I used to feel really good about myself for teaching my son how to handle sweets.
When he was in preschool, we let him choose one small dessert a day, and gave him the option of eating it whenever he wanted to.
For example, for a couple of years after Halloween, he would wake up asking for his two fun-sized pieces of candy, and would enjoy every last bite.
The best part – the part where I felt so good about myself – was later that night, after dinner, when he would ask for dessert and we would gently remind him that he already had his dessert for the day.
And, he would accept it with no fuss.
Until Kindergarten, that is, when he was introduced to BIRTHDAY TREATS (where kids would bring cupcakes to share with the class).
In the blink of an eye, my smugness took a pounding.
My little, innocent child started negotiating.
“If the birthday treat at school is small, can I still have dessert?”
“How come ALL my friends can have cookies at lunch AND dessert after dinner?”
“If I have cake at the birthday party, can I still have dessert?
My head was spinning. I was at a loss.
It’s been a few years since then, and thankfully, I have learned a lot.
Today, our family feels much more at peace with desserts.
We now have a method of incorporating sweets into our lives that has started to neutralize their power, allowing our son to enjoy them without all the drama.
It’s also freeing him from feeling the need to negotiate (at least most of the time!).
Here are 3 easy steps we took (and by “easy” I mean simple and straightforward, NOT comfortable and intuitive):
In fact, these easy steps will challenge everything you have ever been taught, ever believed in and ever thought possible when it comes to desserts.
But, the payoff is HUGE; not to mention, it’s been proven to work.
1. Serve dessert WITH the meal.
At some point, most kids become very focused on desserts (and how to get more of them!).
This usually happens when they learn that desserts are handled differently outside their own home.
Whether it is through the introduction of birthday treats at school, eating chocolate cake (instead of fruit) for dessert at a friend’s house, or even going for ice cream when grandma visits.
One surefire way to kick dessert off its pedestal is to neutralize it.
And, there is no better way to neutralize sweets than to serve it alongside the rest of the food on the table.
Do: Give your child a small dessert with their meal and tell them that they can eat it whenever they want to. But, no seconds on dessert.
Expect: At first, children will eat their dessert first. But, over time, they will often go back and forth between bites of their meal and dessert. And, sometimes they will save it until the end.
The Payoff: Kids will not overeat, just to get their dessert. Their dessert is now part of the meal, so when they’re done, they’re done.
2. Offer “treat” snacks.
It has been shown that all children can be trusted to learn to like the food their family serves and to eat however much they need to grow up with the bodies that are right for them.
This can only happen, though, when we parents fully trust our kids to do so, and when we give them permission to eat as much as they want from the food that we served.
At mealtime, however, we usually restrict desserts to one small portion because we believe that sugar provides an easy way out for children at mealtimes.
So, to counterbalance this restriction during meals, it is important that we give our children the opportunity to learn how to self-regulate their dessert-intake – when sweets are not competing with their regular meal.
Do: Once a week, during a regularly-scheduled snack time, put a big plate of cookies or candy at the center of the table. Make sure it’s enough so that you don’t “accidentally” run out.
Include milk, if you’d like. And, tell your children that they can eat as much as they want. Then bite your tongue and tell yourself it will all work out in the end (it will!).
Expect: At first, for weeks or more, children will eat A LOT. The more anxious you feel and the more you do not trust your kids to self-regulate, the more this will occur.
But, once you relax and trust that, even with sweets, your kids can be satisfied with just a few cookies, your kids will actually become satisfied with just a few.
But, YOU have to believe it first.
The Payoff: Overtime, your children will not be seduced by sweets and they will be satisfied with a moderate amount.
3. Approach birthday parties like Vegas (what happens there, stays there!)
Parties are another opportunity to allow children to learn how to trust themselves with sweets.
Remember, it is our JOB as their parents to teach them how to trust themselves. When they are all grown up, we want them to approach birthday cake – or a dessert buffet – with ease and excitement.
Not feeling overstimulated and determined to eat 20 cupcakes.
Do: Tell your children before the party they they can eat and enjoy whatever they want to eat and however much they want to have of it. Do not try to restrict them in any way, shape or form. Let. Them. Loose.
Expect: At first, they will be ecstatic and will want to really experience this new-found freedom. They will also want to test your resolve (does Mom REALLY trust me?).
So, expect them to eat a lot of sweets. But, just like with treat snacks, the faster you get to the point of truly trusting them, the faster they will start listening to their natural internal cues of hunger and fullness.
But, it takes time, so we MUST be patient.
The Payoff: Your children will grow up excited about parties because of all the fun, friends and food. But, the food will be only part of their focus.
At the end of the day, this is a journey.
Once we learn to trust them, they will learn to trust themselves, and their bodies will grow into the size that is perfect for them.
As I have learned, it is our job to stop monitoring our kids moment by moment and to begin recognizing that the only way they will really learn how to eat well is through trial and error.
If we continue to regulate what and how much they eat, then they will always ignore their own internal regulation in favor of winning the war with us. If not today, then guaranteed, once they leave the nest.
What do you think of these strategies? Do you trust them? Do they feel impossible? Share your thoughts in the comments below!