Nearly two months after my daughter Sammi’s surgery, we visited her pediatrician for a checkup. Sammi was eight and had been struggling to consume enough calories for years. Eating had been an excruciatingly slow task, and sometimes she refused certain textured foods altogether. Doctors had prescribed elimination diets and medications to treat possible acid reflux or protein intolerance. It turned out Sammi had a kink in her esophagus, causing food to get trapped after each swallow; an operation helped untangle it. Now, for the first time in her life, she was free to eat whatever she wanted.

In the examining room, we got the post-surgery all-clear from the doctor. Before leaving she advised that Sammi put on a few pounds.

“However you want to do it,” she said. “Let it be junk food for now if that works.”

That wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Sammi’s favorite foods were raspberries and watermelon not cupcakes or pizza. While most parents would be thrilled about these “healthy” preferences, fresh fruits weren’t going to help Sammi put on those missing pounds. I knew I’d need to relax my ideas about what constituted healthy food for a while. But I never imagined how embracing “junk” might change our family for the better.

While I wouldn’t describe myself as a “natural foods only” parent, I’ve always encouraged healthy eating habits—without vilifying carbs, fat, or even sugary cereals. In fact, the nutritional balance I’d managed to create was partly thrust upon me by the exceedingly restrictive diets doctors had prescribed for Sammi over the years. We’d always eaten whatever Sammi did, so I’d learned to cook for four without dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, and wheat during one phase and without fat for another. Dishes I’d learned to make out of necessity became family favorites: pan-seared brussels sprouts with garlic; crunchy tostadas with refried black beans; warm baked lentils with sweet potatoes. But cooking everything from scratch became exhausting. Any time I found a packaged or processed food that fit Sammi’s needs, I was relieved. Though these weren’t really adding much vitamin content, I learned that Sammi needed more than pure nutrition. When she couldn’t eat whole wheat crackers or trail mix, plain potato chips made her feel less left out at snack time. When milk was forbidden, neon ice pops allowed her to enjoy the ice cream truck with friends at the beach. I didn’t hesitate to include these snacks in her diet because they helped her feel less isolated.

Now that she was done healing from surgery, calorie-dense, high-fat “junk foods” were our best bet to help Sammi gain weight. I was willing, as always, to do whatever it took, but I worried about demonizing any food by calling it “junk.” I’d always taught my daughters that we ate both for fuel and joy. Anyone who saw my kitchen—always stocked with beautiful local produce and salty tortilla chips—knew balance was important to me.

After Sammi’s appointment with the pediatrician, a supermarket display of Oreos caught my eye. I’d eaten them only a few times as a child; my mother seldom purchased store-bought cookies (they were to her, of course, “junk”). As an enthusiastic baker, I rarely felt the need to buy them either. But something about these Oreos, with their bright blue packaging and pink-bordered font announcing twice the filling, piqued my curiosity. When I flipped the package over, I saw the nutritional information reflected a good choice for us then: a lot of calories packed into a bite full of sugar and fat.

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