"Candy rots your teeth."
"You only get sweets if you've been good."
"Eat your vegetables first, then you can have dessert."
"No you can't have any more fries. You'll get fat."
These are all well-meaning snippets of wisdom from parents intent on limiting their kids' intake of sweets.
But they may be counterproductive.
In our efforts to enforce a little moderation on our would-be sugar fiends, we run the risk of turning candy, cake and treats into a bigger deal in a child's mind. We may be unintentionally reinforcing the message that sweets are more exciting than vegetables, and that good times and unhealthy indulgence go hand-in-hand.
With foods with added sugars and solid fats contributing almost 35 percent of calories in the average American's diet, rethinking our relationship to treats and indulgences has never been more urgent. Exactly how to do that with kids requires revisiting some basic assumptions.
A sweet tooth is a natural phenomenon
The first thing to acknowledge is that there is a very real, physical reason why children like candy and fatty foods so much, and that's because their metabolism is in overdrive. Because they are growing and learning at an astounding rate, and because they usually accompany that growth with a busy schedule of play, play and more play, their calorific needs are much higher than an adult of a comparable body size.
That's not to say a diet of pure M&Ms and soda is a good idea for your 5-year-old, but it is still a fact worth remembering next time your child throws a fit over a chocolate chip cookie.
The forbidden fruit gum
Another fact that is often hard for us parents to accept is that banning something outright rarely works — especially if that something is readily available outside of the home.
Instead of preventing our children from enjoying any processed foods, fatty treats or refined sugars, we may be better off allowing them to enjoy those foods in moderation – taking care not to make a big deal out of them, and providing plenty of healthy alternatives for them to choose from.
In fact, child nutrition expert and registered dietitian Ellyn Satter suggests that when you do occasionally allow fries or chips with a meal, you should arrange to have enough that everyone can eat their fill — because fatty foods don't compete with other mealtime foods in the way that sugary treats can. Even with sugary treats, Satter suggests that allowing children an unlimited supply of cookies or desserts at snack time is no bad thing. They'll eventually learn that it doesn't always feel too great to overindulge.
Serve treats with your meal
Many dietitians now advise parents that dessert may actually be better served alongside the main meal from time-to-time — presenting cake and broccoli as equally valid, equally exciting and delicious food choices. The majority of food a child is offered each day should still be fruits, vegetables and carbohydrates, but the occasional donut is not going to throw their eating off balance. Just don't allow seconds on dessert during mealtimes.
Do not reward or console with food
One of the most important lessons to learn in developing a healthy attitude to less healthy foods — for yourself or for your children — is to avoid rewarding with food. While a trip to the ice cream store may sound like a logical reward for good behavior, or a fun way to cheer a child up if he's down, these kinds of "benefits" can create associations that are hard to break later in life.
Instead of rewarding or consoling with food, try giving out stickers, or even just promising your child an hour of your undivided attention. Not only will you avoid creating unhealthy mental associations to food, you'll also create unique memories for you and your children to cherish.
Double standards are sometimes OK
These days, many dietitians recommend developing a division of responsibility regarding eating, with parents deciding what to offer, and children deciding if and how much they want to eat of what is offered. (The "no seconds on dessert" rule is an exception to this concept, which is why occasional unlimited supplies at snack time help to offset that inconsistency.)
With regards to sodas, Ellyn Satter has no qualms about how the division of responsibilities should play out: "If you drink soda, maintain a double standard. Tell your child it is a grownup drink, which it is. When she is old enough to learn about soda-drinking from friends — probably in middle school — arrange to have soda occasionally for snack or along with a particular meal, such as pizza or tacos. The trick is including it regularly enough so it doesn't get to be 'forbidden,' but not making it available in unlimited quantities, all the time."
Provide alternatives and promote exploration
Finally — and this advice really applies to all aspects of healthy eating — the most important thing you can do as a parent is introduce a wide range of foods to your children, and encourage them to explore, experiment and enjoy the flavors and textures that the world has to offer.
I know from painful experience that there will be many, many times when your children will refuse the same spinach that they thought was delicious only a week ago, or demand yet another cookie, or simply eat nothing at all. These are all natural ways for your child to explore boundaries and to develop their own relationships with and opinions about food.
Try to remember that you can never, and should never, control what they eat — but you can act as a guide, providing them with a broad range of choices. Over time, they'll develop their own sense of self-control and moderation, leaving you to worry about your own temptations in the candy aisle.