Navigating Sugar with Kids
Written by Registered Dietitian and Mom, Brooke Bulloch.
Halloween, Christmas, Valentines', Easter - kids will encounter candy all year long. Although some parents would love to keep candy out of the house, sugar is abundant and candy is here to stay.
Trying to micromanage and control a child's sugar intake can be very stressful for everyone. What would happen if we allowed kids an opportunity to learn to trust their body cues, and self regulate with candy? Kids are natural intuitive eaters and when given repeated opportunities to eat and enjoy a variety of food (including sugary foods) in a structured food environment, they are more likely to become competent eaters choosing both nourishing and satisfying foods.
Wondering where to go from here? I have 4 tips on how to navigate candy and support our kids to have a healthier relationship with sugar overall:
- Neutralize language around food. Simply call food what it is - chocolate, sucker, bubble gum, banana, cookie, spinach, beans. Avoid judgement terms when referring to food, for example, “good”, “bad”, “clean”, “junk”, "healthy" or "unhealthy". Neutralizing language around food removes moralization, judgement, and shame around eating certain foods.
- Don’t make kids earn their sweets. Avoid using sugary foods as a reward or prize. For example, “you can have dessert when you finish what’s on your plate”. Instead, try serving dessert WITH the meal. This demonstrates that sweet foods are no more or less important than other foods. Let the child decide what they want to eat and how much of what’s offered on the plate. If there's just enough to go around, decide what portion everyone gets (e.g. 1 cookie each). If there's plenty of dessert and it's part of the meal, you can offer second helpings if asked. There is not one perfect way to do this, but it includes figuring out what works best for your family.
- Offer sweets frequently. This might mean offering sugary foods more often (could be daily) with a balanced meal or snack. It could also mean enjoying a sweet food (e.g. donuts, cookies, chocolate bar) WITH the child once or twice weekly. This will remove the sense of restriction that some kids can feel when candy and sweets aren't available or withheld. Over time, the hype, over-excitement and even gorging on candy becomes less. Showing your neutrality towards sugary foods helps to remove shame for wanting and enjoying these foods, while reducing the risk for sneak-eating (eating in hiding).
- Allow kids free reign over sweets at events/special occasions. At events like Halloween, birthdays, or the weekly family movie night, allow your child to eat as much of the sugary foods (or other foods) as they want. This helps kids to learn to listen to their body and self regulate. If the worst that happens is they get a belly ache or get sick, it’s merely a learning opportunity. When a parent responds with empathy and understanding, children will learn to do it differently next time.
Remember, candy is just another type of food and all food serves a purpose. The goal is to raise kids to listen to their body, to understand there are no “good” or “bad” foods, and to ENJOY TASTY FOOD, which is a normal part of being human. If you’re struggling with the nuance around this and you feel you need support, don’t hesitate to reach out. We have a pediatric dietitian on our team as well as dietitians experienced in intuitive eating and eating disorders.