How to help your children develop healthy relationships with sweets and sugary foods

July 30, 2019
How to help your children develop healthy relationships with sweets and sugary foods

Question: My kids love sugar and sweets. I try to restrict the amount that is in the house or that they consume, but they nag me for it all the time and whenever it is on offer they can’t seem to stop themselves. Is there anything I can do to reduce this?


Firstly, rest assured that this is one of the most common questions I hear from parents! With the rampant availability of sugar foods all around us, and our children’s’ apparent preference for sweet foods, navigating this tricky part of bringing up kids is a common source of concern and often confusion for parents.

One of our primary roles as parents is to not only nourish our children with nutritious foods to support their optimal growth and development, but also to help them develop healthy relationships with all foods, including sweets and sugary foods. There is increasing awareness about the lack of nutritional value in commonplace, commercial sugary food, for example, soft drinks, cordials, fruit juices, confectionary, commercial chocolates, or cakes, cookies and other desserts, and with this knowledge the instinct for many parents is to restrict or avoid these foods altogether due to their lack of health benefits. While this may be a good short-term solution to manage their nutritional status, it unfortunately isn’t equipping them with the right tools to navigate their way around and build healthy relationships with these foods for their future.

Fortunately, there are some useful strategies we can implement to help normalise our kids’ perspective on sweet and sugary foods, leading to a more balanced relationship moving forward and an easier time when these foods are on offer both inside and outside the home.


Restriction doesn’t work

Although restricting the availability of specific foods or food groups like sweets may prevent our kids from consuming them in the short term, it is not the most effective long-term solution and can unfortunately breed unhealthy food relationship. In the case of sweet foods, kids who have these foods restricted often crave them more and have more trouble moderating their consumption when they are available.

Whether you like it or not, your child is going to come into contact with all foods in the food environment sooner or later, including the less than desirable ones or the ones you would prefer they didn’t eat. Therefore, we need to teach them how to navigate their way through the food jungle, instead of avoiding it altogether. We can do this by equipping them with the right tools and a healthy, balanced relationship with all foods as they grow.

The research repeatedly shows us that instead of decreasing desire for a specific food, restriction actually increases food consumption of the restricted food in children. Restriction can lead to a feeling of scarcity and encourages preoccupation, meaning the next time the food is on offer, over consumption is more likely.

By restricting foods, we run the risk of putting them onto a pedestal for our kids (and, potentially, for ourselves too).

Instead of restricting access and availability of sweet foods (or any food group, for that matter), I encourage parents to offer them regularly. This doesn’t necessarily mean every meal and snack, nor does it mean every day, but it does mean offering them from time to time and not making it a big deal. Offering sweets doesn’t have to only occur as part of a special treat or on a special occasion. In fact, periodically, they can be offered as part of an everyday meal or snack.

Many parents express discomfort during the initial phase of offering sweet foods more regularly. They worry about their kids’ over consumption of unhealthy food. But I assure them that by offering sweets more regularly we can actually decrease their kids’ desire for them in the long run. This approach normalises the food, helping everyone in the family move away from thinking about the food being somehow special or different towards thinking about the food as being just another food that is occasionally part of a meal or snack.

It is important to know that there is usually a transition period with this approach – upon initial offering of sweets more regularly, your child may still want to over consume as they may still be in a scarcity mindset. As they learn that you are continuing to offer these foods regularly, their mindset will shift towards abundance – they will see that plenty of the foods they enjoy are being offered and their tendency for over consumption typically reduces. As the parent, you are always in control of the portion size that you offer or make available, it doesn’t have to be a free for all.

During this transition period, it is vital to trust in your child that they will develop the ability to decide when they have had enough. When given the chance, kids have a remarkable ability to self regulate their food intake to match their appetite and their body’s needs.


Change the way you talk about food

Another important factor to consider when working on improving your kids’ relationship with certain foods is the language we use and the way we talk about food in general.

Food is often given labels implying moral value or meaning beyond simply just being energy for our body – good versus bad, healthy versus unhealthy, treats versus everyday foods, junk versus non-junk. These terms can all be confusing for kids, especially younger children who may not completely understand the nuances of these concepts.

Kids may begin to think of some foods as ‘forbidden’, even if that word is never explicitly used. In times when they consume these foods or they are on offer, they can have an emotional response due to the mixed messages about food and eating – they may feel guilty, naughty, or bad about themselves. Or perhaps they seek out these foods or crave them more often as an act of defiance or assertion of independence.

It is important that we don’t reinforce these ideas to our kids – food does not have a moral value. We want to teach them that food is just food. Plain and simple.

This can be a tricky one for lots of parents, as these messages are also drilled into us as adult from all angles – from public health messages, food marketing, maybe even from our own family. And I completely get it. After a decade of nutrition and health training, the nutritionist in me really struggles to find balance on this one too!

Try to keep in mind some of the follow ways in which our language can influence our kids’ relationship with food:

 Food labels

Try not to label foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, junk or not, or any variation of this. Keep language around food neutral.

 Commenting on our kids food intake

Try to avoid making comments about how much of any type of food your child has or has not eaten, especially when sweets are on offer, e.g. “wow! You ate all your cake but none of your spaghetti”. By not commenting, we take the attention and focus off  sweets as being somehow different or superior to other foods and allow your child to focus on listening to the internal cues their body is giving them. The best thing to do is make no comment at all, except to gently encourage them to tune into their hunger and fullness levels, e.g. “are you sure you’ve had enough food to make your tummy feel happy and full? When we clean up after lunch there won’t be anymore food until afternoon snack”

 Bribing, bargaining and negotiating

Don’t get caught in the trap of using food to bribe, bargain, or negotiate with your child, e.g. “have two more bites of broccoli and you can have your dessert” or “if you clean up the toys you can have a cookie after lunch.” These approaches put food up on a pedestal either by making it a reward or by sending the message that sweet foods are somehow superior to other foods at the meal. Kids may tolerate some foods just to get the foods they want, e.g. dessert after dinner.

Also remember when offering sweets, it should not be conditional on how much other food they have consumed – you must decide in advance that you are offering the sweet regardless of how much of anything else they have eaten.

Needing to give our kids a reason for not offering a certain food

Don’t feel like you have to offer a reason for not making certain foods available at any meal or snack time, e.g. “ice cream is a treat food, it doesn’t help our body grow up big and strong so we only eat it on special occasions” or “we had chocolate this morning, so we can’t have ice cream tonight because we’ve already had a treat today”. If your child asks for a sweet food when you weren’t planning on serving it, you can simply say, “yes that is a yummy food, I enjoy that food too. We can have that another day, but right now we’re having cheese and crackers, not cookies.”


How much should I offer and when?

Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to how much or how often you should serve sweets. Ultimately, this decision is yours and will depend on a variety of factors that are unique to your family, including your cultural values, meal planning routine, personal preference, family schedule, and the needs and desires of all members of your family. It could be dessert after dinner once a week, a homemade baked good that you enjoy here and there throughout the week, an outing with the family for ice cream, or a couple of smaller sweets at snacks a couple of times a week. Some families have dessert every night after dinner. There is no right or wrong – you have to figure out what you are comfortable with and what feels right to you and your family.

The current Australian Dietary Guidelines suggest that intake of foods containing added sugar should be limited for children but they don’t offer any precise recommendations regarding amount or frequency. They do, however, recommend that infants under the age of 12 months that consume no added sugar at all (just note that naturally sweet foods such as fruit are absolutely fine).

The World Health Organisation recommends that ‘free sugars’ should account for less than 10% of total energy intake for the prevention of weight gain and dental cavities. ‘Free sugars’ refers to all added sugars, including honey and syrups, as well as fruit juices and concentrates. This amount will be different for your child depending on their age, weight, and activity level, but may range from 20-25g sugar (roughly 5-6 teaspoons) for 3-5 year olds up to 25-30g sugar (roughly 6-7 teaspoons) for 8-10 year olds each day. Keep in mind that this is to prevent disease and that lower intake levels may actually be optimal. The WHO does note that intake less than 5% may offer additional health benefits (i.e. half of the above estimates).

Practically speaking, 1 teaspoon equals 4.2g of sugar. If you aren’t familiar with the sugar content of certain foods, it can be a useful exercise to make some rough calculations to build your awareness. Not every day needs to be a perfect balance of sugar intake, but having a foundational knowledge is important so you can make decisions for your kids’ meals from an informed place. For packaged foods, look at the nutritional panel for ‘sugars’ and divide the number by 4 to calculate the approximate number of teaspoons of sugar per serve (using 4, rather than 4.2 makes it much easier to do the math in your head!) For home-prepared sweets, simply calculate the sugar content per serve based on the ingredients in your recipe.


Plan ahead

One of the most useful ways to navigate requests for sweets from your kids is to have a meal plan. This can look different for each family and could be anything from a structured schedule of all meals and snacks for the week to a rough overview or a few dot points about what you might serve throughout the week. Honestly, it can be whatever works best for you.

But having even a loose meal plan can help you to be prepared for food requests and set boundaries for your kids, not to mention help you stay organised around meal times and avoid last minute food decisions that leave room for opportunistic food naggers!

Just remember that as the parent, you are always in control of what food is offered at each meal and snack – you decide when and if a sweet is offered at any given time, not the kids and their requests. By planning for the week ahead, you know what is going to be offered and when. In the face of persistent requests, you can even give your kids specific information about what foods to expect, for example, “we’re not having chips right now, we’re having carrot sticks and hummus. But on Wednesday we’re having chips and salsa, so you can look forward to having them then”. Or if you haven’t planned for it that week, you could suggest it goes onto the meal plan for the following week (but only if you want, remember, you’re in charge!) These strategies can help to reassure your child that their food preferences are important and that they have some say in things overall.


Sweets come in many forms

Just remember that sweet foods can come in many shapes, sizes, and forms and you can offer a range of these options over time. Not all offerings of sweets have to be commercial and processed foods, nor do they need to always be nutritionally balanced. There is room for a little bit of everything.

For those parents who worry about the nutritional implications of regularly offering more commercial, processed sweets, I suggest starting with sweet foods that also have an excellent nutrient profile, for example, plain dark chocolate, homemade bliss balls, whole food slices or cakes, smoothies, or simple fruit and yoghurt with a bit of honey. These foods may contain added sugar, or may be naturally sweetened by fresh or dried fruit, satisfying kids’ desire for sweets. But importantly, they also contain a vast array of beneficial micronutrients that support childhood growth and development.

Less nutritious sweet foods, for example, lollies, ice cream, commercial cookies and cakes, soft drinks or cordial, can still be offered from time to time to encourage the normalisation of these foods. Listening to your child’s cravings and requests can be a good guide for which of these foods your include, for example, if your child has been asking you for corn chips for an entire week on end, then perhaps you could plan to include a portion of corn chips somewhere in your meal plan the following week, for example at snack time or as nachos for dinner. Your child will feel heard and acknowledged, their feeling of scarcity will be eliminated, and their preoccupation with the food usually dissipates. Often parents report that when given food in this context, they are surprised to observe that their child didn’t even finish the whole portion they served up.

We all have cravings and it’s natural to enjoy them from time to time.