Before kids can read or comprehend ingredients lists, show them two items side by side and, together, count the number of ingredients. The more ingredients, the more likely it’s not real food.
A variation on this trick persuaded my daughter to agree to a treat swap: After another parent brought store-bought cupcakes to school last year, I (discreetly) showed Tess the ingredients list, which was so long that the label wrapped around the box. I asked her if she’d rather have that cupcake right then or a baked good after school from the farmers’ market (luckily it was a market day). No hesitation. Market treats are tasty. The market treat won.
(The fact that she was willing — and able — to wait also says something about how often kids eat these kinds of treats even if they’re not hungry.)
To this day, the offer stands. If Tess declines a treat that is clearly something we’d normally skip (obvious food dyes, for instance), we instead make a trip to the market or a small local bakery (sustainable, organic) afterward. It’s entirely her choice. It hasn’t been invoked often, since her school and most of the parents are pretty progressive. But when she’s had the choice, she’s picked the trade. (Smart kid. Good tastebuds.)
Update: A reader asked how we do the treat swap without offending other parents. See my response in the comments below.