Today, we’re talking about that scandalous, downright shocking word – the one we all have on our minds any given moment on most days. It’s a word filled with such controversy, such allure, that it elicits a great deal of both love and hatred. And that word is… dessert (gasp!). There, I said it. The secret is out – we adults love desserts too. But don’t tell the kids! How else will we convince them that sweets are not nearly as fun as they look?
In all seriousness, the topic of “sugar” is one that a lot of parents struggle with. And it can be downright stressful to navigate. But it doesn’t need to be. If the overall goal of feeding is to cultivate a positive relationship with food, then dessert should be no different.
If we want children to be relaxed around sweets, so too must we be. When you’re relaxed about them, your child will be too. In other words, to manage your child around sweets you must manage your emotions around them.
A Note About added sugar in infancy
Dietary guidelines are helpful because they capture a consensus of best knowledge to date. They’re useful in giving a general ideal to strive towards. But when feeding recommendations are followed too devoutly, we may find ourselves in a bit (or more than a bit) of trouble later. Essentially, feeding should be approached with purpose but also flexibility.
So, what is the recommendation for children under two? It’s a hard none whatsoever. While this may sound a bit harsh, there’s a good deal of research to support it. The first 1,000 days of life is a critical period for physical and mental development. So, good nutrition is especially important during this time. It’s also a key window for taste development. And because infants younger than 18-20 months are less discerning than toddlers, they tend to accept new foods more readily. In other words, it’s a great time to start instilling a love of veggies! And your infant really isn’t going to miss dessert.
The recommendation to avoid added sugars until 2 years old is pretty solid advice. Why then, did I not safeguard my child from sugar until exactly 24 months? Well, let me tell you, we tried. And for a while, we were pretty successful. But there came a time (around 18 months) when it became apparent that, not only did our child notice desserts, but we were beginning to jump through hoops to avoid them. So, we stopped. Why? Because restricting a child’s diet is likely to do far more damage than allowing a sugary snack or two.
If I told you to spend the next 30 seconds not thinking about a pink elephant, you would probably find yourself thinking only of a pink elephant. There’s actually a prominent psychological theory to support this; we tend to spend more time thinking about something when actively trying not to. And food is no different. When we try not to think of foods we find tempting, it’s often a self-defeating behavior. By assigning a label of “forbidden” or “bad” to a food (even if only implied), it becomes all the more desirable. Children who feel restricted in their diets therefore tend to become hyper-focused on food and overindulge when given the chance.
Likewise, some research suggests that children who are discouraged or forbidden from eating sweets may feel bad about themselves when they inevitably do. There is even evidence to suggest that greater perception of restriction may be linked to higher prevalence of disordered eating. After all, if you’re concerned about the dangers of sugar-overload, why shouldn’t they be? Ironically, the best way to manage your child around sweets then may be to do less managing.
Growing Bodies Have Big Needs
It may come as no surprise that children are “hard-wired” to crave sugary foods. There is a biological explanation for this – children have small stomachs and are growing. So, it makes sense that they would crave calorically dense foods to helps them to get the energy they need in small quantities. Similarly, sufficient fat is needed for brain and nervous system development. But children also need vitamins, minerals, and fiber – all things calorie-and-fat-laden foods are notoriously low in. In modern society where decadent sweets are, well, everywhere, it’s easy to see how parents may feel like they should avoid giving them altogether.
But remember that feeding is as psychological as it is physical. Desserts exist – period. So, children must learn to navigate that aspect of their lives. Otherwise, what likely began as good intentions can quickly lead to disordered eating and a maladaptive relationship with food. The aim then, is to balance their diet by “splitting the difference”. To manage your child around sweets, focus on cultivating a love of nutrient dense foods. But save a little room for dessert.
Desserts Have Actual Health Benefits… No, Really!
There’s a reason that milk and cookies are the “power couple” of desserts. Pairing a sweet with a source of protein is a good way to “round it out”. And many desserts themselves offer nutrients beyond fat and energy. Pumpkin pie, for example, is a good source of Vitamin A. Hot cocoa, made with milk and dark chocolate, is rich in calcium and antioxidants! Desserts made from scratch? Even better! Since there is convincing evidence to support that less processed foods tend to offer greater health benefits, a slice of homemade cake (as opposed to a prepackaged snack cake) is likely a preferable choice. So, choosing desserts wisely and pairing them with other foods can help to maximize their benefits.
Of course, there will still be occasions where cupcakes and candies of disturbingly unnatural color are, well, simply unavoidable. And that’s ok! On those occasions, just remember that good nutrition is about an overall pattern. Remind yourself that restriction will inevitably come back to haunt you! And if nothing else, remember that occasional indulgences and happy memories are just a different kind of nourishing.
The single scoop summary
So, how do you manage your child around sweets? By taking a relaxed approach and providing them regularly. Accept that decadent foods are a part of life and that your child will want them. Allow them to eat as much of them as they want from time to time (yes, really!) Let your child eat their portion of dessert with the meal instead of after. Remain calm about them and your child will too. And since I wouldn’t exactly call running around totaling up your child’s daily added sugar intake “calm”, I wouldn’t recommend that.
But sometimes a good “rule of thumb” can help to provide clarity and relieve anxiety. That’s why I like the 85/15 goal from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines. If most of the foods you eat are nutrient dense, it’s easier not to sweat a dessert here and there. And if you feel like your family’s average isn’t quite there, that’s ok too. We’re all a work in progress. And we’re all entitled to a little dessert. Banning sweets won’t improve your child’s diet. So, where do you start? Why – at the table, of course!
Has this post got your stomach pleading for something sweet? Follow this link to one of our family's favorites, "Snowy Cinnamon Roll Waffles" (excellent both with and without snow)
Disclaimer: The information on this site is in no way intended to be a substitute for medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only. Always seek personalized medical advice and consult your practitioner with questions regarding your or your child’s health.