Want to improve your family’s diet? Instead of buying the mediocre commercial products, make junk food yourself — at home, for cheaper.
I’ve always been a DIY kind of girl. At some points in life it was to have a sense of accomplishment, but more often than not, it’s been a matter of dollars and sense.
In high school I asked my mom to teach me to sew so that I could make some of my clothes. Back then, a yard of fabric could easily be had for about three bucks, making it an absolute bargain for me to sew a skirt or a pair of shorts. I was responsible for buying my own clothes, so I needed to make my pennies stretch.
Overtime, I applied the same philosophy to my housekeeping habits: it’s cheaper to do our own home repairs, change the oil in our cars ourselves, forego a maid, and of course, cook our meals at home from scratch.
Why should you make junk food yourself?
DIY is a great way to save money, but it’s also a good way to make improvements to the way you do things. Whether it’s clothing, home improvements, car maintenance, or food, you can afford an upgrade if you can do the work yourself.
When it comes to improving one’s diet, DIY can be a huge motivator as well as a built-in control.
You’ve heard me talk about some of the books that have shaped my thinking on food. One quote that I have been reminded of recently was that of Michael Pollen:
Eat all the junk food you want as long as you make it yourself.
This philosophy carries weight with me for many reasons: homemade is typically healthier and cheaper, but it also requires that you want it bad enough.
You see, homemade takes more effort and motivation than driving your car to the grocery store for a bag of caramel corn or a box of chocolate.
Making your treats and other junk food requires planning and effort, making it just a little bit less likely to show up on your table with great frequency and thereby, putting it in its proper place.
Many of these junk foods were designed to be occasional treats, not daily fare! In the book Salt, Sugar, Fat, author Michael Moss interviews a number of food scientists and product developers. One man is quoted as saying this is how he assuages his guilt for creating whatever-junky-fake-food-thing-he-created: it wasn’t intended to be eaten every day. As a nation, we have made bulk consumption of snack foods and treats a regular hobby, and our health is paying the price.
Pollan’s theory, as I understand it, is that if you had to make potato chips or fried chicken at home every time you had potato chips or fried chicken, you’d probably eat those things a lot less often than you do now. I’d like to argue that they’d probably be a bit healthier, too, because they’d be made from ingredients that you buy at the store instead of commercial Frankenfood.
If you make “junk food” yourself, it will be:
- potentially cheaper
- consumed less frequently
- a more special experience for your family
What can you make yourself?
A few years ago I set the goal of blogging 31 days of convenience foods over on Good Cheap Eats. I was surprised not only by how fun it was to make these things myself, but also how incredibly easy it was to recreate some of our favorite “junk foods” at home.
Consider these “junk food” items you can make yourself:
- Cheddar crackers (like Cheezits)
- Fried chicken sandwiches
- Cranberry soda
- Caramel corn
- Chocolate pudding
- Sports drinks
- Soft pretzels
- Fish tacos
- French fries
- Sweet potato fries
- Ice Cream
- Chocolate shell topping for ice cream
These all sound pretty junky, don’t they? When eaten in moderation and in the homemade variety, they are great fun food to share with your family.
Whatever junk food is your “weakness”, my guess is that you could make it yourself at home. If you find that it’s too hard or cumbersome to do so, if you tell yourself that you can’t have it unless you DO make it yourself, you’ll have a built-in mechanism to help you break the habit.
Make Junk Food Yourself and Make It Healthier
Not only do you have the built in control of eating junk food less frequently, but you also have the opportunity to make it healthier. This is vital for folks with allergies and food intolerances, but it’s also important for the rest of us.
I’ve done enough food reading to know that commercially prepared foods have a lot of “extras” thrown in that we’d be better off avoiding: preservatives, artificial colors, flavorings, etc.
My heart is with homemade which already is a cut above the rest in terms of taste and quality of ingredients. You can stretch the benefits of homemade even further by making things just a tad bit healthier.
Use whole grains instead of white flour. I use all whole wheat pastry flour in my quick breads and pastry. My family hasn’t noticed a difference! It may be that they are adjusting to the flavor, but it really hasn’t been that hard.
We’ve been making that pizza above with half white whole wheat flour for several months now and no one notices!
Use a natural sweetener. Once a sugar junky (Goodbye, daily Coca Colas!), I’ve now drastically reduced the amount of sugar I consume. For my family, I’ve instigated a move away from processed sugars. Whenever possible we use agave nectar, honey, maple, or fruit for our sweet treats.
Use a healthier oil. If you’re going to make a fried food, consider using a healthier oil, like coconut or avocado, for frying. Fats are tricky to navigate since there is so much conflicting information out there. My philosophy is that butter is better than margarine and I choose sunflower and olive oil over canola or other vegetable oils.
(Check the label on your “vegetable oil”. Chances are it contains soy, which I prefer to stay away from.)
Go organic. Organic food is not only free from pesticides and other chemicals, but in some cases can be higher in nutrition than it’s conventional counterparts. It makes sense to use organic whenever the budget allows
There are plenty of organic processed food manufacturers out there. Typically, they command a pretty high price for their products. You can make the equivalent at home much more cheaply because you’re willing to do some of the work.
How can you make it fun?
FishBoy12 really likes his junky snacks. He gets motivated to work hard by the idea of soda and a bag of chips. That goes hard for a mom who wants to obliterate the fake food from his diet.
Overtime, though, my kids’ tastes have changed. Nowadays the kids are more liable to comment how sick they feel after eating junk food. One day my junk food junkie went so far as to say, “I don’t think I like junk food anymore. But, I’m sad because I have such good memories of it.”
We tend to link fun experiences with fun food so that even if the Dodger Dog wasn’t all that tasty, it’s paired with the experience of going to Dodger Stadium with your dad. The lines between experience and the actual food become blurred. This is why Happy Meals are so popular!
As you develop a repertoire of “homemade junk food recipes”, consider how to make the experience a little more lively:
- serve it in colorful baskets, plates, or bowls
- let the kids help you make it
- take a little effort to garnish the dish (ie add lime slices to the basket of fish tacos)
- make mini pizzas and let each diner decorate his own
- assemble a variety of sauces to go with the homemade french fries, hot dogs, or soft pretzels
- use small dishes for serving
- add a straw
- cut sandwiches, brownies, or cookies into fun shapes
Those junky little toys that come with the kids meal that you pick up fifty-two times before you finally throw them away? They add a fun factor to the meal. It’s not necessary for good nutrition, but novelty is good for the soul.
Add a little whimsy to your meal every once in awhile to keep things fun and lively.
You still can’t eat it every day.
So, even though I’ve made a very compelling argument to get busy in the kitchen, it comes with one caution: you still can’t eat caramel corn or chocolate cake every day — even if it’s homemade.
By their very nature, “junk foods” are pretty high in salt, sugar, or fat and typically low on the whole grains and vegetables. It wouldn’t be called junk food otherwise. Eat these treats in moderation, but know that you’re doing so with a slightly healthier bent and a built-in mechanism for self-control.
Do YOU make junk food yourself?
This post is part of a larger series on how to improve your family’s diet.
Next up: how to get your family to eat less sugar.
Originally published March 5, 2014. Updated September 3, 2016.