How often do your kids get dessert?
This is a question I usually ask the families I work with, especially those who are coming to me for help because their children are obsessed with sweets.
Usually, I get a mixed bag of answers:
Some families have designated dessert nights.
Other families have strict rules around when candy is allowed to be eaten and the specific number of pieces that are given.
And I get it.
The subject of kids and sweets can be a sticky situation.
It’s one of those heated topics that can be swirling with controversy and steeped in diet culture. For the majority of families I work with, it’s a source of stress and tension between parents and kids.
On the one hand, parents want to raise their kids to be healthy and happy. They want their kids to have energy to play and the proper nutrients to grow and function well.
On the other hand, we live in a world where sweets abound.
And no matter how tightly you can control the influx of sweets in your own home, your child will eventually grow up and out of the confines of the environment you raised them in.
If they’ve never had the opportunity to learn how to eat the sweets they’ll inevitably get exposed to, this can be a surefire recipe for a lifetime of feeling out of control with the very foods they were limited from.
So what’s to do?
For this reason, many parents come to me searching for the magical formula for kids and sweets. They want to know exactly how many times a week you should eat sweets, or how many nights a week should kids have dessert.
“How often should I let my kids eat sweets? How much is too much?”
As a mother of 5 children and registered dietitian nutritionist, let me be the first to tell you that I understand.
When it comes to our children’s health and well-being, we don’t want to leave anything to chance.
We want to know exactly the right approaches and ways to help them.
We want to take matters into our own hands and fulfill our responsibilities in helping our children to the best of our abilities.
Of course, none of us were given a manual on how to feed our children, and so we’re just doing the best we can with the information and resources we have available to us.
Around the topic of kids and sugar, there is so much overwhelming information out there that can really make it difficult to know the best approach to take: one that is supportive of your child’s health yet that won’t trigger a chaotic or complicated relationship with food.
The reality is that most of the information out there around kids and sweets centers around fear-mongering messages and restrictive feeding approaches.
Here’s what I mean (and some of the messages you’ve likely heard):
Sugar is toxic and addictive to children
Sugar is poisonous
Sugar is the culprit of disease and poor health conditions
Kids can be trusted to eat sweets
Sweets need to be limited, banned or tightly controlled if you want your children to be healthy
You’re failing as a parent if your child loves to eat sweets
You’re damaging your child if you let them eat sweets
Your child will be unhealthy if you let them eat sweets
Your child will end up in a larger body if you let them eat sweets, which will subject them to a lifetime of misery (um, hello fat phobic society – ugh!)
If you let your child eat sweets, that’s all they’ll ever want to eat
Letting kids eat sweets ruins their palate so they’ll never eat “healthy” food
The list honestly could go on and on. But you get the idea.
And if you’re interested in a scientific breakdown of some of the common myths around kids and sweets, definitely be sure to check out this blog post here: “5 Myths About Sugar and Kids: Sugar and Diabetes Myth Vs Fact”
These messages are also shaped and/or reinforced by our own experiences around food, our family food culture history, and relationships with food and our bodies.
One thing to also understand is the pressure on parents to feed their kids “perfectly” (which PSA – that doesn’t exist).
Parents have SO much pressure on their backs to get everything exactly right, and feeding kids is not an exception.
Though with food and how we feed our kids, there’s often a sense of worth and superiority attached to the ways we feed our kids.
How you feed your kids is not a moral issue.
You’re not a bad parent if your kids love sweets. Having a kid who eats vegetables doesn’t make you superior to other parents.
Yet, in the season of parenthood where our worth and identities are often changed and challenged, we grapple with these tangible forms of control to make ourselves feel better or more worthy of the challenge of parenting.
Many of these thoughts and beliefs around kids and sweets are highly influenced and infiltrated by diet culture, rendering them utterly destructive when we allow them to take root in our lives and dictate how and what we feed our kids.
A prescriptive approach to feeding children doesn’t allow us to raise intuitive eaters who are in tune with their bodies’ ever changing needs.
This is robotic and unresponsive to the ever-changing needs that our children will inevitably have, and this is the very reason why a prescriptive approach to feeding and offering sweets will never work (at least in the long run of raising happy, healthy children).
These types of damaging messages ultimately influence parents to approach feeding from a place of fear, which dictates the need for restrictive feeding practices.
Now where is this more true than when it comes to sweets, which often feel like a food that should be tightly controlled and restricted.
Moving From Restrictive to Responsive Feeding
A restrictive approach to feeding is typically based in fear and control.
When it comes to sweets, because this food is steeped in fear-mongering messages in our dieting culture and healthism approach to food, parents often feel hypervigilant about their kids eating sweets.
The desire for controlling these foods often manifests itself in restrictive feeding practices with children.
What does this mean?
This might look like having strict rules around the number of times your child is allowed to eat sweets per week or limiting them on the types of sweets they can eat.
This can also look like only allowing your child to eat sweets that have been “healthified” in some shape or form; for example, only letting your child eat cookies that have been made with reduced sugar, less butter, etc. (Of course, having to substitute ingredients in sweets due to allergies or medical reasons is entirely warranted and not what I’m referring to here).
A restrictive approach to feeding that’s based in fear might also look like:
Making comments on how your child is eating sweets; For example, “Are you sure you really want to eat all of that? You don’t need all that sugar.”
Categorizing foods in “good versus bad”, “healthy versus unhealthy” lens to try to dissuade your child from eating sweets. For example, “Too many sweets aren’t good for you”, or “Sweets aren’t healthy for you, we’re only going to have them once per week.”
Having certain requirements or stipulations around your child being allowed to eat sweets, such as having to eat a certain amount of their meal, eat all their vegetables, etc.
Using sweets as a reward or abstaining from offering sweets as a punishment
Not providing reliable access to sweets in your home
Only offering sweets that you might feel comfortable with your child having
Only offering an amount of sweets that you feel comfortable with your child eating
The important thing to be aware of is that these forms of restrictive feeding are often very subtle.
They’re also done with the best of intentions in mind.
Every parent I’ve worked with who operates in this way around sweets is doing so because they’re sincerely worried about their children.
They only want their kids to be healthy and thriving. They’re fearful about what their child’s intake might look like if they made sweets readily available.
They might not trust themselves to eat sweets in an unrestricted manner, and these fears can easily be projected onto their children.
If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, please hear me out when I say that you’re absolutely NOT alone. Nor does this make you a bad parent by any means.
You’re doing the best you can with the resources and information you have available to you.
Bringing awareness to this is not intended to create shame around parenting, but to shed light on an issue that has so much misinformation around it.
Because the truth is, no matter how tightly you might regulate or control your child’s sweet intake, they will inevitably be exposed to sweets in all shapes and forms at some point in their lifetimes.
And if they’ve never learned how to self-regulate sweets in the safety of your home growing up, how can they be expected to do this as an adult?
This is the danger of restrictive feeding practices with sweets, which stem from fear: they don’t preserve your child’s innate intuitive eating abilities.
Let me explain this further:
When certain foods feel restricted or off-limits, it only intensifies the desire around having and eating those very foods.
So in the case of eating sweets, what we’ve seen from research is that when highly palatable foods (AKA sweets) are restricted or feel off limits to a child, they’re more likely to seek these foods out, become obsessed with them, AND overeat them whenever they do get access to them.
When sweets feel scarce and off-limits, your child will be more likely to eat them whenever they’re available – say at a friend’s birthday party or a holiday gathering.
Kids lose sight of their bodies’ innate hunger and fullness cues, which guide their ability to self-regulate, when food feels inaccessible.
This is absolutely the case with sweets.
Your kids are more likely to eat sweets whenever they’re available, regardless of how they feel physically, because there’s a very real fear they might not get access to these foods again.
For some children, feelings of deprivation around sweets can incite binge eating behaviors, which can escalate into a more serious problem and increase risk of an eating disorder.
So while restrictive feeding practices may feel more helpful in raising a healthy child, perhaps in the short-term, they come with real risks and consequences, especially to the long-term health of your children and their overall relationship with food and their bodies.
The good news here is that there are other approaches you can take to support your children in learning how to self-regulate sweets and build a positive relationship with ALL foods.
You can preserve your child’s innate intuitive eating abilities by making sweets readily available and taking a more responsive approach to sweets, one that is rooted in TRUST of your children’s eating capabilities rather than FEAR of the foods themselves.
Let’s dive into what this alternative approach to feeding can look like and break down what it means to be responsive to your children’s needs around sweets:
How Often Should I Let My Kids Eat Sweets?
How much is too much?
Contrary to the many messages we get about sweets and sugar, these foods are not toxic or addictive to your children.
So what is the best way to judge how frequently you should offer sweets to your children or integrate them into your daily routine?
Generally, I’ll say it may be more often than you might think.
It’s easy to underestimate how frequently our kids need access to these foods and to dish them out in a manner that feels more comfortable for us.
But this isn’t being responsive to what our kids might need.
The reality is, your kids may need MORE frequent exposure to sweets based on the circumstances around them and the current level of exposure they might have to sweets.
The other thing to understand is that our children’s needs around sweets will likely change.
It tends to ebb and flow based on a variety of factors. Being responsive to what our children need around sweets means that we’re constantly considering these factors and making adjustments as needed in REAL time.
That means, even if you planned on only having sweets one time per day on any given day by offering some cookies with dinner, this may need to change if your child meets a friend for a playdate, and they share some candy with them.
This is important to help you take a more flexible approach to offering sweets to your child.
Because if you maintain any sense of rigidity around having sweets, this can backfire, making sweets MORE of an issue than they should be with your children.
Remember, rigid rules around sweets are steeped in diet culture and don’t allow you to be responsive to what your child is actually needing to build a positive relationship with all foods.
The frequency with which you offer your children sweets should be fluid and flexible depending on what your child is needing, their environment, the types of exposures they may already be getting and more.
Here are some of the factors you should consider when determining how frequently you may need to offer sweets in your home:
Level of exposure: How much exposure to sweets are your kids currently receiving within their environment? When kids are getting higher levels of exposure to sweets, they generally need MORE opportunities to eat the sweets they’re having exposure to.
Environment: What is happening in your children’s environment? Are they going to a birthday party where they’ll have access to cake and candy? Are there more sweets in your home because of a holiday or celebration? These types of factors likely indicate your child will need a higher level of exposure to sweets during this time.
Temperament: Some children naturally have higher appetitive tendencies than others and may also have more of a predisposition for sweets. This is important to identify as part of your child’s temperament, which may reflect a need for higher levels of exposure to sweets.
Child’s needs: If your child is showing signs of a sudden interest in sweets or persistently questioning and wanting MORE sweets, this can also indicate your child may need more frequent exposure to sweets.
For more details around the factors to consider when understanding how frequently you may need to offer your child sweets, be sure to check out this blog post here: “How Much Sugar for Kids? Understanding How Frequently to Offer Sweets”
The big picture point to know is that the frequency with which your children need exposure to sweets WILL change.
This means, while one week, your child will seem okay with having some kind of sweet or dessert a couple of times per week, this may not be sufficient for them in the following weeks.
As a mother and dietitian who lives and practices this myself with my own children, I can tell you that needs not only change weekly, but sometimes DAILY.
Taking a responsive approach to sweets means leaning into flexibility to help meet our kids where they are to support them in building a positive relationship with all foods and to learn how to self-regulate sweets in their bodies.
For example, you might celebrate someone’s birthday in your home and have a lot of leftover cake and candy for the days that follow. To expect that your child wouldn’t have interest in these foods is unrealistic, especially because they’re part of the environment your child is living in.
In this type of situation, you would want to be proactive in increasing the number of opportunities your child can have to eat these foods.
While you may normally have a dessert with dinner on a regular day, higher exposure to these foods because of a birthday would warrant increasing the frequency at which your child is allowed to eat sweets.
This can look like offering a cupcake with milk as a snack and then letting your child also have leftover candy with dinner. You may need to do the same thing on the following day too, as long as these foods are in your home and while your child is showing a higher interest in them.
The important big picture goal here is to ebb and flow according to your environment, circumstances and your child’s/family’s needs.
Otherwise, any hard rules around sweets are perpetuating diet culture and not allowing your family to eat intuitively.
Children can sniff out a hidden agenda, which just makes them more resistant to what we’re trying to implement.
Rather than ignoring the persistent questioning and requests (which feels easier to do), it’s important to be responsive to them.
Parents often fear the worst when their children are asking for more sweets, which elicits a control-based response (i.e. “My child wants more of this “unhealthy” food; therefore, I need to control it more tightly or limit access”). When in reality, this only flames a child’s desire for those foods.
Another example might be anticipating holidays and celebrations where you know there will naturally be a higher volume of sweets available. Classic examples include many candy-centered holidays, like Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Easter – well, the whole holiday season, too, right?
This would be an example of an environmental factor that would play a role in influencing the level of exposure to sweets your child may need.
Because your children will be having more frequent exposure to sweets due to what’s happening in their environment, you want to anticipate this and know they might also need MORE frequent opportunities (within the structure of their meal and snack schedule) to enjoy the sweets they’re being exposed to.
This is what taking a responsive approach to sweets looks like – matching your child’s needs accordingly with your approach to food (especially sweets) within your home.
Taking a Responsive Approach to Offering Sweets
A responsive approach to sweets is FLEXIBLE; Contrary to diet culture, it doesn’t base how you feed your children on rigid external rules, but adjusts around what your children need to support them in building a positive relationship with food and their bodies.
Ultimately, this type of approach to sweets also helps your children learn how to eat and self-regulate all foods in a world where sweets abound and exist in every form.
As mentioned, your child WILL eventually have exposure to these foods in some capacity or another, and allowing them the opportunities to build their eating skills NOW can support them in becoming component eaters down the road.
Another thing to consider in your approach to sweets is your own energy around these foods.
Taking a responsive approach to sweets involves TRUST between you and your children, as well as maintaining a neutral stance on all foods.
This helps your children internalize the message that no foods are inherently bad, and they are not “bad” for wanting to eat certain foods, especially sweets.
This is also important in helping your kids trust their own bodies as the best experts of what they need, too.
However, if your children can visibly see you’re anxious or stressed every time they’re eating something sweet, they will pick up on this energy around these foods and eating experiences.
This can compromise their ability to tune into their bodies, especially if they’re clearly observing that your actions aren’t in alignment with your attitude.
So as best you can, maintain a posture of trust in your children’s eating abilities.
Know they CAN be trusted to eat what they need from the foods you provide.
And when you maintain a neutral energy around sweets and don’t make these foods such a BIG DEAL, they too will feel chill about eating and be better able to listen to their own bodies.
Lastly, it’s important to consider some factors that might challenge your ability to take a responsive approach to offering sweets to your children.
Having awareness of these potential roadblocks can help you identify what things might be standing in the way, when it comes to responding to your children’s needs around sweets to support a positive relationship with food.
Here are some factors that might be preventing you from offering sweets frequently:
Diet culture rules
Fear around your child’s health, body size
Comments from a professional, friend or family member
Parental history of an eating disorder or disordered eating (being more likely to restrict the very foods you struggled with eating, food fears that prevents you from keeping certain foods in the house – for example, if you binged on ice cream, you may struggle with offering it to your kids, buying it or keeping it in the house)
If you’re struggling to lean into trust to feed your child responsively, please know you’re not alone.
You can check out this post here that breaks down some of the common misconceptions and myths around kids and sweets. Sometimes, clearing the clutter can help you feel more empowered on your feeding journey with your children.
As another resource, if you are a parent who has your own history with food that might make it challenging to trust your child, I’d love to invite you to join our free virtual support group, Lift the Shame.
Especially if you are a parent healing from an eating disorder or disordered eating, it can be hard to extend trust to your own child around food if you don’t have trust in yourself and your own eating abilities.
This can be a hard issue to wrestle with, but please don’t go through this alone.
Healing your own relationship with food is the best gift you can give your children. As you build confidence in your own relationship with food and your body, you can extend that to your kids.
Don’t forget your children can be your best teachers and guides when it comes to healing your relationship with food, too.
As a mother myself in eating disorder recovery, I can attest to the healing power our children bring when we observe them eating and living in their innate intuitive eating abilities. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and a testimony of the power of trust in their capacity to eat in a manner that is right for their bodies.
You can work through any roadblocks you might be facing to be able to truly feed your child from a place of TRUST instead of FEAR.
The first step is to identify what those triggers might be.
Then you can start to let go of what isn’t serving you or your family anymore so you can begin to feed your children in a way that better aligns with your values and desires to enjoy freedom with food as a family.
Myths About a Responsive Approach to Feeding
As we are on this topic, it’s also important to clarify what taking a responsive approach to sweets DOESN’T mean.
It’s not just letting them have whatever they want whenever they want, or no structure or boundaries around food.
On the contrary, it’s offering a supportive approach to feeding with our children while being flexible within structure to meet their individual needs. Because feeding your children will and SHOULD vary depending on your family’s unique circumstances and experiences.
That is the goal of responsively feeding, especially with sweets. You are attuning your feeding approaches to your children’s individual needs.
However, many parents I talk to worry that offering sweets more frequently will mean that your children will only ever want to eat sweets or that this will somehow ruin their health and well-being.
These are valid fears, and again, it’s important to understand where these fears come from and to determine whether these fears are running the show when it comes to your feeding practices.
It always comes back to TRUST.
Ultimately with feeding, it’s important to TRUST that your children have the innate capability to self-regulate their food intake.
Your kids are born with the intuitive eating abilities and skills they need to regulate their intake, including sweets!
Restriction from sweets and limited access to the foods your children are showing a high interest in are factors that will actually PREVENT them from being able to listen to and honor their body’s guiding signals.
When kids can’t trust these foods are accessible, they will be driven to eat them, regardless of how they feel.
This is why offering sweets regularly is important for preserving your child’s innate intuitive eating abilities.
As counterintuitive as this process may feel, it’s a proven approach to raising a healthy child who has a positive relationship with food and their bodies.
You can trust the process, and more importantly, you can trust your child’s innate eating capabilities and yourself as their guide.
If you need more support and a step-by-step system to help your children build a positive relationship with food and to end the craze around sweets in your home, be sure to check out the Simplify Sweets Academy!