The holidays are upon us once again and this means its the season of sugar. I often receive questions from families on how often dessert (candy/sugar/treats) is ok or if the whole family should have rules and limits. On the whole, I discourage families from putting a tight restriction on dessert and treating it as a forbidden food. Research shows that the more attention we give to dessert, the more fixated a child will become, (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). This can result in sneaking and ultimately consuming more and it can cause a child to internalize guilt as they start to associate with it as a forbidden food. Ellyn Satter, dietitian and feeding specialist recommends a portion of dessert to be served with the meal to level the playing field with other foods. The child has the freedom to eat it whenever they choose during the meal. She also encourages parents to occasionally allow their child to eat as much as they want by offering a plate of cookies, (and milk), for a snack. This is how a child will learn to self-regulate. In our household my children will have dessert 3-4 nights a week, most often it’s a home-made cookie, chocolate square or in the summer a scoop of ice cream. The other nights “It’s not on the menu,” and that is that. They know dessert is always served at dinner at Grandma’s house every Sunday night, and there are no stipulations on it. Older children can learn to make choices and can be given more freedom to select two “fun foods” for the day such as chocolate milk at lunch and cookie at dinner. If you’re concerned about your child getting too much sugar, know that 45-50 grams/day of added sugar for an 8-12 year old stays in the recommended range set by the 2015 Dietary guidelines and enough to make them feel they aren’t being deprived. For more information, read my blog post: Sugar, How Much is Too Much?
I encourage families to come up with a plan for their own “flexible” dessert policy that is right for their individual household. Feel confident if you’re feeding your child a nutrient dense food option 80% of the time, they are getting the important nutrients they need, (active children have room for sugar in moderation). Children under two years don’t need to have regular dessert in their diets since it can displace essential nutrients so its best to keep their dessert to items like yogurt and fruit. They will have plenty of time to learn to self-regulate around sweets when they are older.
Since Children are naturally drawn to sweet food, the key is to neutralize its power by following these 5 tips in your household to help your child have a healthy relationship with dessert and learn to self-regulate.
- Dessert should not come with conditions (clean your plate or eat your vegetables).
- Dessert should not be treated as a reward or bribe.
- Incorporate sweets into the meal plan as snack or part of the meal. This helps to teach children that desserts can fit into a balanced diet and shouldn’t be treated as a forbidden food.
- Don’t soothe a crying child or anxious preschooler by using sweet food to calm the emotions.
- Avoid the “good food and bad food” comparison. I like to refer to food as “growing food” or “lasting energy fuel” and sugary foods as “fun food” or dessert.