Kavita Khan’s* three-year old son Michal is always asking for sweet treats. From breakfast through to dinner, he asks for cookies and candy after meals—even after he’s had plenty to eat.
Often Kavita gives in, because saying “no” creates an epic meltdown. But here’s the problem: Excessive amounts of sugar are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity—even in children. Plus, eating too many treats fills kids’ little tummies, leaving less room for the nutritious foods their bodies need.
Of course, a little sweetness can certainly be part of a healthy lifestyle, but kids should have no more than six teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugars per day (added sugars include any sugar, honey, syrup or other sweetener that doesn't naturally occur in the food). The trouble is, most children get double or triple that amount.
Creating sugar monsters is not inevitable though. Kids can be taught to enjoy sweets without becoming obsessed with them. The rules parents create around treats play a big role in shaping whether kids obsess over them or normalize them as a part of balanced eating. Here are some strategies that can help.
Your job as the parent is to set the pace for healthy eating. You don’t want super strict or unforgiving rules (this encourages a negative diet mentality), but you can agree to one treat a day or a few times a week, and let your children decide when to have it. Knowing a treat is allowed at some point minimizes meltdowns and letting them choose the timing gives your child some control.
If your pantry is stocked with pastries and candy, your kids will be more likely to want these foods. Think about it: If there is no licorice in the pantry, they are less likely to ask for it—and it’s an easy answer if they do! Instead of treats, fill your kitchen with nutritious whole food snacks, like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, yogurt, beans and nuts. If you offer treats a few times a week, aim for moderate treats, such as a granola bar or small cookie, which tend to have about two to three teaspoons of sugar. Indulgent treats, like fudge cakes, gummy candy and triple-scoop sundaes can have 10 or more teaspoons of sugar, and are for special occasions. They are not pantry staples.
If you use candy to comfort sad kids or reward their good behaviour, they'll learn to eat for reasons other than physical hunger and will relate food to praise, sadness or joy. As they grow, every time they feel sad or have a great success, they will crave sugar. This can turn into a pattern of unhealthy emotional eating. Instead, reward kids with hugs, extra cuddle time, kind words, stickers or a favourite book.
When your child is demanding candy and melting down, distract them with your undivided attention. Instead of soothing them with cookies, play a game, do a puzzle, build blocks or sing songs together. Many times, the sweet craving will pass because they weren’t actually hungry, they were just bored.
Saying something like “you’ve already had ice cream today, but there will be time for a treat again tomorrow. What will you have?” can effectively change the conversation when your little one is begging for gummy bears. While difficult at first, they will get used to knowing that another treat will be enjoyed again eventually. Then the urgency starts to subside, as do the tantrums.
We get into trouble when we put treats on a pedestal. They are just food! Saying things like “eat your broccoli or you won’t get any ice cream” tells your child that broccoli is yucky, but they will be rewarded by something good for eating it. This is not a good precedent. Instead, try to use words and body language to convey your own enjoyment of vegetables, fruit and dessert with equal enthusiasm.
Studies show this tactic simply makes kids desire sweets even more. Treats will be everywhere throughout kids’ lives—they’re offered at school, camp, parties, sports games, outings and more. Kids need to learn how to enjoy them mindfully, which means they pay attention to the treat, savour it slowly and stop when they’ve had enough so they don’t gorge and get a tummy ache. And they can’t learn this if treats are entirely restricted.