Sugary foods and desserts for kids are something that many parents are confused about. Do we serve them or should we restrict desserts for kids? Do they need to eat all of their food before I serve dessert? There are so many questions around how to serve desserts to kids!
As I talked about in my last blog post, the general recommendation is to avoid added sugars for kids under 2. Be sure to read that post for specifics on that recommendation.
Once kids reach 2, they become much more aware of the world around them. This means that they know when you are having dessert, and they often want to partake! If you restrict them and don’t allow them to have sugar, you put sugar on a pedestal and make it something that often times they will start to obsess over.
Our goal is to normalize sugar. It is a food that is a part of life, and we want our kids to know how to handle it! Sure, it isn’t full of a ton of nutrients. But all food that we eat doesn’t have to be eaten because it is particularly nutrient dense. It is totally okay, and normal, to eat food because it brings us pleasure or is a part of a cultural or family tradition. And we want to teach our kids that!
Contrary to what many people think- restriction is not the answer! But a plan for dessert and sugary things in your family is.
Once your child has turned two, you can start serving dessert occasionally. Or start incorporating outings that include something like a stop at an ice cream shop, and let your child have a scoop.
You want to expose them to dessert-like foods, and show them that they are a part of everyday life. They can be enjoyed, and a part of fun experiences and memories.
Again, sugar is not bad! We want to show them that you don’t fear it either, and that you can eat it as part of your normal everyday activities.
With that being said, I’m not saying to go all out and give all sorts of sugar to your child! Continue to eliminate whenever possible unnecessary added sugars in everyday items. Make it standard that the foods they eat on an everyday basis are not very sweet. Do your best to avoid introducing sugar sweetened beverages. We want to keep our sugar in our actual dessert foods.
But remember that you are the one who gets to decide when, and what, food is served. That includes dessert. You don’t have to all of the sudden start serving dessert every night just to expose your child to sugar if that is not what you normally do.
If you are a family that has desserts with dinner, consider serving your dessert WITH your meal instead of after. I know it sounds counterproductive, but the best way to take sugar off of a pedestal is to make it equal with all other foods.
One thing this can accomplish is to make eating other foods, like vegetables, easier. We’re not telling our kids that the actual meal is inferior to dessert and is just something to be suffered through to get to the main even of dessert. This can also make dessert less enchanting. If it is not something to be revered and that you have to suffer through everything else to get to, it loses some of it’s prestige!
The first time you serve dessert with a meal, sure, your child might eat mainly dessert. But more often than not, children will eat more than just the dessert!
When they know that dessert is just another part of a meal and not something to hold out for or hold in high esteem, it loses some of its luster.
Yes, they still love sweet things, but that’s not all they’ll usually eat. If we’re not telling them sugar is something they should be obsessing over, they usually don’t.
If you are planning to serve a piece of cake or a cookie for dessert, put it on the table or your child’s plate at the same time that the rest of the food is served. Allow them to take some. Make no comments about how much of other things they eat, and don’t encourage them to eat other things first. Just let them handle it! Our kids are great at listening to their bodies, our job is just to help them tune into those cues.
This is a common question many parents have. Should you let them eat as much as they want, as I advise doing with other foods at the table? Or should you restrict it to just one serving?
There are two schools of thought on this. I’ll share them both, and you can decide which works best for your family. Just keep in mind that our kids often surprise us if we just trust that they know what they are doing with how much they put in their bodies.
The first method to handle dessert is to just let them have as much as they want. If you have cake for dessert, put the cake that you have to be eaten out, and let them have more than one serving just as you would an adult.
Talk with them about how they are feeling, encouraging them to make the connection between listening to their body and how much it needs, as well as how it feels after they eat a ton of sugar.
The first time they eat more than they can handle they will likely not feel too well. It is totally fine to talk with them about how if you eat too much of something it can make our tummies not feel good.
The key to this is using completely neutral language without passing any judgment on your child or the food. Just help them to work through what they are feeling. Once they make the connection, and even before, many kids will surprise you and self regulate how much they eat!
The other method for handling dessert is to put one portion of dessert out for everyone with meals, and that is all the dessert that there is. It can take the attention off of dessert if your child is still highly distracted by it. But it is, in and of itself, a form of restriction.
If you decide to do this method, it is also recommended that you use snacks as a time to serve unlimited amounts of a sweet. An example of this would be serving one piece of cake for a dinner, and that is all there is. But a few days down the line, you serve cookies and milk for snack.
Put out a plate of cookies, and let your child decide how many of them they want to eat. By serving it with milk you are serving a rounded snack that has the chance to fill them up, but you are also allowing them the freedom to choose how much they want. You are also taking away any potential feelings of restriction that may result from dinner.
Again, you can talk with them about how they feel after they have snack. But neutral language that avoids casting sugar as bad is very key here!
Another way to approach dessert is to think about alternating your dessert foods. It doesn’t always need to be something full of sugar. Think of fruit and yogurt as a kind of dessert, too! Or a homemade cupcake that is lower in sugar.
Even if you are serving a more nutrient-dense dessert like fruit, you do still want to serve it at the same time as the rest of the meal. It doesn’t matter what the food is, you want all food at meals to be on the same playing field.
If you don’t normally eat dessert, you don’t need to start incorporating it in to every meal. Or even every week! But you do want to find a way to make it a part of everyday life.
Start a tradition of going out occasionally during the day or on a weekend and include a trip to somewhere with a dessert food of your choice. (Again, think an ice cream shop!) Or make cookies or cupcakes with them, and then share them for a snack.
You want them to understand what sweet things are. You don’t want them to be the kid at a birthday party who either isn’t allowed to eat what everyone else is eating, or is eating it for the first time and absolutely making himself sick from how much he ate of it.
Your goal is that they enjoy treats or desserts when presented with them. They are familiar with the concept. But desserts and treats don’t have any power over your child because they know that they get them at home too, and they can get them when they truly want them.
If you are a family who doesn’t do many sweets and all of the sudden you notice your child coming home wanting a specific sweet, or obsessing over something, there are a few things that you can do.
The one I recommend most often is to start incorporating a little bit more sweet things in your diet, temporarily. Again, you want to show them that sweets are delicious, but they’re nothing special. Sometimes you’ll have them frequently, other times not.
So if they start to obsess, start to offer more often. Once they are becoming just a part of the meal again and you aren’t hearing a lot about it, nonchalantly drop back to your previous frequency of desserts.
You can also try setting up days during the week that you’ll have dessert, and let your kids know when they are. This can be a couple throughout the week, or even just on the weekend.
For some kids this feels more blatantly like restriction and can backfire. Others thrive with this kind of structure. How it works for your child is dependent on so many things. And how to do it will undoubtedly be a time of trial and error. But if this sounds like something that would better fit your family style, then give it a shot.
This method of handling dessert is decidedly different than most people practice in our society. And if you are out at a restaurant or with other people you might not be able to serve meals like this. If you can’t do this for a particular meal, that’s okay! It's even okay if you don't do this all the time at home!
Your kids will fall back on what they see most often at home, and how you treat desserts in general. Not a handful of abnormal events. You will have taught them how to handle sugar even when it is not presented like it is usually at home, and that is exactly our goal.
While this method of taking sugar off of a pedestal might not be what you or I grew up with, it is a method that will help your child to have a healthy relationship with all foods. That includes sugar! But to do this, we need to strike a balance in our meals, and not restrict sugar completely, nor offer it up at every meal!
It’s all about filling our children’s diets with nutrient-rich foods, and then serving the occasional sugary dessert that can bring everyone pleasure. And then we all move on without obsessing over it!
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