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Why Do We Teach Our Kids to Celebrate Special Occasions with Junk Food?

Photo of a group of teenage friends having fast food

My daughter is twelve years old, and like most kids her age, she loves junk food. It’s frustrating, because we generally eat very healthy meals. She’s even vegetarian 99% of the time. We rarely have anything at home that would qualify as junk food beyond the occasional pint of ice cream in the freezer or made-from-scratch baked goods like oatmeal cookies (and yes, usually with chocolate chips).

If that were the extent of it, I might almost convince myself that I don’t need to do anything about it. But I’m also pretty quick to take her out for an ice cream cone at the drop of a hat. She never comes right out and asks for things like that, but it’s easy for me to do it when I sense she could use a little pick-me-up.

When I get frustrated about her exposure to junk food, I want to blame something or anything other than myself. If I’m honest, however, I have to recognize that my daughter’s relationship to junk food is largely determined by the example set by her mother and me. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

But I’m not going to shoulder all the blame. After all, there’s a whole societal context that goes into shaping your relationship with junk food.

Photo of a happy group of children blowing candles on cake at birthday party

Why Do Celebrations Call for Unhealthy Foods?

Have you noticed how so many different kinds of celebrations seem to involve consuming junk food? Here’s what I notice in my own daughter’s life:

Birthday parties. It’s one thing to have a birthday cake, but then there’s often ice cream and a dozen other kinds of junk food thrown in for good measure.

Halloween. This is a tough one, because Halloween is one of my daughter’s favorite times of year— and she still wants to dress up and go trick-or-treating at the ripe old age of twelve. The result is always an impressively large pile of junk food, along with the occasional healthy snack thrown in by a few brave souls willing to buck the typical approach to Halloween.

Christmas. I think it would be hard for most kids to get their brains around Christmas celebrations that didn’t involve lots of cookies and chocolates and other junk food.

Rewards. When I was a kid, every time a report card came in with good grades, we were rewarded with a trip to McDonald’s. I don’t do that with my daughter, but junk food as a reward is still very much alive and kicking in many families today.

Church. After the service at the church we attend, there’s a fellowship hour that includes snacks and beverages. I’d say a good 75% of the snacks qualify as junk food. So much for the notion of treating our bodies like sacred temples!


Affection. It’s disturbing how often people show love and affection for others by bringing out the junk food. I know because I even do it myself.

Other celebrations. When you think about it, it’s pretty rare when a celebration of any kind doesn’t involve junk food!

As it turns out, junk food comes into play way more than just during the occasional celebration. Pretty much any time you want to make yourself or other people happy and feel good, it seems junk food has to be involved. But there are ways to celebrate while staying healthy, which is something I want to do better at in my own life.

Photo of children play with colorful paper boats in a small river on a sunny spring day

Celebrate While Staying Healthy

The good news is that if you can manage to put junk food out of your mind, you can dream up all kinds of things that are fun to do at celebrations. In fact, if you make a celebration fun enough, people might not even notice the lack of junk food!

My daughter’s 10th birthday party stands out in my mind in this regard. It was December in New Hampshire, so it was cold and there was a lot of snow on the ground. It was a two-hour party, and we never even set foot inside the house. The entire party was outside.

We played all kinds of crazy fun games in the woods, then everyone learned how to handle a bow and arrow, and we had a bonfire going the whole time. They were having so much fun that they weren’t even thinking about all the usual birthday junk food.

The thing I’m trying to keep in mind these days is this: when I want to have a good time with my daughter, whether to celebrate a holiday, an achievement, or just to show her how much I love her, it’s always better to do something rather than eat something. If you’re going to eat something, make it as healthy as possible.

But this doesn’t mean it can’t be fun as well. Let’s face it— if you whip out carrot and celery sticks at a birthday party, the kids attending are going to be disappointed. Here are just a couple ideas for fun and healthy celebratory snacks that are just as yummy as any junk food:

Photo of chocolate earthballs candy

Chocolate Earth Balls. I was at an event where these were served and fell deeply in love with them at first bite. My daughter had to physically pull me away from the table or I would have eaten all of them! After the event, I searched the Internet and found the recipe at Whole Foods. I love that it doesn’t even involve any baking. The ingredients are very simple:

  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 2 teaspoons carob powder or unsweetened organic cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, divided
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips (gluten-free if needed)
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc.)

Combine the peanut butter, honey, and carob (or cocoa) powder and mix well. Add in the raisins and two tablespoons of the shredded coconut. Stir in chocolate chips. Refrigerate for a couple hours. Put the remaining coconut, sesame seeds, and nuts into separate bowls. Use a spoon to take small amounts of the peanut mixture and roll into balls around 1.25 inches in diameter.

Start with a rough ball, then roll it in the coconut bowl, and then continue rolling into a more evenly round shape. Roll it again in the coconut bowl and then in sesame seeds and chopped nuts. Put them on a platter with a loose covering and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Frozen Yogurt Pops. These are as close to ice cream as you ever need to get, and they won’t have any of the added sugar, artificial colors, or preservatives found in most store-bought popsicles. The variations you can come up with are endless. Just take natural yogurt, the fresh fruit (or fruit juice) of your choice, and a little honey, whip it all up in your blender or food processor for less than a minute, then pour it into leftover small yogurt cups, insert popsicle sticks, and keep in your freezer until nice and solid (usually at least 4 hours).

Photo of group of kids running in the dandelion spring field


Yes, I do wish junk food didn’t taste so darn good. It would be so much easier to avoid, right? But if we want our children to have a good relationship with healthy food, we have to break the cycle that links junk food to celebrations, happiness, and good feelings. When that relationship has been forged over a lifetime of examples and influences, breaking the link seems impossible. That’s when I remind myself what’s at stake— the long-term health of my child. And nothing is more important than that.