More often than not, parents are struggling with when to offer dessert, what to offer for dessert and how frequently to offer it. And, if you are a very busy veterinary professional struggling with maintaining a good work/life balance, you have even less time to argue.
Allow me to guide you along what I believe to be the easiest and most effective ways to combat the “dessert struggle” so that mealtimes can be pleasant for all of you.
1. Don’t label your food. A friend of mine told me that, when she was in vet school, she was obsessed with maintaining her weight. She decided to stop eating carbs completely and focused more on high protein foods, like steak and eggs. However, when she got stressed at school, she would find herself sitting on the couch eating an entire bag of cookies or a pint of ice cream and then feeling miserable afterwards. She defined carbs as “bad” and tried to avoid them. When we label a food as “unhealthy”, “bad” or too high in sugar, it causes us to want to restrict that type of food from our household so it won’t be over–consumed. However, we all know that restriction is the bigger cause of eventual overconsumption. We need to stop labeling foods as good or bad and remember that ALL foods have a place in a healthy diet.
2. All things in moderation. Children who aren’t offered the opportunity to learn moderation at home can become the ones who can’t stop indulging at birthday parties or social gatherings. In fact, it becomes a vicious cycle where kids feel restricted, go to a party and get the chance to indulge, inevitably over-consume and then parents think, “See, this is why I don’t have cookies in my house, she can’t control herself”. In reality, for most children, the opposite would be true. If cookies, for example, were offered on a more regular basis and not restricted, they wouldn’t feel the need to overdo it because they aren’t “taboo”. The icing on the cake (pun intended) is for you to regularly consume dessert with your child to role model this goal of moderation.
3. Let them have the cake! Not only do children need to have exposure to sweets more regularly to learn moderation, but they also need to learn that food is not contingent on behavior. When dessert is used as a punishment in any way, whether it’s because they haven’t eaten a good enough meal or because they acted out behaviorally earlier that day, they begin to learn that the dessert is a special treat which further increases desire and allure for that supposed “unhealthy food”. This in turn makes it harder for them to practice moderation as the dessert becomes higher on the hierarchy of foods.
A DVM Mom confessed to me that she would threaten her four year old daughter that she wouldn’t get a piece of chocolate if she didn’t pick up her toys. By doing this, she was actually teaching her daughter that chocolate withholding was punishment and making chocolate into a very special reward.
4. Food is not a reward. Likewise, when we use dessert as a reward for positive behavior, as is commonly done with potty training, getting good grades or eating everything on their plate, children learn the habit of using food as a way to reward themselves later in life. I think most people can relate to this issue as adults when we feel we have earned that chocolate brownie after working hard, dealing with an especially nasty pet owner or for being so “good” on our diet. Somewhere in our subconscious we foolishly believe that food will make us feel better or should be part of celebrating our own achievements. So while there is nothing wrong with having delicious food as part of holiday or party celebrations, it shouldn’t be the routine way in which we congratulate ourselves.
5. Dessert with dinner. Now that we have established the need for dessert as a learning opportunity for moderation and eliminated using it as a way to punish or reward children, we can talk about how to incorporate it into your family’s lifestyle. Enter…dessert with dinner. Remember the saying, “Life is short, eat dessert first”? Well there’s something to be said for that when feeding children.
When they are given the opportunity to see all the options on the table including dessert, they can eat the right amount for their bodies. If instead they had eaten all their dinner until feeling full (which is the goal to eat until we feel full, not to please others), and were then offered the dessert, it would entice them to eat past their fullness. Over time, eating past fullness will lead to deregulation of their appetite, eventual weight gain and possible decline in their health.
Wasn’t this exactly what we were trying to avoid to begin with? Wasn’t our goal as the parent to protect their health, which is why we weren’t giving too many sweets to begin with? When they can equally view their chicken or sweet potatoes on the same level, at the same time as their cookie, you might find that they end up eating less of the sweets.
Above all, you are your child’s greatest role model. They need more of us to “walk the walk” and do less of the “talk” in order to continue developing a healthy relationship with food! +