My five-year-old son tried dipping broccoli in chocolate pudding once, but he doesn’t recommend it. How did this odd food combination come to pass? Sometimes I serve dessert with dinner instead of afterwards. Yep, once in a while, I give my kids a small treat alongside the main meal—so salmon, broccoli, rice and chocolate pudding are all on the same plate together.
Oh, and did I mention I’m a registered dietitian who's pretty much obsessed with healthy eating?
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
Some kids are totally captivated with dessert to the point of distraction. One solution would, of course, be to simply not serve dessert. The kids would get used to it in time and stop asking for it.
But some parents want to offer dessert in a calm, stress-free way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So I recommend simply serving it alongside dinner. Why does this work? It gives kids the choice of eating dessert before, during or after the meal, which puts them in control. It makes them feel responsible and trusted, and eases suppertime tension.
The tactic also gets rid of the frowned-upon technique of using sweets as a reward. You may think offering cookies is a great way to get your daughter to finish her cauliflower, but she may interpret it as: “Cauliflower is so yucky that mommy feels bad for making me eat it, so I get a cookie afterwards as a prize.” Not a good precedent to set. I call this the "dessert pedestal," where we make one food "better" than others. It sets up a negative pattern where kids only eat healthy items if there is the promise of a prize at the end. Unfortunately, bribing and bargaining don't teach healthy eating.
Rebecca Stewart* is a Toronto mom to three boys aged 8, 6 and 3. She came to me for help because her older sons were more excited about dessert than dinner. They were racing through their meal to get the sweets, and barely ate any dinner. She was using cookies to bribe the kids to eat more of their meat and vegetables—which worked, but she knew intuitively that it wasn't the right way to go.
I encouraged her to try the dessert-with-dinner technique. She was skeptical, but served a plate with three small cookies alongside the family-style meal and told the kids to help themselves to one each.
The kids chose the cookies first—no surprise—but they also enjoyed more of the dinner foods than they usually ate. Stewart says the first time she tried the technique, her kids stayed at the table about 10 minutes longer than usual. “The carrots disappeared,” she says. “That’s something I hadn’t witnessed before.”
Her favorite part was that it took away the bargaining. “I hated telling my kids that they couldn’t have cookies until they finished their meat. Now they eat both, and dinner has become more relaxed.”
Your kids will probably eat dessert first, and that’s okay! They will be in control, which will help them learn important mealtime concepts like balance and moderation. Your children can choose when to have their dessert, but not how often to have it, so don’t offer sweets again after dinner, or offer “seconds” of dessert.
After a few weeks when the novelty wears off, the sweet treat will just be another component of dinner. Some days the kids will choose dessert first, some days last, and some days they won’t even finish it. That’s when they’ve learned to normalize dessert as just another food they like, rather than an event.
One disclaimer regarding this tactic: By “dessert,” I mean 50-100 calories from cookies, chips or chocolate—not a 600-calorie slab of triple-layer fudge cake. Eating a huge serving of a decadent dessert will fill little tummies with calories from unnecessary sugar and fat, leaving no room for healthy dinner foods like green beans and chicken. But a small treat will not diminish their appetite for dinner foods, and can help make dinnertime more pleasant for everyone.
*Name has been changed
This article was originally published online in June 2016.