I have a confession to make. For a couple of weeks in April, I allowed my daughters to place a little bag of Doritos in their lunch boxes. Many people will think I’m ridiculous for feeling this is something to confess to, but I know a lot of you out there struggle with the same feelings I have about junk food. I never thought I’d feed my kids processed food, but after a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that a few Doritos were actually good for them.

Okay, they’re not good for their health or digestive system (obviously), but they may just be good for their general ideas about food and food consumption. Many people will disagree with this statement, but hear me out.

When I first started packing my daughters’ lunches in Kindergarten, I would include organic yogurt, tofu bologna and turkey sandwiches, apples slices or strawberries, cheese, and a slew of other healthy choices. They devoured these meals, each day returning with empty lunch boxes and happy faces. In first grade, they started to tell me about other kids’ lunches. They started to become very opinionated about the visual buffet before them each lunch period. I got some ideas from the other moms, such as sending miso soup in a thermos and chopping up fresh mozzarella cheese with grape tomatoes for a side salad. Meanwhile, my daughters started to question the lunches some of their schoolmates brought each day. Why did some kids get bright orange chips in a bag while they never did, and what were those yellow plastic lunch trays with pizza and nachos in them (the answer was Lunchables, a mass-produced Kraft product advertised to look fun, with it’s own game site marketed to unwitting kids)?

I explained what these things were, noting that everyone’s food choices were a personal matter best discussed in their own families, while also making it clear that those food choices weren’t mine. Meanwhile, I continued with my own school-lunch repertoire and thought all was fine and good until my daughters started reporting on who had “unhealthy” lunches. I quickly found out who had Lunchables, who had Ding Dongs, and who had Doritos in their backpacks. I started to feel uncomfortable with the sanctimonious tone my daughters used when ratting out their peers, and cringed when one said that my lunches were healthy because I loved them (which seemed to imply the kids with Lunchables were unloved).

And then, early this year, one of my daughters repeatedly told me about a few girls who would dangle Doritos in front of her face each day. When she told me about this, she said she wouldn’t want the Doritos anyway because they weren’t good for her, but I could see how much she wished she could eat just one of those bright orange chips. She was saying what she thought I wanted hear (that Doritos were bad), but inwardly craving the junk food she was seeing in other kids’ lunches. When I asked her to honestly tell me if she wanted some, she admitted she did.

My first instinct was to say “too bad,” but then I decided that at 7 ½, she was old enough to be an active participant in her own food choices. I was also concerned that in my attempts to give my daughters a nutritious energy-filled meal at school and speak honestly with them about nutrition, I had instead somehow equated homemade sandwiches and cut up vegetables and fruit with being “good,” while at the same time transforming junk food into a “forbidden fruit.” I began to wonder if one day, maybe in high school or college, they would rebel by gorging themselves on Twinkies and Cap’n Crunch.

I was also concerned that I was raising them in a bubble of food elitism, where we were smug locavores and everyone who ate otherwise was gastronomically bankrupt. Even worse, they seemed completely ignorant of the fact that healthy food is simply more expensive than processed food, and that much of the world is striving to get enough food to eat at all, let alone organic and locally raised. As I didn’t want to get into a prolonged discussion about the farm bill with my two 7-year olds, I thought that in addition to trying to inform them about food with age-appropriate discussions, I would also help them learn to make their own nutritional decisions. Let them eat cake (or rather processed chips), while telling them what’s in them (i.e., why they are such a bright orange and why they taste different than regular corn chips). They’re smart girls and I thought it was time for them to start thinking about this stuff on their own.

It was through this reasoning that I found myself buying a box of small bagged Doritos. I looked at my daughters in the grocery store aisle and said, “So, is this what you really want in your lunch?” Both looked at me wide-eyed. “Yes. We really really want them,” they yelled with huge smiles. As I placed the Doritos into my cart, I tried not to frown. I hated buying this crap for my kids, but I also didn’t want to create little eaters who feel superior about their cut red peppers while longingly eyeing other kids snacks. By taking away the stigma of processed foods, I was hoping to also take away the allure. I was hoping that the road to a lifetime of loving vegetables and slow food just might start with a small bag of Doritos once or twice a week.

Has anyone else out there struggled with their kid’s desire to have junk food? If so, how did you handle it?

Update: I included the Doritos in my daughters’ lunches for about two weeks. I never asked them if they wanted them. They had to initiate putting the bags in their lunch boxes themselves. This week, however, they seem to have forgotten that those little red bags even exist. When making their lunches in the morning, we have included the normal peanut butter and jam sandwiches, yogurt, cut up fruit and homemade popcorn, along with other standard choices. No one has asked for Doritos or even acknowledged that they’re sitting in the pantry. I’m hoping that by making then accessible, they’re no longer so appealing and therefore ancient history.

The Doritos Dilemma: Giving Kids Junk Food 8 May,2008Denise Santoro Lincoln

  • Diane

    I don’t have kids, but I grew up in the 1970’s with a full-throttle health food Mom. I remember the day at age 5 when our twinkies went away. I never was allowed to have any kind of junk food – no chips, no ding dongs. Nada. Yogurt was as decadent as it got.

    And while I remember not being very happy for a while at the time, and using my pocket money to buy candy in my teens, I would say that that regime has made me what I am today – someone who cooks all her food from scratch, who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, and who drinks soda or eats junk food extremely rarely. I don’t think kids need Doritos. They’ll get them at picnics and birthdays anyhow from time to time, and can enjoy them there. They don’t have to have them in their lunches too.

  • I still remember the days where I would take lunchables to elementary school lunch. Cheese, crackers, ham, and a Reese’s cup would make my day. It isn’t the healthiest option, just convenient.

    I admire your concern for your daughters food choices. Its great that you step in and try to guide them to eat healthy. I started late. I used to eat a lot of junk food when I was younger, but I turned myself to eating healthier. Healthy food can be delicious and full of flavor. We just need to guide kids to see the same way. The earlier the better.

  • Ingrid

    We are pretty health-foody, particularly for the Midwest where we live. I grew up in the South and lived on hamburger helper, cheeseburger pie, and fried chicken. So, I really disagree with the commenter that having health-foody parents necessarily makes you who you are. Certainly I found my way without it.

    We have a four-year-old, and tend to have stuff like Doritoes only when we are at a sandwich place that sells them, or occasionally on a road trip. We try to keep junky food like juice boxes, chips, etc. as special occasion food. (Not like Christmas, more like birthday party, or camping). I figure either demonizing or glorifying junk food isn’t the answer.

  • Pingback: Shaping Youth » Childhood Matters: Moms Speak Out On Food and Love()

  • Diane

    Ingrid: I never said having health food parents makes you what you are, or that it’s the only way to discover healthy eating. I said having health food parents made me what I AM. It was a direct influence on me. So one can extrapolate from that or not as one likes to ones own experience, but for me it was a key food influence.

  • I agree with Ingrid. I grew up being allowed to eat — but not overindulge in — cookies, soda, chips, etc. My mother taught us moderation in all things, and while we didn’t have access to all the fresh produce and meat in Minnesota that I now have in California, my mother still managed to cook fairly healthfully and as well as teach us about eating balanced meals.

    I’m glad my mother allowed me to make my own food choices as I grew up rather than forcing anything on me as a child. I eat more healthfully now as an adult than I did as a kid. If I ever have children, I will probably do the same thing. I will not keep chips and Twinkies away from them, but I also won’t let them eat only those kinds of foods. It’s how my mother did it and all three of her daughters grew up healthy and with a good food perspective.

  • kate

    my mum believed in guiding nt instructing us.of course when were were very little we just went along pretty much with what she gave us.i beleive me and my siblings were very fortunate because yes we were allowed snacks at the school tuck shop like crips and chocolate,bt when we were at home we always new we would all sit together and eat a good meal with veggies and other healthy parents both beleive healthy eating means both indulging for pleasure and eating healthy foods for pleasure to,and they also believe healthy eating means sitting together and making it a nice enviroment too.they have both witness family with eating disorders so have never wanted to restrict either side of the healthy/junk food spectrum knowing eating jst healthy healthy food can be jst as unhealthy as all junk food diets.
    i think the dilema is a huge one because the line can be easily crossed on both sides,but you obviously care greatly for there wealthfare and this alone will come through for you i think,knowing your so loved will helpo thenm want to look after themselves too!!
    good luck!!

  • Denise, as I sit here chomping chips (yes, believe it or not, I found these RiceWorks gourmet brown rice salsa fresca crisps at Costco as a knock-off healthier version of your snack pack above) I have to agree that moderation and the ‘switch pitch’ to healthier snacking can keep the ‘forbidden fruit factor’ at bay.

    I learned the hard way with ‘media’ stifling that if I put too much ‘heat’ on an issue it ends up with more power and allure than I could ever give it, so I’m a big fan of ‘swap outs’ for snack attacks and grounded moderation…we even use ’em in our counter-marketing tactics at Shaping Youth.

    This one thankfully does NOT taste like bland cardboard the way some ‘healthier rice derivs’ do, and I’m even served ’em to a wide age range of kidlets w/a 9-layer dip on Memorial Day/BBQ and not a one blinked, they were all ‘dust’ by day’s end (just don’t tell ’em they ate whole grain/wheat & gluten free/vegan stuff!)

    Although one wise one came up and said, ‘Auntie Aim, you NEVER serve chips, what’s the deal?’ And I coyly replied, “meh, everything in moderation, no biggie…”
    😉 Give ’em a go…

  • d

    hi everyone
    i just found this site and love having the bit of san francisco i miss the most at my finger tips, as i now am residing in hong kong.
    My comment is this ..I have an 8 year old son as well as a 6 and 4 year old, and strive to feed them healthy organic diets. My solution for the junk food requests was teaching him online by an independent (read not just mom’s word) food website how to compare foods. He was so shocked to find out that it would take 150 apples to equal one large fries from McDonalds by calories and still not even come close to the fat and salt. Which is something he discovered on his envirokidz cereal boxes to compare. My point is this, teach them how to use the real info/data and they will be so much more impressed. He has not asked for anything such as mcdonalds since that experiment and has as yet never eaten it. I too worry about later when he goes to college and could rebel but I truly believe if your palate has never had that junk, that they will make better decisions based on what tastes good to them and makes them feel good too.

  • Denise Lincoln

    Hi d — I agree that providing information is really the best thing you can do, but in my situation, my daughters (particularly one of them) was yearning for those Doritos, even after she got all the information. The good news is that after eating them a few times, the allure is gone and neither of my daughters has requested them for weeks. I think years of eating fresh food has paid off (hopefully!). Thanks for writing and I hope you’re enjoying Hong Kong.

  • Elva

    Thank you, Denise for sharing your thoughts and your approach. As an Asian kid, in elementary school, my mother used to pack me brown rice with veggies and meat. However, I begged and pleaded for the Lunchables because that’s what the other kids were eating. When my parents finally caved, I remember sitting in the lunchroom, hating the taste of the wet meat in the Lunchables (and secretly wishing for my rice bowl), while also being relieved that I finally “fit in” with the other kids. If eating were an independent activity, many kids and parents would likely make different choices with food. However, given that eating also has such social aspects to it, there will always be an element of comparing oneself to the “Joneses” while in the cafeteria.


Denise Santoro Lincoln

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise’s Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.

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