There is no right or wrong way to handle sweets and other non-nutritious items in a family’s diet. While research gives us some clues, it does not spell out exactly how to raise kids to have a healthy relationship with food. I hope that by explaining the research, interviewing experts and presenting real-life stories, I can help you decide what is best for your family.
You can get all the tips in the world but nothing explains the application of advice better than the people who are practicing it. So here are some real-life strategies for teaching moderation by helping kids manage sweets.
Strategy #1: Guide Children Instead of Controlling
Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and author of Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time. She has three boys, two over the age of 18 (20 and 23). Her older children who are on their own eat well, plan and prepare well-balanced meals and are not obsessed with sweets.
“I believed in guiding my kids to think independently about food from day one,” she said. “If you don’t teach your children to make healthy decisions regarding food then they won’t be prepared for being an independent adult.”
After being in private practice for three decades, Bonnie has observed that the children of parents who micromanage every morsel of food that goes into their mouths are the first kids to trade lunches and snacks with their friends at school and raid their friends’ candy-cabinets at play dates.
Instead, she said, “It pays to be realistic.” Something she describes as “compromising without feeling compromised.”
She always tried to have her kids understand where she’s coming from instead of presenting things as black and white. And sometimes she used subtlety.
For example, Bonnie always took her kids food shopping. One time her son really wanted to try chocolate doughnuts — and was even polite about it, yelling “Please!” She agreed saying, “okay, let’s get them.” Everyone in her house loved these doughnuts. She found an article on the not-so-good nutrition aspects of the doughnuts and left it out on the counter. Her son was like, “Mom how could you let us eat them?”
She never made a big deal about sweet treats and her kids often enjoyed them in the afternoon instead of after dinner. Her philosophy about sweets: “If you don’t make it glitter, it won’t be perceived that way.”
Strategy #2: Don’t Make Sweets the Enemy
When Andy Bellatti of Small Bites sent a tweet thanking his parents for riding out his French fry stage at restaurants, I knew I had to talk to him. Andy Bellatti has his masters in nutrition and is a pescetarian (vegetarian that eats fish). But he was a kid once and did kid things — like enjoy French fries.
So every couple of weeks when his family went out to dinner he’d order fries. Instead of stopping him or getting him to order something “healthy,” his parents road out the wave. They offered him other food so in addition to his meal he’d take bites of this or that. His French fry fetish went on for two years before it lost its appeal.
“My parents were very relaxed about eating,” he said. “They never projected any food issues or anxieties on me and I never felt denied of any food.”
His parents decided to spend their energy on what counted the most. Andy says his family ate home cooked dinners most nights with items mostly made from scratch. Because of his mom’s cooking, he has a great appreciation for Mediterranean foods — seafood, legumes, fresh produce, and olive oil. They also had sweets in the house and went out for ice cream once a week.
When he went away to college — where other kids had trouble with their newfound food freedom — he became interested in health and decided to make a career out of it.
Strategy #3: Teach Kids to Savor It
Emily Webel lives on a farm with her husband and three girls ages 15 months, 3 and 5. She follows the feeding philosophy of her 96-year old grandmother.
“She basically taught my mom and her brothers to eat a wide variety of foods, and always enjoy them,” she says. “Lunch was their big meal of the day which included a meat dish (beef, pork, chicken or fish), some starch (potatoes/bread), a green vegetable, a fruit, and then a small dessert.”
Her mother continued that tradition with her meals but as a working mom could only do so much — so they had dinner together every night and sweets in moderation were part of it. Emily grew up with a healthy relationship with sweets and never felt guilty for eating them.
“My kids eat until they are full, regardless of whether or not the plate is clear, and then we have a small-ish serving of sweet stuff,” she says. “They rarely ask for more, as we talk about enjoying the sweet treat, and savoring it, rather than scarfing it.”
Emily doesn’t want her kids to ever feel as if they have to hide the fact that they like chocolate. She believes too many kids feel ashamed and end up eating three candy bars in one sitting because they don’t know how to truly enjoy it in small, manageable “doses.”
Strategy #4: Create a Flexible Sweets Policy
In my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater, I discuss how we handle sweets at home:
In our family, we have a flexible once-a-day policy. We typically enjoy sweets like dark chocolate, baked goods, and ice cream daily, although on weekends it can be more and other days none. At parties and snack time, kids are free to eat as much as they want as long as they stay at the table. When dessert is after dinner, sometimes the amount is limited if it’s close to bedtime. Now that my kids are getting older (seven and ten), more often than not, they stop on their own. Some families may opt to offer sweets less often, and this can work out fine, too.
So talk with your kids and come up with a regular sweet offering that everyone can feel comfortable with. This helps because kids understand when they can expect sweets, making them okay with the times you say no.
Trying to fight a kid’s natural tendency to love sweets is battle very few parents will win. But these examples show us that we can guide children to make good decisions, focus on the foundations of a balanced diet at home, and teach children to enjoy and savor sweets as a sensible part of their diet.
Post updated 4/2020
Want more advice and stories on teaching kids moderation? Check out Maryann’s Book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with food.