The Doritos Dilemma: Giving Kids Junk Food

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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).

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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?

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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.

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