Kids Desserts: Healthy Habits to Help Your Kids Manage Sweets and Treats

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“My kids ask for candy and sweets everyday! What is the best way to respond to this?”

“When it comes to desserts, should I let my kids eat as much as they want? Or should I portion out the amounts they’re allowed to have?

“Should I wait to serve dessert until after my kids have had their dinner?”

“How can I help my kids have neutral associations with sweets so they don’t grow up feeling obsessed about desserts?”

“I have a hard time keeping treats in my house because I don’t trust myself around these foods. How can I make sure my kids have a healthier relationship with desserts?”

These are some of the brave questions I received (posted anonymously with permission) from many of you amazing mamas who are wondering the best way to approach desserts and sweets with kids.

If you feel overwhelmed or confused about this topic, let me be the first to assure you that you are not alone.

Kids often gravitate towards sweets and treats, yet these foods are often demonized in our culture and made to be the culprit of all things bad and unhealthy.

So what’s a mama to do?

There IS a way to approach this in a manner that helps your kids have a positive relationship with all foods and feel confident in their bodies.

You can raise a competent, healthy eater while keeping your sanity, too!

To begin, let’s take a step back and remember the big picture to focus on when it comes to feeding our kids, especially when desserts are involved.

Healthy Kids Have a Positive Relationship With All Foods

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How do you approach desserts with your kids, and why does it matter?

Parents today are overloaded with information on what it means to raise a healthy child and pressured from all sides on how to parent.

Feeding kids is no exception, and there are no shortage of fear-mongering rules of what we should or shouldn’t let our kids eat.

Here is where sugar comes into play.

If your kids are anything like mine, they love most sweet foods and desserts: cookies, doughnuts, pastries, cakes, candy, ice cream, and the list goes on and on.

But living in a culture that connects moral worth to the foods we eat and links disease with “bad, unhealthy” foods, parents are left fearing food. In turn, parents may feed their kids from a place of fear rather than trust.

What does this mean?

This means potentially interfering with your child’s natural ability to eat what they need to grow at a rate that is right for them.

How might this happen?

Maybe you have an idea in your head of how your child “should” be eating. These ideas can be formed from your own past experiences with eating, how you were raised with and around food, or even from the way you feel about yourself, food, and your body.

What’s important to understand here is that your child may eat in a way that deviates from the picture of how he or she should be eating. That in itself can be a source of stress and anxiety for both of you.

For example, if you have a rule or idea in your head that your child shouldn’t eat a treat or dessert more than once per day, you may find yourself frustrated, annoyed or irritated when your child is asking for dessert more frequently than this.

Or as another example, if you allow your child to have a portion of dessert, say a slice of cake, and they eat more than you would have wanted them to or felt comfortable with, this will create pressure and stress between you and your child.

If the way your child eats desserts doesn’t match the picture of how you think they should be eating, this will create anxieties around food and power struggles for you both.

So as you approach desserts and sweets with your own child, try to leave your own agenda on the back-burner for the sake of helping your child have a more positive relationship with food.

If you want to raise a child who can eat a variety of foods, including desserts, based on their own internal cues of hunger and fullness, you may have to lay down your own expectations for your kids in order to give them the space and opportunities they need to learn to eat.

Especially when it comes to desserts, kids need regular chances to not only be exposed to these foods, but to learn what amounts feel best in their own bodies.

All of this is important to help you understand how you may be responding to your child when it comes to desserts and sweets.

Healthy habits for kids are built on the quality of the feeding interactions you’re having with your child versus the actual food itself.

Healthy Eating For Kids Involves Desserts

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It’s easy to think that we can control the foods that our kids have exposure to and what they actually eat. To an extent, that is true - especially with younger children

But as kids grow and become exposed to the outside world and all it has to offer, we will have less and less control over what our children can choose to eat and feed their bodies.

Eventually, our kids will grow up into adults, and if they’ve never had the chance to learn how to eat desserts and other types of sweets, these foods can become chaotic for them down the road.

Research has found that when kids had restricted access to food, like desserts, they were more likely:

  • To feel obsessive about food

  • To engage in recurring emotional eating

  • To overeat the foods that were restricted, such as desserts

  • To have a higher risk for eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder

Studies have also found that parental use of food as a reward leads to a child's diminished ability to regulate intake, which can trigger increased emotional over-eating.

Many of the mothers that I work with today can remember difficult eating experiences with desserts as a kid, where sweets were rigidly controlled, used as a reward or strictly limited.

This can be a contributing trigger to disordered eating habits that last well into adulthood and create a complicated relationship with food overall.

So again, this is where the big picture comes into play when thinking about the experiences that your child might have with desserts and sweets.

My bet is that if you’re reading this, you want your kids to grow up to have a healthy relationship with food, including desserts and sweets.

You want to role model what it means to have neutral associations with all food and to create positive experiences for your child at mealtimes.

If you’ve have negative experiences around desserts from your own childhood or have a difficult time trusting yourself to eat them now, know this: you can change those patterns NOW, for yourself and your kids, so that your kids can grow up to have a different experience with food.

Adapting feeding strategies that position your kids as the best experts of their bodies will help them learn how to self-regulate all foods, including sweets and treats.

This includes:

  • Approaching desserts from a neutral place

  • Serving sweets without any stipulations

  • Allowing your kids regular opportunities to have desserts and sweets as part of regular, structured meals and snacks

  • Giving your kids the chance to explore what amounts feel good in their bodies, without any interference

Ultimately, when desserts are approached in this way with your kids, you will raise healthier children who will have neutral associations with desserts and who will be confident in self-regulating amounts that are appropriate for their own bodies.

Bottom line: Raising a competent eater helps kids better regulate what their bodies need over time, versus if certain foods are restricted, like desserts, they will be more likely to overeat those foods in the long run.

Here are some things to keep in mind to approach desserts with your kids in a way that will help them build a positive relationship with all foods:

  1. Kids Prefer Sweeter Foods

First, let’s dive into some background information that will help you better understand this situation.

The majority of kids gravitate toward sweeter foods.

Kids are naturally inclined to eat sweeter foods: It’s not abnormal if your child craves and/or gravitates toward sweeter foods. Research has found that there are actually a lot of biological reasons that influence sweeter preferences in kids.

Kids are actually living in different sensory worlds than adults when it comes to basic tastes and may prefer much more intense sweetness and saltiness than adults, whereas kids may be more sensitive to bitter and sour flavors. These preference patterns are often observed through late adolescents.

So while it’s completely normal for a child to feel more comfortable with sweeter foods, it’s easier for parents to worry that this is unhealthy or a negative thing. It’s not abnormal if your child craves sweeter foods or is more inclined to eating desserts. It’s normal for kids to prefer more intense sweet flavors.

This is where it’s important to take an honest assessment of any expectations or rules that you might be bringing to the picture when it comes to feeding your kids. What is more crucial is how we respond when our kids gravitate toward sweets.

2. Your Experiences With Sweets May Influence How You Feel About Your Kids Eating Desserts

How you respond to your child in regards to desserts matters. This is where it’s important to look at your own relationship with sweets, your past experiences around sweets/desserts as a child. Our responses are shaped from our own experiences with these foods, especially from our childhood.

Take the time to reflect: what were your past experiences with sweets/desserts as a child?

Some of the types of past eating experiences around desserts that can have the potential to negatively influence the way you feel about your kids eating sweets might include:

  • Having desserts and sweets withheld in the home

  • Sneaking or hoarding sweets to hide from caregivers

  • Having sweets rationed or strictly controlled

  • Not being allowed to eat dessert while other members of your family had access to it

  • Being shamed, teased or made to feel guilty when eating sweets

Your past eating experiences with desserts may also be coupled with external pressure about kids/sweets.

Living in a predominantly dieting culture where sugar and dessert is demonized, these things may all play a role into the rules, expectations and attitudes you have with feeding your own child dessert type foods.

Having awareness of this is an important first step toward creating a different environment from which your kids can learn about and eat desserts.

When we can understand the things that influence how we feel about desserts/sweets with our kids, we can learn to handle this situation with our kids with greater awareness.

3. What is Forbidden Becomes MORE Desirable

Growing up, I loved the movie, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ - it was my all-time favorite Disney film.

Remember the part where Belle comes to the Beast’s castle and takes her father’s place as his prisoner?

The Beast eventually lets Belle out of the prison cell and lets her have access to the whole castle. But he sternly warns her that the West Wing is strictly forbidden, and that under no circumstances is she allowed to enter that room. (If you can remember, this is the room where he keeps his enchanted rose and magic mirror).

There is a point here - stay with me.

What happens when Belle is forbidden from going into that room? She becomes OBSESSED with getting into that room and figuring out what’s in there!

This may be cheesy - but this is a perfect analogy for what happens when anything becomes forbidden.

It’s human nature - we are naturally drawn to the things that we’re told we can’t have.

Going back to kids and desserts: when sweets become forbidden, strictly controlled, or have restricted access, they will instantly become more desirable.

Your kid might not actually really like the taste of a dessert or sweet that they keep asking for and may simply be preoccupied with it because it’s off limits.

When a food, like desserts, are restricted in childhood, research shows that kids may be more likely to overeat them in the long run and be at risk for excessive weight gain.

So if desserts are approached from a place where they are not off-limits, this can help reassure kids that those foods are part of their future.

This can decrease any unnecessary obsessiveness as well as help prevent them from potentially overeating those foods in the long run.

Keeping these things in mind, does this mean that desserts should be a free for all? Should you serve your kids desserts galore all day every day?

Well, not exactly.

Remember - there is no black and white when it comes to feeding kids. Kids thrive off of structure, and we want to give them opportunities to learn how to eat best for their bodies within the structure that we provide them.

As the parent, you are still the one in charge of what you’re providing your kids to eat, as well as when and where.

Here are some strategies that you can use to incorporate desserts for your kids in a way that helps them learn how to self-regulate sweets:

Effective Strategies to Help Your Child Manage Desserts

  1. Regularly Incorporate Desserts Into Your Meal Routine:

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Keeping in mind the things I mentioned above, it’s important to make desserts a regular part of meals and snacks.

Does this mean that you have to have a dessert at each meal every single day?

No, not necessarily.

But again, your child might need it more frequently than you think - and that is NOT a bad thing.

Many parents I counsel about this worry about how an increase in desserts will potentially affect their kids’ health. Remember that your child can be trusted to eat and regulate what their bodies need.

Again, here is that element of TRUST.

Your child will not learn how to regulate if you don’t give them the chance and opportunities to do so.

A good indicator that you may need to incorporate desserts more frequently into meals and snacks may be your child’s temperament around these foods.

Is your child asking for a particular sweet frequently? Do they talk a lot about having a certain dessert? If so, this may be a sign that they need more exposure to it.

By bringing that dessert into meal/snack rotation, you are helping your child learn how to manage them.

This also helps a child to learn that desserts are not a scarcity thing. When desserts feel scarce, again, they will be more likely to overeat them when they are allowed to have them.

Ways to incorporate this is to allow your child to pick out a dessert or sweet on your grocery store trips, especially if there has been a repeated request for a certain treat.

2. Serve Sweets Without Stipulations:

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In order to help keep desserts neutral, it’s important to serve sweets with meals and without any rules attached.

This means allowing your child to enjoy a dessert with a meal or a snack without having to “earn” it or based on any other rules.

It’s not uncommon to use desserts as a way to bribe a child to eat. For example, telling a child that they need to eat so much of their dinner or all of their vegetables in order to have desserts.

Recognize that these types of stipulations for having dessert teach a child to look at external regulators versus internal regulation and listening to their own body.

Kids will be less likely to trust what their bodies need when they’re focused on following any rules in place to get what they want to eat.

Instead, I encourage parents to keep mealtimes a level, neutral playing ground.

Meaning, offer all foods together - dessert (if you’re having it), alongside with any other foods you’re having.

All the food is going in the same place anyway, so there is no nutritional reason for having your child eat dinner before dessert.

You might be worried that if you offer dessert with dinner, your kids might only eat their desserts and not eat anything else.

Just remember - you are in charge of what you’re offering.

Your kids are in charge of what they want to eat from the foods you have provided and HOW much you want to eat.

This means that they very well might eat their dessert first, or that their dessert might be the only thing they choose to eat from their dinner. Guess what? - that is completely okay.

I can assure you that it won’t always be like this. The more consistent you stay with these strategies, the more you will notice that your child will begin moving other foods on her plate or become less concerned with eating dessert altogether.

With my own kids, I’ve seen how some of them will go between their dessert and other foods. Some will ignore the dessert completely or save it for the end.

That’s not what’s important.

What matters is that there are no stipulations involved, and that you are trusting your child to eat what they need from what you have provided - desserts included.

3. Allow your kids to eat the amount they want from the desserts you’ve provided without any outside interference:

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This one is easier said than done. Again, this is where your expectations can play a strong role in the desire to regulate what your kids are eating.

However, it’s important to let your child figure out how much they want to eat from what you have provided without hovering or interfering.

This means letting them do their thing without trying to control them. Interference can backfire and make a child increasingly obsessed and want more.

You might be wondering what to do if your child eats the entire serving of dessert you provided and then asks for more. Should you give them more at that meal or snack?

I recommend giving set servings of dessert at meal times with occasional opportunities to have the option for more desserts during snack times.

For example, if you’re having cookies for dessert at a mealtime, you can offer everyone 2 cookies (or whatever amount you’ve decided on) with their dinner.

It’s up to your kids to determine whether or not they want to eat those cookies and how much of the cookies they want to eat.

Some kids might eat both cookies. Others might leave a couple bites remaining. Still, other kids might eat both cookies and then ask for more.

In the case of mealtimes, it’s totally appropriate to tell your child that was her portion of dessert for dinner, but that there will be another chance to have more cookies soon (but be sure to follow through with this).

On the flip side, you also want to present opportunities where your kids can have more of the dessert they are eating. Snack times are preferred times for this.

So for example, for a snack, you might put out a plate of cookies (rather than a fixed amount for each kid), fresh fruit, and milk, and let your child figure out how much they want to eat.

This should be done without any hovering or interference on your part.

This gives your child the chance to learn how to self-regulate the desserts by eating an amount that feels right in her body.

This process often requires building tolerance to your child eating more than you may feel comfortable with or when your child might choose dessert over other parts of their meal.

Over time, you will find that your child may eat less of these foods or not request them as often.

Remember that you may continually need to push your own expectations about nutrition and health to the back-burner in order for your child to have the chance to explore what feels right for them.

Halloween Candy and Holiday Treats

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What about navigating special occasions where desserts might be in abundance, like the surplus of candy at Halloween or other holidays?

The approach to this is similar, in that you want to give your child an opportunity to navigate desserts, even in times when it might be over-the-top from what is normal exposure in her everyday life.

Here are some specific posts to help you navigate Halloween candy, or any time where the desserts and sweets are plentiful:

  1. Simple Tips and Tricks for a Happy (and Healthy Halloween)

  2. Halloween Candy and Kids: A Sticky Situation

Helping Your Kids by Decreasing Your Stress Around Food

If you’ve found it difficult to implement some of these strategies, or if in doing so, it brings up a lot of stress for you, it’s important to take a closer look at this.

Identifying and dealing with the root of your anxieties around dessert can be effective for better helping your child have a healthier relationship with food.

Recognize HOW does it make you FEEL when you aren’t controlling what your child is eating? Or if you do put your rules and expectations on the back-burner and your child is eating outside of your rules (ex: they eat the entire piece of cake that was served to them, even though you felt like it was too much).

What is it bringing up for you? Are you feeling anxious, worried, etc?

Be aware of this and try to understand WHY these feelings might be happening, keeping in mind how your past history with food can influence how you feel about feeding your own kids.

Your kids WILL absorb your own anxieties around food, so it’s important to:

1) Be aware of what you’re feeling as you feed your kids,

2) Understand WHY these feelings might be coming up, and

3) Find ways to effectively cope with what you’re feeling to help your child

If you need more support in this area, please connect with me today. I would love to learn how I might be able to help you feel more confident in feeding your own children.

Feeding kids is a HARD job. When you can stay focused on the big picture and long-term goals, it can help you stay encouraged through the process. Remember that you are doing a great job, and even on the most difficult days, you’ve got this!