Navigating the waters of kids and sugar is tricky territory. Cupcakes, sugary snacks, and soda pop are ubiquitous. Meanwhile, medical research, government guidelines, and nutrition experts say we need to scale way back on the sweet stuff in the interest of good health. As a parent, it’s hard to know what to do, especially if you have a child who is particularly keen for the candy aisle. For advice, I turned to family nutrition expert and author Maryann Jacobson, MS, RD, who weighs in with 7 simple strategies to curb your kid’s sweet obsession. When used together, these steps can be a powerful force in teaching children the art of moderation.
1. Get the exposure right
A survey with 670 college students and their parents revealed that frequent food exposure matters in the development of long-term food preferences. The nutritious and not-so-nutritious foods the young adults preferred were strongly related to the foods they saw repeatedly in childhood. This was even true for items they disliked as kids.
This has to do with covert versus overt control. Parents utilize covert control simply by limiting what foods come into the house, choosing quality food products, and deciding how often different items show up in the structure of feeding. This is different from overt control such as nagging a kid each time they reach in the cookie jar, always limiting their portion of sweets, or leaving tasty food in sight and saying “no” repeatedly.
2. Create a Flexible Goodies Policy
Providing a regular and consistent offering of goodies is what I call a flexible goodies policy (FGP). When the right offerings occur, children are calm around sweets. They still love them and may eat quite a bit at times, but they understand their role in the diet and that they will get them again. There’s no need to sneak, hide, or feel guilty for eating something so enjoyable.
For example, in our house we have a flexible once-a-day policy. Generally, we enjoy something sweet once a day but may have more on some days (party on the weekend) or none on another. For more details on FGP, see this post on Real Mom Nutrition.
3. Put goodies out of sight
The researchers I’ve talked with all agree that kids are more likely to fixate on goodies when they are in sight but they can’t have them. This isn’t a keep-it-out-of-the-house type of advice, but simply having a designated place for goodies, taking items out when it’s time to eat, and then putting them away when everyone’s done.
4. Find non-food ways to soothe
It’s easy to offer the cookie for the scraped knee or the lollipop following shots at the doctor. While once in a while this is fine, too much can create an association that sweets are needed to make bad feelings go away.
Instead, work with children on non-food ways to help themselves feel better. Maybe they like to listen to music or get outside to play or take a warm bath or even call a family member. Doing something that feels good – and feeds the spirit – helps your child see problems and difficult feelings in a new light.
5. Let the outside world teach natural consequences
You can feel like you do everything right at home, but then get to parties or to the grandparents’ home, and it becomes a free-for-all with food. I struggled with this early on but decided that allowing my children freedom to choose was good for a few reasons. First, it was interesting to see what they chose on their own. Second, they could experience natural consequences if they ate too much or too little.
And when things go south instead of an “I told you so,” help children discover the source. Once they realize it was too much (or little) of something, you can remind them the next time so they make the connection sooner.
6. Encourage pickiness
When it comes to goodies, picky eating is the lesson you want to teach. You can up the ante by providing homemade desserts, wholesome treats, and dark chocolate at home instead of packaged treats. The idea is for kids to learn to appreciate – and even become picky about the kind of sweets they enjoy.
Holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween are good times to teach children about being a selective candy eater. Have children sort through their stash and pick their favorite items, giving the mediocre ones away. Of course, they can try the items they’ve never had before deciding if they’re worth keeping.
7. Teach children that the first few bites are the best
Explain to your kids about how food enjoyment declines as a food is being eaten ― something researchers call “sensory-specific satiety.” In other words, the first few bites of eating are the most enjoyable. This is particularly important for eating sweets, a food that’s meant for pleasure not nourishment.
The key is to teach kids to be mindful and that enjoyment comes early in the eating experience. So if it’s a day when sweets will be offered multiple times, encourage them to choose the one they think they will enjoy the most. Over time, children learn to be selective and that they really don’t need that much of the sweet stuff, when they do eat it.
There you have it. Seven simple strategies that help kids learn to eat goodies in way that is enjoyable, sensible, and teaches moderation. What parent doesn’t want that?
Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, is an independent author, family nutrition expert, and author of the newly released book How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food. You can find out more about her books, blog, and podcast at MaryannJacobsen.com.