Last week, we celebrated my daughter’s birthday at preschool. She will turn 3 in July. Her preschool teachers wanted the children that have summer birthdays to have the opportunity to celebrate their birthdays with their school friends before summer break. I brought in cupcakes, cheese cubes, and blueberries for their morning snack time at school. That evening, there were 4 chocolate mini cupcakes leftover from the celebration. I had a work dinner and our fabulous babysitter, Kate, was at our house helping us, while my husband and oldest child were at a Durham Bulls baseball game. While we were getting a quick supper on the table before I left, Isaac, my 8 year old, saw the cupcakes and asked if he could have one. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s put one on each person’s plate, your’s, Vivian’s, and Kate’s and then there will be one left over for Miriam.” The mini chocolate cupcakes were served alongside the rest of dinner, for each person to decide when and how they would eat it. For some, this is a radical concept and quite different from how desserts were handled when they were young.
How should I handle desserts with my family?
When feeding children, desserts can feel complicated but don't have to be. I attempt to approach them in a way that fosters intuitive eating and trust in one's body, while at the same time establishing structure so that they don’t interfere with the nutrition my children need. Above all, I keep in mind we’re in this for the Long Haul and what we do over time is more important than what happens at any particular meal. I am frequently asked how to handle desserts and other sweets when feeding kids. This can be an emotionally-charged topic for some and it can bring up memories, positive, negative and neutral, from our own childhood. How were desserts handled in your home when you were a child? Did you have to finish your plate to get dessert? Were there desserts in your house or were they forbidden? Were desserts not a big deal and were just part of your routine? Anytime we think through how we want to handle particular situations as a parent, we may relate it to our own upbringing and how our experiences as a child or teenager have influenced our own adult experiences.
Structure without Restriction
When feeding children, I think about not only the nutritional impact, but also the behavioral or emotional impact of how we are feeding. How we approach food in our home has just as much, if not more, of an influence on our children’s health and relationship with food, than what we feed them. In my post on Variety, I talked about forbidden foods and why making something off limits, even non-food items, actually makes us want that item more. If we restrict a certain food or type of food, we may set up our child to overeat that food when it is available, the very thing we are trying to prevent. Desserts or sweet foods can be particularly challenging to navigate because of their physiological make-up and how our bodies respond to sugar. They are chemically different than broccoli, rice and chicken breast. They give us quick energy in the form of sugar, a type of carbohydrate. Glucose, the building block of carbohydrates, is what allows our brains to work. Our bodies and brains really like the taste of sugar. Because of this, many children, benefit from a different structure with desserts than other foods. However, too much “structure” or restriction can result in desserts being forbidden and having a higher value than they need to.
Do you struggle with how to approach desserts in your home?
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I use Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) in feeding as a basis for my work and how I approach food at home. Satter suggests approaching desserts in a different way, slightly veering from DOR. I use her recommendations as a basis of how I approach desserts in my house, but try not to be rigid about it. She suggests, that if you are having a dessert with a meal to offer it with the other foods of the meal and offer a child sized portion, like I did with Vivian’s cupcakes. Different from the other items of the meal, the parent decides how much of the dessert is offered. (With the Division of Responsibility the parents decide What, When and Where and the child decides If and How Much.) She explains because desserts have an advantage over the other parts of the meals, as far as taste and desire goes, the parents decide “how much” so that it doesn’t interfere with eating other more nutrient dense parts of the meal. However, by offering it with the meal, you’re not entering into a behavioral battle of having to eat a certain amount of dinner to get rewarded by the dessert, thus neutralizing some of its “specialness.” It also models that you trust your child and their body. If a child eats a mini cupcake before their broccoli, unless it’s a huge cupcake or they just aren’t hungry, their body will tell them, that they need to eat more of other foods.
But, what if they don't eat their dinner?
Offering dessert as part of a meal can support intuitive eating. If we tell our children that they need to eat all of their dinner in order to get dessert, we are teaching them to NOT listen to their bodies. We are teaching them to override fullness cues (eat all of your food) to then further ignore fullness cues when they eat dessert. I love watching a child navigate a dessert as part of their meal. Believe it or not, I've witnessed many times a child eating a bite of cookie and then a bite of chicken and then a bite of apple before returning to the cookie. Or, another child may eat all of their cookie right off the bat and then eat the amount of the meal their body is hungry for. Or, they may save it for last because it’s their favorite part of dinner that night. Offering desserts in this way, helps to neutralize desserts and models for children that you trust them and their body.
Is that restriction?
To balance out the fact that the parent decides how much of the dessert to offer at meal time, Satter suggests providing children with opportunities that the child decides how much of a dessert to eat. This can be done at snack time. I find myself at times giving them this opportunity after a meal, at times, if that makes the most sense. Consider giving your children opportunities to monitor their own amount of a sweet food. Offer a plate of cookies and milk for snack to a group of children or leftover apple cobbler from the night before. What would it be like for your child to experience one of these foods without being told “Don’t have too much.” “This food has a lot of sugar.” “Don’t get a stomach ache.” When we use these words, we tell our children desserts are something to fear. You can present these foods in a neutral way and allow them to eat them and notice how their body feels. Having these experiences at home is much better than the first time they go to a slumber party or summer camp.
Approach Family Feeding with Flexibility
As I said, I use this model as a basis or outline of how I approach desserts. I think being rigid with anything can ultimately become unhelpful. There are times it works better for our family to have dessert after dinner (especially if it’s ice cream). Or, we may have a dessert as part of a snack but it’s not realistic or there’s not enough for the kids to decide the how much. We may be limited about the rules of the house we’re visiting. When offering desserts, we keep in mind how much is available and make sure every one gets their share, modeling sharing and manners.
These suggestions can be uncomfortable to some. The idea of allowing one’s child to eat as many cookies as they’d like seems counter intuitive. “What if they DO get a stomach ache?” Serving dessert along side a balanced dinner makes some parents worry their child won’t get what they need. I always go back to the fact you’re in it for the long haul. There are hundreds of meals and snacks that your child will have with you prior to them being an adult. As parents, we are modeling day in and day out to our children by how we talk about food, what foods we offer, what meals we put together, and prioritizing meals and sit down snack times. Having neutral experiences with desserts is part of this learning process with the goal of having an adult child that can approach dessert in a way that feels good to them and their body. There may be times your child doesn’t eat dinner or eats so many cookies they get a stomachache and that is okay. They are learning from each experience with food, just like they are learning from all of their experiences.
More important than how you approach desserts in your home, I think it’s important to think about the words we use. Desserts are just desserts. Typically grains with added sugar and fat. They taste really yummy, but we don’t have to elevate them to a status that makes it hard for our kids to navigate both now, but also when they are older and don't have us close by.