Dessert for dinner? Handling sweets with toddlers (part 2)

Sugar is a hot topic, anywhere you look. Nowadays sugar has quickly replaced fat as being the most demonized nutrient.

It's no wonder you might be feeling confused about sugar for your child.

Many parents are also faced with their own held beliefs about sugars and sweet foods from their upbringing and how these foods were approached by caregivers growing up.

So, let's talk about sugar for young children.

To make this simpler. I'm going to break this down into 2 parts:"added sugars" and "sweets"

Read part 1 here.

Part 2: Now, let's talk about sweets

"Sweets" is the word I have chosen to describe the dessert-type foods that are meant to taste sweet. The foods that often have cultural ties, to holidays, birthdays, special occasions, or grandma's famous chocolate chip cookies.

You know when the food you are eating is a "sweet", whereas you might not notice when your granola bar contains more added sugar than a slice of cake.

My recommendations are a little bit different for sweets than for those "regular foods" with added sugars - and they might even surprise you.

Sweet enough already

First off, for babies under 12 months, try to avoid the sweets entirely, we really want to focus on breastmilk or formula and iron and calorie-rich foods as the priorities without filling up their tiny bellies with cupcakes and cookies.

If your child is at a point where they haven't yet discovered sweets and don't really know or appreciate what they are, then there is no need to introduce these foods.

But, once they do understand what sweets and desserts are, avoid restricting these foods, using sweets as rewards and instead focus on neutrality.

Avoid: Restriction

Though it may seem like a good idea in the short-term, restricting foods can have unintended consequences.

Restricting foods by limiting the amount your child can have, never offering sweets, explaining that these foods are only for special occasions, or suggesting that these foods are bad for them can lead to a child desiring these foods more, "sneaking" sweets away from adult view or contribute to guilty feelings around food and disordered eating later in life.

And when sweets are restricted at home, there is a good chance your child will fixate on these foods when they are exposed to them outside of the home.

Avoid: Sweets as Rewards

Rewarding children with food may work well in the short term but there are some major drawbacks.

Rewarding children in general can impact intrinsic motivation- the desire to do something without external motivation.

Rewarding with food can negatively impact a child's overall relationship with food.

Rewarding with food might sound like:

"you can have a brownie if you have one more bite of broccoli"

Rewarding the consumption of "healthy" food with other more desirable foods can actually lead children to dislike those "healthy" foods that they have to get through to get the sweet food.

"I'll give you a candy if you use the potty"

Rewarding with food and sweets can lead to dysregulation of bodily signals such as overconsumption of sweet foods despite feeling full.

"be a good girl or you can't have any cake after dinner"

Rewarding "good" behaviour with sweets is something that can stick into adulthood, eating and rewarding oneself with sweets based purely on emotions.

Wouldn't you rather aim to raise a child who feels totally in control when offered sweets at a gathering as an adult?

- Being able to say "no, thank you" when offered a slice of cake they don't really like

- enjoying as much of a donut as they want without feeling any sense of guilt to follow

- or eating a bowl of ice cream because they like the flavour not to reward themself for a job promotion.

There will be more work involved in getting to this point than reading a blog post, such as seeking support in the Your Nourished Toddler program, but understanding the long-term results of parenting actions is a starting point.

Stay neutral.

Ultimately, the goal is to treat sweets just like any other food, not putting them on a pedestal of being a special food.

This doesn't mean your child won't prefer sweets over other foods. It means that sweets won't be treated differently than other foods by your child's caregivers.

What does this look like?

Using phrasing objective phrasing like:

"ice cream is sweet, cold, and creamy"

avoid: "ice cream is bad for you"

"these candies are sweet, sometimes sour and chewy"

avoid: "don't eat too many you'll rot your teeth"

"cookies aren't on the menu for breakfast today, but let's bake some this afternoon"

avoid: "cookies are a sometimes food, we only have them as a treat"

Serve Dessert with Dinner

Yep. You read that right.

Here's how this works: serve a portion of dessert for each family member (excluding baby or very young toddler) alongside the main meal. This really helps to send the message of sweets being on the same playing field as other foods.

Let's cover some FAQ about this:

So why on earth would you do this?!?

Serving dessert alongside dinner prevents children from limiting their consumption of the other foods on their plate in hopes for dessert. Restricting dessert until your child "finishes their plate" or takes "one more bite" can lead to a greater dislike of the foods on the plate and a greater desire for sweets.

Even if you aren't putting any pressure on your toddler to eat their food, serving dessert immediately after dinner can unintentionally send the message that the "good stuff" must come after the "boring stuff".

What if they ask for more?

By serving each family member a portion you have deemed appropriate you are sending the message that that amount is all that is available.

You can simply explain "that is all we have available for this meal". Of course, this might cause a tantrum which I would encourage you to treat with empathy while staying firm on your message. Setting gentle limits around food is discussed more thoroughly in the Your Nourished Toddler program

What if they only eat the sweet and nothing else?

There will be other opportunities to eat other types of food.

Let your child decide "how much" and "if" they want to eat of the food you have offered. The more times you offer sweets alongside dinner without restriction, the easier it will be for your child to understand that there will be other opportunities for sweets.

For more information about this approach check out this post.

Occasionally let your child eat sweets without limits

The best way to guide a child to understand how it feels to overeat sweets and where this limit is in their body is to let them figure it out for themselves.

Give opportunities where they can choose exactly how much they want to eat of the sweets, to eat more cookies, to fill their ice cream bowl as tall as they want.

Shifting perspectives and attitudes around food, and especially sugar, takes time and a lot of self-reflection, seek out professional support if it feels too difficult to manage on your own.

For a simple cheat sheet for building toddler snacks (with 20 different toddler friendly snack examples) subscribe to the Nourished Nest Nutrition newsletter for the free Toddler Snack Builder download.

Want more support?

If you want to join a really awesome community of parents and caregivers raising toddlers to have a healthy relationship with food, The Your Nourished Toddler program includes video modules (with written transcripts) for every question that might come up while feeding your toddler, a very popular recipe book, nutrition and meal planning information, a private facebook group, and guest speaker q&as with toddler experts.

This program is perfect for you if you are a parent and caregiver of a toddler (or soon-to-be toddler) and want to raise your child with a healthy relationship with food and create positive mealtime memories.

You will learn all about creating a positive environment around food and eating, how to create nutritious meals, and how to feel totally confident feeding your toddler.

Join here

The nutrition information contained in this resource is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, registered dietitian, or other qualified healthcare provider with respect to any questions you my have regarding the nutritional requirements based upon a medical condition. Reliance upon any content provided in this resource is solely at your own risk. Speak with you health provider if you suspect your child may have a condition or delay that would prevent them from eating safely.