Fun Food & The 90:10 Rule

Fun food

In a society that places a high focus on food (both healthy and unhealthy), it’s easy to get mired in the black and white thinking of “good foods, bad foods.” My 90:10 Rule, which helps separate nourishing foods from fun food, will help you sift through the doubt and guilt — and get your “house in order” when it comes to indulgent foods such as sweets and fried foods.

Parents try to  “get food right” for their kids, but it can be confusing for everyone.

What if we changed the language we use? What if we try to label foods in a positive manner, so that kids can grasp what we are trying to teach them without fear and negativity?

Enter the concept of Fun Food.

What is Fun Food?

Fun food are foods that contain high amounts of sugar or fat. They are yummy (and sometimes irresistible), attractive, and very delicious. Warning: they may induce guilt when consumed. Examples are birthday cake, cupcakes, cookies, soda, candy, chips and fried foods.

Fun Food tends to be generous in calories, low in nutrition and naturally alluring (think about those pleasure-seeking taste buds–sweet, salt, and fat).

Parents tell me that Fun food is everywhere, especially in the lives of their children.

I see that parents are weary and fearful of Fun food. For some children, Fun food anchors the diet, appearing too much and shifting the balance to the unhealthy side.

Fun food is no longer just a treat at birthday parties; they make regular appearances at school, church, and at sporting events. 

I am all for tasty, delicious food, but too many Fun foods can get kids into trouble with eating and weight.

If you feel Fun food is invading your child’s diet, you (and your kids) need a rule to live by!

One that can keep the fun in food without ruining anyone’s health.

The 90:10 Rule for Food

The 90:10 Rule is a concept that I developed in my work with families in my practice. I developed it to help families who were working on weight management and healthier eating.

Families found it helpful, easy to understand, and practical to put into place. Bottom line: the 90:10 Rule helps taper the presence and influence of indulgent foods.

Here’s how it goes:

90% of what your child eats during the day is good-for-you, growing food (a balance and variety of foods from the MyPlate guide: lean protein sources, dairy, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains)

10% of what your child eats during the day is Fun Food (desserts, candy, sugary beverages, and fried food such as chips or French fries)

For most healthy kids, a good rule of thumb is to eat 1-2 Fun Foods, on average, each day.

How to Implement the 90:10 Rule

To start using the 90:10 Rule, you’ll want to make sure your child understands which foods fall into the Fun food category and which foods he should be eating most of the time. One factor that makes this rule work well is to allow your child the choice of which Fun Food they will eat.

For example:

Will your child choose the soda at the school play, or the ice cream afterward? Encourage her to choose the Fun Food that is most desirable and meaningful. 

Take a look:

Sally knows that she will have the opportunity to have donuts after church on Sunday, as well as cake and ice cream at the afternoon birthday party she is attending.  Following the 90:10 Rule, she opts for cake and ice cream at the party and skips the donuts at church.  

Brent is playing baseball this afternoon and as tradition has it, he grabs a slushy drink. He passes on the bowl of ice cream later that night, remembering he chose his Fun Food earlier that day

Why Not Restrict Fun Food?

As parents, we know there are endless options for treats, sweets and snacks throughout the day.

Eliminating them is not practical, reasonable or effective. Food restriction is a negative feeding practice, encouraging children to be more responsive to these foods and potentially overeat them when they have the opportunity.

Balancing Fun food with nutritious food is really the key to healthy eating.

I believe kids need to be able to navigate the world of food. Sweets, sugary drinks and fried foods are not going to disappear. They are prominent in our modern world and they will continue to be.

You can’t control them or your child’s eating–you may try, but you’ll soon find that you’re struggling with your child over food.

The Benefits of the 90:10 Rule

Not only does the 90:10 Rule curb the unhealthy foods in your child’s diet, it also empowers her to make choices and self-regulate the amount of less-than-healthy foods she eats.

The goal is to help your child pause and think through what she will eat during the day, and give her an opportunity to think ahead and practice decision-making skills with eating.

This means you are shifting the food decisions over to your child, in the area that may be most difficult for you and her to manage together.

Kids are black and white thinkers, the 90:10 Rule fits in with their thinking. They can identify Fun food quite easily, decide which ones they will have, and make a plan for their most meaningful treats.

I’ve seen kids manage Fun food, and manage it well. 

Have you tried the 90:10 Rule? Go ahead and give it a try!

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  1. I like the 90:10 idea and I have to say that the idea of choosing one thing seems to work. We have done that for a while and now when someone offers my daughter something like a lollipop (a treat that she doesn’t really love), she will say no because she knows that it means she won’t be able to have something she really likes later. I’m wondering what exactly qualifies as part of the 90. The other day we had soup, salad, and plain goldfish crackers. My daughter kept eating the crackers. They certainly aren’t that unhealthy but I don’t know if that could be considered “growing food.” I guess it’s all relative.
    Anyway, I love your blog and am looking forward to the book!

  2. I love using Fun foods for adults….eat myplate during the day and have that FUN beer at night. ONE FUN!
    Even for people like me who are from Milwaukee and worked in a brewery!
    You rock Jill! You rock!

  3. I see what you are getting at. I work with kids myself and I agree that we need to talk to kids in a language that they understand and can connect to. But I still think “fun” and “good” are fairly synonymous.

    Labeling foods that are not good for kids “fun” might not be a 100% win. How about “sometimes” or “party” foods?

    Some people call them “s” foods – because they should be reserved for days that start with an S. Or “treats” is fairly straightforward.

    Just my 2 cents. I struggle with this issue a LOT, and I do not think there is ONE “right” answer about “treats”. For some people – such as those with diabetes or those that can’t stop at one small bowl of ice cream – perhaps they need more of an all or nothing approach and shouldn’t have any treats at all. Others who are extremely active and naturally reach for healthy choices can possibly handle a few more than inactive people, or those that don’t eat many plant-based foods.

    I think what you are doing to provide parents and kids tools for being healthier is great though, keep up the good work.

    Cheers!
    Sara

  4. I think labeling nutrient deficient treats and splurge foods as “fun foods” – does exactly what this article is trying to discourage – labeling foods as good or bad! I think teaching kids to connect to how food make them feel is the best approach. Foods that make our bodies, moods and brains feel terrible, and leads to diseases – exactly how are those “fun?” I think many healthy foods can be made more fun – cutting fruits and veggies into fun shapes, putting them on skewers, making smoothie pops, etc. So in my mind, labeling foods that are devoid of nutrition as “fun” – is exactly the opposite of what we want to do. I am a big fan of the 90/10 rule however – because I think the average kid should be able to enjoy a cupcake at a birthday party, or a bowl of ice cream if they have had a day filled with plenty of foods that are nourishing their bodies. Instead of calling them “fun foods” – the 90/10 rule calls them “splurge” foods. It is kind of like your bank account. You need to pay the mortgage and electricity, but if you have a little left over, you can “splurge” and get something extra from time to time. Lets strive to make healthy foods fun! And teach kids to listen to their bodies so they know what foods make them feel and function better.
    – Sara, Clinical Nutritionist, http://www.rebalancelife.com

    1. Thanks Sara, for your thoughts. I definitely see your points and agree that we should make healthy foods more fun. However, when working with children, for some reason, they really “get” the fun food concept…and are able to use and implement this guideline. Maybe it just speaks to their level? The word “fun” is intended to eliminate the “good vs bad” stigma–and kids can relate to fun…more-so than “splurge.” Thanks for weighing in.

  5. Jill – With two two-year-olds, I have found that creating a working vocabulary is really important! I am going to add FUN FOODS to ours.

    We call our 90% foods our “always” foods — the ones you want to eat often, that help you grow, that are always in our house, on our plates, etc. Adding the FUN FOODS to this will round out our terms! Thanks!

    And Elisa – I agree, making our always foods fun and tasty is the goal!

    1. Thanks for your comments, LeAnne! Yes, we use “growing foods” for “always” foods…and “healthy foods” and “not-so-healthy” foods…and on and on. I think it’s important to give kids lots of tools to identify foods–because just like there are different ways to learn, some words “click” with kids and some don’t.
      The important point is that there is room for everything, and everything has its place (and time).

  6. Nice post, Jill! And while I like and appreciate the concept of fun foods, I hope it doesn’t imply that healthful foods can’t also be fun and enjoyed–popcorn, fruit kebobs, frozen grapes etc. In my own home, fun foods are referred to as treats or desserts and foods that for into the healthy food groups are snacks. Whatever you call it, I think 90:10 is a terrific ratio and support any ideas to help parents guide and empower kids when they make food choices. 🙂

    1. Yes, I agree that healthful foods are fun too! This is a classification system that I believe is more positive than the usual “good food, bad food” and works well with kids–they can really get this concept and use it. Thanks for your perspective! 🙂

  7. What a great post! I love the phrase “Fun Foods”! I agree that it is so important how we label foods to kids at a young age. I remember as a kid given “Fun Foods” as a dessert if we ate our dinner. I know now they encourage parents not to use Fun Foods as a treat so that it isn’t valued higher than healthy foods.

    I’m glad that I found your blog! Can’t wait to read more!

  8. Great post Jill! My 18 month old son goes to home day care during the day, where he typically gets one or two FUN FOODS (chocolate chip cookies are his favorite!). Rather than prevent our care provider from allowing him these occasional goodies, I simply just scale back on offering FUN FOODS once we get home. That way, he gets to enjoy what the other kids are having during the day while still getting the right amount of important “growing foods” that he needs. As a parent I really appreciate this balanced perspective…thanks!