When my daughter turned 3 we made three dozen cupcakes for her birthday party. She asked how many cupcakes she could have at the party. I told her we wanted to make sure everyone got one and could have more if there were extras.
She had an inquisitive look and then told me: “I don’t think I want to invite any friends to my party.”
Clearly, more cupcakes were the priority.
Children (and adults for that matter) like sweets. In fact, Human beings have a biological need for sugar, and our human brains evolved that way. Kids and sweets go together and it’s a perfectly natural part of development.
As a pediatric dietitian and feeding expert, I see a lot of fear around many of these sweet foods like ice cream, cookies, and candy (oh my). Children tend to like foods with sugar, and sweet foods.
Many parents feel like their kids are obsessed with sugar.
So, what’s a parent to do?
Give our child sweets all day long?
Or never serve them?
Not-at-all. In fact, there is a very happy medium.
Let’s talk about 4 simple steps to handling kids, sweets, and their sugar obsession.
First, let’s take a step back.
Let’s look at how to feed from a general sense. I’m talking about the division of responsibility.
This feeding framework, developed by the pediatric dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter, is grounded in a few key points:
Parents are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding and children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating.
This has been shown to help kids form a healthy and positive relationship with all foods, including sweets and foods with sugar.
What does this boil down to?
When we trust our children around sweets and foods with sugar, we can help them strike a balance and take away what we often feel is a sugar obsession.
We (as parents and caregivers) get to decide when we serve these foods – and our kids decide how much.
Then why is my child obsessed with sugar?
Often, foods with sugar are restricted in a way, meaning we (as parents) are trying a little too hard to control these foods.
Many reasons can be part of why a parent feels their child is obsessed with or craving sugar, but often it’s when restriction occurs.
When this happens sweets, treats, and foods with sugar may be seen as the “forbidden fruit.”
What does this look like to a kid?
“I want more since I can’t have that much.”
Why is this important?
When we completely limit sweets, shame them, or create a bad vibe around them, kids notice.
In fact, they might want these foods even more.
Now, let’s dive in.
Here’s a 4 step guide to handling kids, sweets, and their sugar obsession.
Let’s get sweets off a pedestal, and conquer your own fear – so that your child can form a healthy relationship with sweets.
4 simple steps to handle kids, sweets, and their sugar obsession
1. Serve them. And sometimes don’t limit them.
Often, when I suggest this to parents, they look at me like I have three eyes.
“You mean, sometimes I just let my daughter eat all the cookies? She’s never going to stop.”
But I want you to take a good, hard look at this, is your child really never going to stop, or is that your preconceived notion?
What you find may surprise you: when we let kids eat as much as they want of a particular food it doesn’t become so special.
This helps children learn to self-regulate around sweets, which is exactly what you want.
We want them to know that these will always be available – that they don’t need to overindulge when served because you will serve them again.
2. Don’t talk about these foods as good or bad
Stop making sweets into something they’re not: something that makes us feel shame or judgment when we eat them.
When we start labeling food as good or bad, we start putting judgment into those foods. Does it make us bad people for eating a cookie?
Absolutely not, but this message or good and bad can be internalized for a little one. Children younger than 12 years of age are concrete thinkers, meaning they think in black and white.
Food is food – and we have to remember that if we want to instill that healthy relationship with food in our children.
In fact, call the foods what they are:
“We’re having cookies.”
“Today ice cream is on the menu.”
3. Don’t use them as a reward for other food
I don’t like using sweets as a reward for eating other food, or for anything for that matter.
When we offer food as a reward, think about the message you’re sending: “I have to eat my broccoli (yuck) to get my candy (yum).”
We’re once again making the sweet seem special.
4. Sometimes, serve them (gasp!) with a meal
Yep. Just try it. To put sweets on a level playing field, give it to your child with a meal.
Think about this:
When a child knows they’re having a cookie (ice cream, etc.) at the end of the meal as dessert, what are they thinking about the entire meal? Getting that cookie.
But, if we give them that cookie with the rest of the meal they aren’t going to be talking about it and asking for it during the entire meal.
You don’t have to give them all the cookies they want but remember when they aren’t so focused on getting that cookie after a meal, they may enjoy themselves at mealtime more.
Although these steps are simple to execute, it takes some shifting in our thought process as parents.
Bottom line: when we feel more relaxed and less stressed around sweets and sugar, our little ones do as well.
When you’re ready for even more ways to feel relaxed feeding your little one, download my free guide: 4 steps to help your child try new food, and get on the path to feeding with smiles – all around the table.
And how did my daughter do at her third birthday party?
We did invite friends.
She ate a couple of cupcakes, I didn’t stress, and then she went off to play without a glance back.