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by Your Child Nutrition Expert Jill Castle

Fun Food & The 90:10 Rule

April 20, 2011 | In: Child Nutrition, Feeding Kids, Healthy Meals

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”. Parents easily fall into this trap while they are in the midst of  “getting food right” for their kids. And boy, does the job of “getting food right” get 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?

Fun Foods taste good but need limits.

Enter the concept of FUN FOOD.

FUN FOODS are foods that are yummy (and sometimes irresistible), usually due to their sweet, fatty and/or salty taste.

Examples are birthday cake, cupcakes, cookies, soda, candy, chips and fried foods. FUN FOODS tend 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 FOODS are everywhere, and they fear that FUN FOODS are becoming a mainstay in their kids’ diets. No longer just a treat at birthday parties, FUN FOODS are making regular appearances at school, church, and sporting events. While I am all for fun, too many FUN FOODS can get some kiddos into trouble.

Do you ever feel that FUN FOODS are invading your child’s daily plate?

If you answered ‘yes’, then you (and your kids) need a rule to live by! One that can keep the fun in food without ruining anyone’s health.

Enter the 90:10 RULE, a concept that many families find useful in tapering the influence of FUN FOODS.

It goes like this:

90% of what kids eat during the day is good-for-you, growing food (a balance and variety of foods from the MyPyramid guide: lean protein sources, dairy, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains)— and the other 10% is FUN FOOD.

For most healthy kids, a good rule of thumb is to eat no more than 1-2 FUN FOODS each day. Kids can understand this concept—and the best part– allowing kids to choose which FUN FOOD they will eat. 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.  Good choice, Sally!

     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. Home run, Brent!

The 90:10 RULE encourages kids to make choices and set limits on the amount of less-than-healthy foods they eat. It helps them pause and think through what they will eat during the day, and gives them an opportunity to think ahead and practice decision-making skills with eating.

As parents, we know there are endless options for FUN FOODS throughout the day. Eliminating FUN FOODS all together is a recipe for mutiny. Balancing FUN FOODs with GROWING FOODs is really the key to successful, healthy eating.

And kids need to be able to navigate the world of food.  Among the vast variety of FUN FOODS, the 90:10 RULE is a rule to live by for kids. It allows them to be in charge of choosing the FUN FOOD which is most important to them. And it helps them to set their own limits while learning to balance their eating.

For parents who want to know more about the role they can play in managing their kid’s sweets, check out the advice over at Raise Healthy Eaters.

What guidelines do you use to put a positive twist on managing FUN FOODS?

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19 Responses to Fun Food & The 90:10 Rule


Ashley Rosales, RD

April 20th, 2011 at 10:12 am

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!


Jen @ What's on Jen's Plate?

April 20th, 2011 at 12:56 pm

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!



April 20th, 2011 at 2:39 pm

I am glad you found it too! Welcome to the field of pediatric nutrition also…you are entering at a wonderful time!



April 20th, 2011 at 2:39 pm

You’re welcome! Sounds like you have the balancing act down already!



April 22nd, 2011 at 6:47 pm

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. :)



April 23rd, 2011 at 7:25 am

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! :)



April 26th, 2011 at 12:21 pm

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!



April 26th, 2011 at 12:54 pm

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).


The 7 Habits of Healthy Kids « Just The Right Byte

June 1st, 2011 at 6:01 am

[...] “fun foods” in moderation. There are endless opportunities for fun foods like sweets, soda, and fried foods. [...]


Rate MyPlate: the New Food Guide Icon for Americans « Just The Right Byte

June 8th, 2011 at 5:48 am

[...] still be teaching portion awareness, the 90:10 Rule, balance, variety, good fats vs. not-so-good fats, and of course the new MyPlate [...]


Sara Vance

August 6th, 2011 at 4:36 pm

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,



August 7th, 2011 at 10:03 pm

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.


Sara Vance

August 8th, 2011 at 6:04 pm

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.



Chere Bork

November 3rd, 2011 at 5:10 pm

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!



November 3rd, 2011 at 9:11 pm

I hear ya, friend! Whatever language works, eh?!


  3 Parent Tips for Down-Sizing Processed Foods by Just the Right Byte

March 28th, 2012 at 8:36 am

[...] regular diet, try adjusting your purchases and eating habits to skew to healthier foods. Use the 90:10 Rule–try to aim for 90% of your child’s daily intake to come from healthy, [...]



April 11th, 2012 at 8:31 pm

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!


  11 Things Parents Do Wrong with Kid’s Nutrition by Just the Right Byte

January 14th, 2014 at 12:01 pm

[...] Don’t tie sweets and other tasty foods to what or how much your child eats. Balance sweets everyday and make eating a non-condition for enjoying [...]


  10 Reasons Your Child Wants to Eat by Just the Right Byte

March 4th, 2014 at 10:09 am

[...] amounts into the diet, emphasizing that these are treats for occasional eating. I encourage a balance of 90% nutritious, wholesome foods and 10% sweets or junky [...]

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