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Parents on dessert with dinner

Posted by on Mar 18, 2014 in Blog Posts | 6 comments


I asked my facebook readers  and a few past clients to share their experiences with serving dessert with the meal. For many workshop attendees or new clients, this is the idea they struggle most to accept: “How will I get them to eat anything if I can’t bribe with dessert?” or, “I can’t accept that he gets rewarded with something he likes if he hasn’t eaten anything healthy first.”

After serving family-style, serving a child-sized portion of dessert at the same time as other foods is the second most helpful tip, according to my clients. I also find that for families who do this from the start, they are much more likely to have children who are able to enjoy all kinds of foods and grow in healthy ways.

Note: dessert can include fruit, cookies, ice-cream, popsicles, apple-sauce, yogurt, home-made or store-bought… You don’t have to have dessert every day or even most days. You don’t need to eat dessert if you don’t want to. I personally would rather enjoy more turkey curry with rice than eat ice-cream, but we include a dessert every night for our daughter.

Families find lots of ways that work for them. If what you are doing works for you and your child, keep up the good work. If however you are tired of negotiating, your child is anxious at the table, not enjoying a great variety, preoccupied with sweets, or having trouble eating the right amounts for healthy growth, consider serving dessert with dinner.

I will admit to a selfish motive for this post. Often, a skeptical client needs to hear that it works from other formerly skeptical parents. I link to this post in my consult summaries. Thanks to all the parents who shared. Please feel free to leave your comments/experiences below as well.


Musings on serving dessert with the meal

My 18 month old usually seizes on her dessert first and eats some of it, but then switches back and forth among different foods for the rest of the meal and often leaves some dessert.  My feeling is she’s probably going to eat some dessert whether she’s hungry or not (at least if she’s like me) so may as well let her weave it in with her hunger rather than stuff it in after finishing some prescribed portion of “healthy food.”
Mine are 2 (not picky) and 4 (picky). Dessert with dinner works quite well at my house. The kids still sometimes ask for more of dessert, but they don’t persist for long. And it doesn’t seem to affect their overall intake. When they are hungry and the food is familiar and stuff they would eat normally, they eat anyway. If they are not hungry or the food is too challenging then they may not eat much of it after their dessert–but it would have been that way anyway. Occasionally my 4 year old will take bites of dessert, bites of dinner, bites of dessert. Sometimes I suspect starting with dessert actually stimulates my 4 year-old’s appetite or at least lowers her resistance to the meal as a whole.

I couldn’t believe how well this worked. She would lick her homemade smoothie pop, then eat some beans, then lick the pop and go back and forth. Half the time, dessert melts now while she eats dinner!
My daughter was obsessed with fruit. We don’t really do cookies and such, but she would whine and cry for fruit at meals. She would eat so much that she wouldn’t eat anything else. Katja suggested we try to serve fruit like dessert at mealtimes, a reasonable portion with the meal, and after three days, she was more calm at the table, and more interested in the other foods. She ate more of the other foods, veggies, beans etc. We are vegetarians too, and to see her not so anxious and whining for fruit and enjoying meals and eating more balanced was amazing. If someday she gets as interested in cookies and the sugary stuff, I think we’ll start serving it so she doesn’t get so obsessed.
This works great at our house. My children are 4 and 6. It helps us avoid the “dessert” concept and in fact, we don’t refer to it as dessert at all. A sweet something (cookie, a few M&Ms, licorice, fruit, etc.) is just offered on the plate with the rest of the meal, a few times weekly. For us, it has helped keep all foods on the same playing field, avoids bartering and gives more eating autonomy to my children; they are offered a variety of foods and can choose how much to eat and at what point in the mealtime. They eat slower, and there’s no pressure or after-dinner expectations. When they’re done, they’re done.

It helps reduce anxiety. Food is food. Serving dessert with meals levels the playing field and opens up curiosity and space for other foods, rather than just fixating on if and when dessert is coming…

Back when we bought into dessert was a reward for eating dinner, both my kids were sweet tooth junkies. Now that dessert is just part of the meal, it’s impressive to see how well they self regulate the sweets, and choose foods they appear to need over eating a lot of something because it’s available for a limited time. With one typical and one selective eater, a little treat before dinner helps take the edge off whatever is distracting them from eating, often leaving most the dessert and choosing more of the meal.
This is also the thing that helps my clients the most. It ends the daily struggles of “did I eat enough?” and really keeps everyone on their side of the DOR*.
I notice that serving dessert with dinner lessens the kids’ anxiety about WHEN dessert will happen and if they’ll get enough. It also normalizes the whole idea that dessert is food and not an event.
The dinner table was a pretty scary, anxiety-ridden destination for my son. We started DOR about 6 months ago when my son turned 3 years old. Every dinner is now family style on pretty platters and often lit by candle light (huge positive change) and some sort of treat is included. It made the table approachable again. Screams of “no no no!” have changed to “I’m ready, Mmm, looks good”.  Sometimes he grabs a treat first, but many times it’s only a few bites and he’s grabbing real food that he didn’t touch in the past. He still doesn’t eat huge portions, but removing the fear of food is such positive progress.
(*SE is selective eater which is beyong typical picky eating and involves anxiety,  and often a history of a feeding challenge like oral motor problems, reflux etc.)
Prior to the DOR, I… Like so many used dessert as a bribe. Only he resisted most desserts anyways and that tactic failed. The first few weeks of the DOR were very difficult and our dinners were 100% safe…oreos, chips and bananas for dinner? Sure! After weeks of DOR and anxiety visibly lessened, we faded out 100% safe, to 50% safe to 1-2 safe with dinners. Safe includes desserts, fruits, snacks. Whatever he likes. The most amazing part of this is losing what I like to call the OMG factor. Typically, kids will pile cookies on their plates and eat like its a “forbidden” food. My SE takes 2 oreos, eats a carrot, takes a bite of rice, finishes a cookie. All food is equal! This is the healthiest relationship with food I’ve ever seen! It seems to calm him down, give him comfort that he HAS something to eat and enjoy while exploring the other options!
My kids fixate on dessert if told it is coming after dinner and will be “done” earlier to facilitate getting the sweet stuff sooner. When we have served dessert with dinner (2 gummy worms, fruit, one piece of chocolate or one cookie), they go back and forth, but eat more of the ‘real food’ than if focused on getting a dessert. It also takes away bargaining. . . I love that part.
After the novelty of dessert with dinner wore off, we found that our kids sometimes go for dessert first but not always. Our younger child (who has been raised with DOR since birth) typically alternates between the entree and the dessert and often doesn’t bother finishing the dessert.
We don’t do dessert with every meal… depends on what we have around, what else we’ve eaten that day etc. My kids know that dessert happens when it is gonna happen and that it is almost random.
When we have dessert (cookies or ice cream typically), I give it to her with dinner. Sometimes she finishes it and sometimes she doesn’t. Initially she would try to eat all of it even when full, until I reassured her we could save it for later (with a snack or meal over the next day or so). This took the internal pressure off of her to finish in case she might not get to have all of hers. Now, I can say “should we save it or are you done with it?” If she says she’s done, I can toss it. At 9 years of age, she now has the language and thinking and trust to be able to communicate this without my cues. Since my eating has been a struggle, it’s reassuring that I can use DOR with her so she will not have the same struggles I have. Sometimes she asks for ice cream or cookies, etc. I will often honor this request in the next day or two and tell her that we can at an upcoming meal or snack. Typically we have dessert 1-2 times a week.
We don’t have dessert every night, but it is fairly common (especially following this year’s – our first – trick or treating at Halloween). We have always followed DoR with our now 3.5 year old, and find that when sweets are offered as part of the meal she’s just as likely to eat only part of the sweet as she is to eat all of it. Another poster mentioned how their children seem to eat better overall when a sweet is included with the meal, and we sometimes see the same. I think our daughter can get too hungry and feel a little overwhelmed by the time dinner rolls around, and having that very palatable item included in the meal just gets things started for her – sort of like priming the pump.

On the idea that if you never serve sweets, they won’t want them:

OH how I wish it were that simple. I am a wholefoods/health food devotee, have been for 25 years. I made all my own baby food from scratch, never brought processed food or sweets into the house, and only ever offered up “real” foods to my daughter. If/when she was ever offered a treat (which was limited to special occasions like birthdays) it was made by me from scratch using whole grains, no refined sweeteners, etc. I truly believed that if I never exposed my child to anything but whole, real foods that she would never develop a taste for sweets and would always make “healthy” choices. BOY was I wrong. Around age 3 my daughter became hyper aware of all the treats that other kids were being offered and began to ask questions about why other kids got to eat sweets and she didn’t. I still held my ground about no sweets in the home, but loosened my grip when at parties, etc. Her interest in sweets continued to grow and she felt confused and sad about why I never offered ice cream or cookies at our house. And then the lying and hiding started–when she had a treat at school or a friend’s she would lie and say everyone else had some, but not her, or she would stash treats in her pockets and secretly eat them behind closed doors when she returned home. She was feeling ashamed and scared and because I so value my relationship with my daughter, I knew things had to change and so I have slowly loosened the reigns around sweets and other “junk” food. For some kids, out of sight out of mind may work, but not for my child.

 And from one busy mom:  “It works!! Just that simple.”

*DOR is the Division of Responsibility. Parent decides what, when, where and child decided how much to eat from what is provided. Always includes something the child can eat. A big part of Satter’s trust model of feeding is to serve dessert with the meal as well as regular sit down family meals and planned snacks.

For more on serving dessert with meals, sweets and treats strategies and getting back on track with your child’s eating, check out my book,s Love Me, Feed Me on and Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating

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Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Sarah Remmer

    Great post! I too suggest offering a bit of dessert with a meal to put all foods on a more level playing field. Will share on my FB page! Thank you!

    • katja

      Thanks, Sarah for chiming in. The more parents hear from various professionals: from RDs, to STs and MDs a similar message, the better!

  2. Sara

    It’s worth pointing out that the concept of a separate sweet course at the end of a meal is relatively modern. In the Middle Ages, sweet and savory dishes were served as part of the same course. There was no differentiation between “meal” and “dessert”.

    • katja

      Love that! Thanks! It’s good to be reminded that there are many ways of eating, many different kinds of foods over the years and all over the world that support health and well-being.

  3. Katie

    I hadn’t heard of your advice to serve dessert with dinner when my kids were little, but I was careful to avoid making dessert the bribe to eat a meal and followed guidelines from Ellyn Satter.

    Occasionally my kids would be particularly excited about a dessert, and I’d pull it out early without clearing the rest of the food from the table, and they’d often eat dessert and go right back to the broccoli or whatever.

    Another time my little girls (probably ages 4 and 2 at the time) asked for dessert and I told them that I didn’t have anything for dessert in the house. I thought that I didn’t, but a few minutes later I heard them laughing–they’d snuck into the fridge and pulled out a bag of baby carrots. They thought carrots were a great dessert, and they were very proud to have outsmarted me when I was trying to withhold the deliciousness from them. I conceded that they were right and I was wrong!

    • katja

      Fun! It’s all good! Sometimes dessert for us is near the end of the meal, sometimes at the end, sometimes not at all. I think that for families that are struggling, serving it with a meal can be a helpful way to support children with self-regulation, but there are many ways families can thrive.