Wondering how to introduce and incorporate sweets into your child’s life in a healthy way? Here are some ways to approach this that we think will help kids develop a healthy relationship with sweets (and all food) in the long run.
Regardless of the type of diet your family follows, one of the most important things you can do for your kids is to help them develop a healthy relationship with food.
It’s frustrating that there are so many outside influences that can derail kids from instinctively developing this relationship.
What’s worse, is that so much of the marketing for junk and sugary foods is aimed directly at kids, making healthy eating a challenge for families from the start.
With all of the junk food in our faces all the time – not to mention in our school cafeterias – kids are becoming desensitized to the idea of sweets being everyday foods, rather than occasional treats.
So what’s a parent supposed to do, especially when it comes to introducing sweets and treats? Can there be a healthy balance that doesn’t involve skipping or demonizing dessert for kids?
We say yes, absolutely!
Division of Responsibility Approach
One of our favorite guides for nurturing a young child’s healthy relationship with food in general is Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (sDOR). Ellyn Satter is an authority in “raising a healthy child who is a joy to feed” – plus, she’s a fellow dietitian!
The sDOR divides mealtime responsibilities among parents and children with the goal of making mealtime healthy, pleasant, and not stressful.
For instance, it’s your job to choose, prepare, and offer food, and let your child grow into his body. It’s your child’s job to learn to eat the food you eat, eat how much he wants, behave well at meals, and grow healthily into his body.
While we’re advocates for predominantly plant-based eating, that doesn’t mean we don’t love our share of treats. And we think the sDOR approach can definitely be applied to dessert.
6 Tips for Incorporating Sweets and Treats in a Healthy Way
Below are some tips for incorporating sweets and treats in a healthy way, piggybacking off of the sDOR approach to junk foods and our own experiences.
- Avoid associating sweets with a punishment or reward system. It’s easy to threaten “no dessert” when kids misbehave, or to offer treats to motivate them to do well, but this could actually set up your kids up to have a polarizing relationship with sweets. It’s best to use non-food methods of helping your child learn appropriate behaviors and rewarding success, rather than associate food with “good” or “bad” behaviors.
- Involve your child in the labor of love involved in making homemade desserts. So often, we see sweets and treats as quick snacks we can pick up from the gas station, rather than something to be truly enjoyed in the context of an overall healthy diet. Including your child in the art of baking a cake or a batch of homemade cookies offers her a positive experience that she can remember for life. We find involving kids in meal planning and prep in general is beneficial, too!
- Have simple conversations with your kids about nutrition. Nutrition is an important topic to be discussed at home (especially since it’s going by the wayside in many school curriculums, but that’s a topic for another time). This doesn’t mean giving your kid a lesson in counting carbs (please DO NOT ever do that), it just means helping them understand why you eat whole foods the majority of the time, and why certain nutrients are so good for them to get regularly. Focus on the positives of good nutrition, rather than on the negatives of less healthy foods.
- Incorporate foods of various nutritional values in the same meals without making it a big deal. Yes, this means regularly offering some low-nutrient, high-calorie options in the mix of healthy options. Allow your kids to choose and eat how much they want of what’s in front of them. This may sound backwards, but research shows that giving your kids regular access to less healthy foods desensitizes them. Not depriving your kids of sweets can help your kids become more relaxed around them – and not go “nuts” every time they see one. This can help encourage a healthy relationship with desserts – and food in general – as they grow up.
- Consider alternatives to traditional “desserts”. Many kids already love fruit, which are full of natural sweetness without having to add sugar. Fruit can curb cravings for added sugar at the end of the day, while also offering other great nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. We also like the idea of doing a “dessert flip”, which means instead of making a cake topped with a few berries, serve everyone a big bowl of berries topped with a bit of cake.
- Make healthier versions of your favorite desserts. This is one of our favorite tips, because there are so many ways to make sweets a little healthier than many traditional recipes. For instance, did you know that you can use pitted dates as a natural sweetener in some recipes, in place of added sugar? Or that you can blend frozen fruit to make a non-dairy ice cream? We’ve also made some pretty delicious birthday cake (and frosting) without any refined sugar. Why some ingredients are healthier than what’s used in traditional recipes can also be a great conversation piece to have with your kids.
Healthier Homemade Treat Recipes
Interested in trying some of our favorite healthier, homemade sweets? Check out the recipes below.
Chime in: Do you struggle with finding balance with sweets and treats for your kids at home? What other questions do you have about incorporating treats in a healthy way?