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My kid gets dessert every night and is still obsessed with sweets!

Posted by on Jun 10, 2017 in Blog Posts |

A few moms this week have emailed to ask about sweets. Both have similar stories, and I’ll try to give a general answer here as this comes up often.


Paraphrased concerns:

“We eat really well at home, almost all whole grains, very little if any processed sugar, whole fruits and veggies. My kids enjoy a good variety of foods. We do allow one treat a day. The kids get to choose when they eat it, but it’s all they talk about. Also, when they have access, they have trouble controlling how much they eat. It’s not just candy or cake, but white bread and white rice, which we don’t eat at home…”

A few quick thoughts:  I’ve seen many resources for parents advise that children get one treat a day. If this works for your kid, great! Congrats! However, what I mostly hear about are parents dismayed to find out that their child is lying to them, not fessing up to the cupcake at school, or finding treats on the school lunch debit card printout when the child swears he isn’t ordering those items. In my experience, a strict one treat a day rule sets kids up to have to lie to get the foods they want.

I’m not sure why some kids are okay with one or no sweet foods a day, while others are more interested… Probably a combination of factors; just like adults, some kids have a sweet tooth, others prefer potato chips. Some kids seem to melt with pleasure with a treat, and others don’t really seem to get much pleasure from food at all. And, a big factor is restriction. There are many studies that show that restricting access to sweets (or other things for that matter) often makes children crave them even more. And from personal and client experience, allowing children access, within structured and balanced meals and snacks often lessens the child’s interest. (For a great summary on the idea of food addiction, check out this post by Evelyn Tribole RD.)

When I first started out with M, I used the “one treat a day” approach, and it seemed to work for a while, mostly as all her food was consumed at home or sent to daycare or preschool. As she got older, and as the black market for sweets heated up at school, and the opportunities for treats increased, I noticed she wouldn’t mention treats that she had and I knew I had to adjust my approach.

Over the years, her interest in sweets has gone up and down. When it is up, I decide to allow more than I might otherwise feel comfortable with. She doesn’t have to lie. So the reality is that most days she gets 2-3 sweet items in an otherwise balanced intake, during meal and snack times (except occasional candy between meals, and occasional sneaking is developmentally expected.) So breakfast might be popped popcorn with butter and a little sugar, with fruit and milk. She might pack two Oreos with lunch (as often as not they are traded for chicken drumsticks or come back uneaten) and she might get a popsicle or cookie for dessert with dinner. Lunch is often left-overs, includes a fruit or veggie etc. Sometimes there is no dessert.

This may be more sugar than is “ideal” (though I imagine about what many of us had as children, remember when school cafeterias served ice-cream!!!), but I also see her leave half a piece of cake because she is full, ask for “as many vegetables as you can cram into that stir-fry”, and be able to enjoy outings and not obsess over sweets. Her growth is stable, and she has many opportunities to move her body, and gets lots of good sleep. Meanwhile a friend came over to bake, and she literally ate sugar from the sugar bowl.  Many clients share that their children have been found sneaking and bingeing on treats at school or with friends. Helping children be able to relate and manage those high-interest foods takes some trial and error, and may look different for different children.

But here are some ideas:

  • Perhaps serve more than you might otherwise like to for a time. I view it as “innoculating” them against out-of-control behaviors that are common, and I believe set kids up for binge eating problems.
  • “Some days there are no desserts, some days we have three. It balances out.”
  • Don’t diet, shame, or tease around certain foods (or weight). Young children can feel shame enjoying treats (as young as four), and shame and deprivation are implicated in binge cycles.
  • Serve dessert with dinner.
  • If they don’t finish dessert, or they seem to slow down, let them save it for later, even breakfast! “Looks like you are getting full. Would you like to save the rest and have it with breakfast?” Having ice-cream or some cake with breakfast feels really cool! With milk and some fruit, it’s good energy to start the day. Be matter-of-fact when it’s happening. This has seemed to make a big impact for us.
  • Limit any nutrition talk that might spoil their enjoyment or bring shame into eating, limit nutrition talk in general. If the lectures haven’t helped so far, they probably won’t, and might make matters worse. Nutrition talk needs to be age appropriate, and in general, less is more.
  • You do get to say “no.” “I’m sorry you’re sad we’re not having ice-cream now, we had DQ for snack  and we will have it again soon.” (See post below from Disney incident…)
  • If they are preoccupied with a food, consider bringing it into the rotation. Serve bagels every few weeks, or make white rice every fourth time you make rice. Avoid setting up certain foods as “bad” or “good”. Serve the bagels with a favorite veggie or fruit.
  • Try a dry-erase menu board, where you can write down what’s for dinner and dessert for a few days in a row, may stop the pestering.
  • Occasionally let them have as much as they want. Link to Ellyn Satter’s Forbidden Foods guide on the “treat” snack.  (And Halloween how-to.)

Those are a few thoughts. Not easy stuff for sure, especially in a culture that makes so much money on disordered attitudes around food and bodies. Good luck! Oh, and I talk about this and much more, including the research that I found most compelling in my book, Love Me, Feed Me.

Some old related posts for fun:

Disney cruise where our waitress brought my kiddo a sundae for breakfast…

How permission helped one mom get a grip on sugary cereals

Putting treats out of site doesn’t mean forbidding them

A mom shares her Halloween success

Max’s healing from food preoccupation series, including an M&M a-ha moment in part 1.


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