How this dietitian handles sweets for her kids.


Fall is here and with that comes a season of eating with holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. One question that I hear from my clients is “How do we handle treats/sweets?”  I do not know if I handle the season perfectly and some may disagree with my approach, but I will share some of my tips. If you find these tips helpful I encourage you to sign-up for my monthly newsletter.

Eating dessert or a sweet treat is not dependent upon eating a vegetable or any other food. When we are at a potluck or family get together, I allow my kids to get the dessert along with the rest of their meal if it is served at the same time. If I happen to make a dessert at home I serve it with the meal and if they eat it first, that is their choice.  The reason for this is I constantly hear people telling kids that they need to eat their vegetables to get the cookie.  This causes them to learn that the vegetable is undesirable, but the cookie is.  Rewarding a child for eating “healthy foods” by offering a sweet may backfire as it may lead to a child eating in the absence of hunger.

Freeze cookies and candy and save for a later time.  Typically, I will allow the kids to eat Halloween candy or holiday cookies when it has been collected or baked, but after a few days I freeze the candy that is chocolate and may freeze holiday cookies as well.  This helps the family to not overeat for a the days the cookie and candy is available.  I save these items for other times like going to the movies or on Fridays when they are allowed to pack a special treat in their lunch.

Handout an alternative to candy for trick or treat or holiday parties. Yes, I am that mom on the street that gives out the trick rather than the treat. It is not that I do not enjoy Halloween candy (in fact I secretly look through my kids candy for the peanut butter chocolate covered pumpkins), but I realize that most parents do not enjoy the pillowcases of candy that come through their doors.  Also, giving out an alternative to candy is allowing for inclusion of kids with food allergies and children that may not eat by mouth and are tube fed.  Ideas for alternatives to candy are stickers, pencils, glow sticks, stamps, note pads, bubbles, temporary tattoos, and, etc.

Do not use the treat as a reward. This further teaches children to eat when they are not hungry or encourages them to eat based on emotions and not hunger. When my kids ask for a food that is considered a treat and it is not close to meal time my first question for them is “Are you hungry?”  If it is right before a meal and I was not planning to have dessert be part of the meal I will say “We are getting ready to eat our meal, but when you have your snack tonight you may choose to have that as your snack.”  If they have accomplished something, like good grades, I try to reward them with things like a book, one-on-one time with a parent, or possibly mom vs. kids nerf gun battle (which I typically loose).

There is research to support my approach. There have been several articles published that link chronic restriction of palatable food (like cookies and candy) to children having increased consumption of that food and a higher chance of emotional eating.  For those who are interested in the science behind my method I have included references to the articles at the bottom.

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Fisher JO and Birch LL. Restricting access to palatable foods affect children’s behavioral response, food selection, and intake. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1999; 69: 1264-1272.

Farrow CV, Haycraft E, Blesset JM. Teaching our children when to eat: how parental feeding practices inform the development of emotional eating-a longitudinal experimental design. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015; 101: 908-913.

Rollins R, Lohen E, Savage J, and Birch L. Effects of restriction on children’s intake differ by child temperament, food reinforcement, and parents chronic use of restriction. Appetite. 2014; 73: 31-39.

Post originally published: October 3, 2017; Updated October 9, 2018