Most people assume that kids eat healthy food at home, and junk everywhere else. But that’s not the case. 

  • One third of the calories your kids eat at home are empty.
  • One third of the calories your kids eat at school are empty.
  • One third of the calories your kids eat at fast food restaurants are empty.

If your kids are too young to go to school, you can eliminate that source of empty calories, but it doesn’t change the underlying pattern.

I’m not trying to defend fast food restaurants. 

I’m just saying that we shouldn’t lay all (or even most of) the blame for our kids’ bad eating habits at their door—or in their fryers!

Here’s a simple math quiz:

If 1/3 of all the calories your kids consume are empty, and they eat store bought food multiple times per day but they eat fast food only once a week, where do your kids get most of their empty calories?

The answer, of course, is the grocery store.

Even if your kids eat fast food twice or three times a week, the answer is still the grocery store.

Think of it this way: One third of a big pie is bigger than 1/3 of a small pie.

In this case, food eaten at home is the big pie. Food eaten at fast food restaurants is the small pie.

  • 69% of everything your kids eat comes from the grocery store.  This means that…
  • Kids get more of their empty calories, more of their added sugar and more of their solid fat from store-bought foods.

This is good news. It means you can easily change how your kids eat.

You don’t have to picket the local McDonald’s or lobby congress. You just have to shop differently.

You also don’t have to stop going to fast food restaurants. If 1/3 of fast food calories are empty, that means 2/3 are not.

I know this is controversial advice.

It’s easier to “pick on” fast food restaurants than change our parenting habits. Most of us (myself included) enjoy giving our kids sweets and treats.  Read Cookie Love.

Empty calories—sometimes called discretionary calories—add calories but few nutrients.

Soda, cookies, candy are loaded with empty calories. So are fruit drinks. And pizza.

For children aged 2-3, the USDA recommends that discretionary calories stay between 165 and 170 per day. This translates into about 1 treat per day.Read the USDA guidelines.

Shift the quality of food you serve at home to make it healthier and it won’t matter what your kids eat at the fast food restaurant.

Or at school. A birthday party. Or at grandma’s house.

Healthy eating is not about maximizing the nutritional value of every single bite. It’s about getting proportion right.

Proportion=eating healthy foods more frequently than everything else.

In order to implement proportion, however, we have to be honest about what we’re feeding our kids.

For more on this, read:

It’s something to think about.

Maybe even to read about!

I discuss all of these ideas in It’s Not About the Broccoli.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Poti, J. M., M. M. Slining, and B. Popkin. 2013. “Where Are Kids Getting Their Empty Calories? Stores, Schools, and Fast-Food Restaurants Each Played an Important Role in Empty Calorie Intake Among Us Children During 2009-2010.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in press.