped up and I walked our final guests out, I sheepishly asked one mother what she’d thought of the junk-free approach, looking for her honest opinion. “Junk-free?” she asked. “Really? I didn’t even notice."