We’ve covered a lot in our managing sweets series — the culture of eating, how kids become sweets-obsessed, real-life success stories and the science of sugar.
Yet despite all this information, the reality is managing sweets in an overly-sweet world is challenging, to say the least. But with the right strategies and mindset, it is possible to have the best of both worlds without compromising health.
So we are ending this series with 10 positive things you can do to raise children who have a healthy relationship with sweets.
Part 1: Lower Your Child’s Sweet Threshold.
1. Reconsider sugar-sweetened beverages: The 20% increase in sugar over the past 40 years is primarily due to sugar-sweetened beverages. Yes, soda is one of them but so are energy drinks, juice drinks and coffee drinks (See this post for the difference between juice drinks and 100% juice).
To give you an idea of the added sugars in sweetened beverages (each teaspoon of sugar contains 5g of sugar) consider this: one tall Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks contains 35g of sugar (some of it natural sugar from milk), a 12 oz can of soda has 39g of sugar and natural drinks like Capri Sun and Honest Kids have 15g and 10g respectively.
One of the downsides to liquid calories is that the body doesn’t register them the same way it does solid calories. In a 2000 study published in the International Journal of Obesity two groups of young people were given an extra 450 calories from either liquids or solids (jelly beans). While the jelly bean group compensated by eating less, the liquid-calorie group not only ate more food but also gained weight.
2. See how low you can go: I regret the day I gave my daughter sweetened yogurt because the next time I served her plain she refused. When possible, keep your child on everyday foods that are as close to natural as possible — saving the sweets for “desserty” type foods.
But as I mentioned in my last post, adding sugar to nutrient-dense foods can improve the diet quality of children. So experiment with different products and recipes that offer maximum taste with as little added sugars as possible. Some parents will add a little chocolate syrup to their child’s milk or honey to plain yogurt.
3. Spoil your child’s palate: No doubt your child will be faced with lots of overly-processed sweet foods throughout their life. But at home, you can up the ante by thinking twice about bringing these foods in your home and, instead, provide homemade desserts, wholesome treats and dark chocolate (my personal favorite).
The idea is for kids to appreciate, and even become picky about the kind of sweets they enjoy. I know that this has happened to me over the years. If after one bite I don’t truly enjoy something sweet, I don’t continue. And knowing I have to make my own chocolate chip cookies to truly be satisfied means it doesn’t happen as often.
Part 2: Level the food playing field
4. Stay neutral when it comes to sweets: While it’s not always possible to stay totally calm when it comes to kids and sweets, try your best to stay neutral and matter-of-fact. Here are examples of non-neutral vs. neutral behavior:
Non-neutral: A 3-year old brings a bag of candy home from Valentine’s Day. The parent takes it and puts it on the counter. In the morning the parent finds the child with the stash eating like crazy and yells: “What are you doing? You don’t eat candy without asking!!? The parent takes it away and says they can’t have anymore. The child is crying and yelling: “I want my candy!”
Neutral: Same scenario as above but instead of reacting the parent informs the kid (in a calm voice) that there is a time and a place for candy but it is not before breakfast. The parent gently plies the bag from the kid’s hands and lets them know they will get some for snack time later.
5. Serve dessert with dinner: “The most helpful advice I’ve found is often the hardest for families, and that is to serve a child-sized portion of dessert WITH the meal, but no seconds on dessert. ” says feeding expert Dr. Katja Rowell from The Feeding Doctor. “It really does neutralize it, and also puts all the food on a level playing field.”
Rowell explains that kids are likely to eat dessert first for a while but they eventually learn to enjoy and tune in to the entire meal without obsessing or fretting about what they have to eat, or how many bites will earn dessert. “There is data to suggest that bribing kids with dessert makes them less likely to enjoy new foods, and that’s certainly what I’ve seen.”
One of our readers wrote in with her success with this strategy: “I have noticed that if I go ahead and add a small sweet to their dinner plates, both of my girls will eat a more balanced meal instead of ‘holding out’ for dessert,” says Ramona, a mom of two young girls.
6. Assure kids they can have more another time: According to a 2002 study published in Abnormal Psychology, restrained eaters who were told they were going to be on a diet soon ate significantly more food than those in the non-diet group.
Children who feel deprived feel this way too. When they aren’t sure when they’ll get sweets again, they often eat past the point of satisfaction. It’s the get-it-while-you-can phenomenon and is likely one of the reasons dieting is associated with weight gain over time.
The solution is surprisingly simple: remind kids they’ll have sweets again at a future date — and follow through with regular offerings in and outside the home.
Here are some examples:
Can I have cake, mama? We usually have cake at birthday parties, the next one is Sarah’s coming soon.
Can I have a cookie? Let’s have them for a snack next week. Good idea!
Can I have ice cream (after dinner): You know, we had something sweet already today. Let’s have ice cream another night.
7. Let them take the lead sometimes: I made chocolate cookies the other day and offered them at snack time — at the table. My daughter ate two cookies and then said “more cookies please.” I gave her one more cookie and after she finished she declared she was done and that she “could have more another time.”
In addition to assuring kids they will get sweets again, letting them have times they can eat until they are satisfied is important. Feeding expert Ellyn Satter stresses this in her books as a way to avoid scarcity with eating and I have incorporated it into my feeding routine.
This is very different from allowing kids to eat sweets whenever they want. Instead, ask them to sit at the table, be present with food, and eat until they are satisfied. Kids that feel deprived may eat past the point of satisfaction for a while but once they realize the treat is no longer scarce they’ll enjoy the food without feeling like they need to get it while they can.
Part 3: Teach children how to eat sweets in the real world
8. Talk frequency instead of good and bad: For younger children, teaching them that there are some foods we eat more often than others works well. Angela Lemond, RD, certified pediatric dietitian who blogs over at Mommy Dietitian, explains.
“Instead of demonizing foods as “bad,” parents can explain to their children that high sugar, low nutrient foods are supposed to enjoyed only “sometimes” because they contain no lasting “superpowers” that will help them (insert child’s favorite past time),” she says. “Fill the house with healthier foods that are naturally sweet such as fresh, ripe fruit that is easy to grab and eat.”
9. Teach older kids the 90/10 rule: Jill Castle, MS, RD, pediatric nutrition specialist who blogs over at The Nourished Child uses “the 90/10 rule” with her clients. She teaches families that 90% of what kids eat in a day is good-for-you, growing foods (MyPyramid foods) and the other 10% are Fun Foods (sweets, “junk food” like chips/high fat, high sugary foods, soda, etc). She says that for most kids, this ends up being about 100-200 calories per day or 1-2 Fun Foods.
“The great thing is that the child can understand this concept, and I always make sure to tell them (and the parent) that they are in charge of choosing WHICH food will be their fun food, ” Castle says. “Then we role play different scenarios, like school, church, parties….this helps the child get ready to make decisions in the real world.”
10. Help them make the hunger connection: While parents often offer meals and snacks at certain intervals at home, the real world has food available 24/7. Teaching kids they don’t need to eat simply because the food is there, like chips at the soccer game, is a valuable lesson.
“When I’m talking to kids about hunger/fullness and dessert I always try to teach them that desserts aren’t “bad” but many times we eat dessert when we’re not hungry, after we’ve just finished a meal,” says Katie Mulligan, MS, RD, practicing pediatric dietitian who blogs over at Nurturing Nutrition. “I teach kids that they can have cake, but instead of eating it right after dinner when your belly is full, how about waiting a few hours until you’re actually hungry or even have it the next day when you’re truly hungry for it?”
The missing link
I’ve been reading this book called, “Becoming the Parent You Want to Be.” What the authors said in the chapter on kids and discipline struck a chord with me:
When children have been helped to make decisions based on empathy, understanding and their own critical thinking skills rather than on just what the “rule” says, they have a skill they can use in a multitude of different situations and carry with them for the rest of their lives
I feel this way about sweets and other fun foods — we need to teach kids (and ourselves) the skills needed to balance all foods in the diet — not just healthy ones. And we have to resist the temptation to teach kids the opposite: that they can’t be trusted around those foods (needless to say I’m not for banning sweets in schools).
And Rowell reminded me that “Kids will be kids, and they have sweeter tastes than ours, so some whining, even if everything is going well is normal.” Lemond also points out that,”kids are in the rapid growth phase and that’s why they crave sweets.”
I wish there was one proven way to manage sweets with growing kids but that isn’t the reality. But hopefully, this series has got you thinking of new and effective ways to handle the sweet stuff at home and in the real world.
Want more research-based strategies on raising a child with a healthy relationship with sweets? check out my book, How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food.