Why Restricting Sweets From Kids Can Backfire + What To Do Instead, From Nutritionists
Feeding kids well is a top concern among parents and caregivers, and for good reason. Nutrition is essential for supporting a child's development, and we all hope our kids will grow up with an affinity for healthful eating.
As mamas, we understand the frustrations that can come with cultivating healthy nutrition habits. It's easy to turn into the food police and, before you know it, your child sees foods as "good" or "bad." However, even well-intentioned food restrictions often have the opposite effect.
While it takes trust and patience, instead of restricting foods, we suggest implementing structure in your home—to take sweets off their pedestal and encourage a healthy relationship with food. That's why we think you should give your kids cookies, candy, and other treats! Hear us out.
Why restricting food can backfire.
Research shows that kids who are forbidden to eat unhealthy foods end up craving them more. Restricting these foods at home often leads to children associating them with shame and triggers habits like eating in secret or disordered eating1.
In other words, food restriction usually backfires. While it may limit intake in the moment, it encourages kids to eat beyond their hunger cues when they encounter these foods away from parents' watchful eyes.
A 2017 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that mothers of kids with obesity were more likely to restrict unhealthy foods. In the study, 237 mothers and their children were observed in a room with a variety of foods, including cupcakes. Mothers of children with obesity used more direct instructions around limiting unhealthy foods, like "only eat one." Mothers of kids who weren't obese used more open-ended guidance like "that's too much; you haven't had dinner yet."
Should you give your kids sweets?
While we recommend limiting added sugar before age 2 (in line with WHO2 and AAP), we believe exposing older kids to sweets is a good idea.
We’re fans of Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility, which outlines the roles of parent and child at mealtimes. Basically, it's your job to offer a variety of foods, and it's your child's job to decide what and how much of it to eat. This approach can also apply to sweets.
Remember, it's OK to eat something because you love it! Not all bites have to maximize nutrition. Instead, offer foods of varying healthfulness at the same meal without making a big deal of it. Treat candy like an apple, and act like you don't care whether they eat it. Also, never use sweets as bribery.
Giving your kids regular access to unhealthy foods desensitizes them and can make them more relaxed around them. This can encourage a healthy relationship with desserts—and all foods.
How to normalize eating less healthy foods.
So, how does this work in practice? Serve treats regularly or as often as you eat them yourself. This can be at dessert or even with meals. By including a cookie alongside your dinner casserole, your child learns that dessert isn't all that exciting.
Now, this doesn't mean you should keep junk food on the counter or allow a candy free-for-all. We're simply talking about taking the mystique away from unhealthy foods by normalizing them as part of an overall healthy diet. You're still in charge here, and you set the boundaries for when and where sweets and treats will be allowed.
You also don't have to bring food into the house that isn't part of your family's diet. For example, if you don't drink soda, you don't have to keep it on hand for the purpose of exposure—they'll get enough of that in the real world!
Another great option is to include your child in the labor of love involved in making homemade desserts. This removes the idea that sweets only come in crinkly packages and demonstrates how treats can be part of a healthy diet.
You can also have basic nutrition conversations with your kids, to help them understand why you eat whole foods most of the time. Focus on the positives of good nutrition, like fueling their bodies for play rather than on the negatives of less healthy foods.
Helping your child learn mindfulness.
Removing food restrictions helps your child learn hunger and fullness cues, which are a major part of mindful eating.
You may be wondering: What happens if they overeat? What a good learning experience! When this happens, help them focus on how they feel when they eat more than their stomach needs rather than associating shame with eating too much.
While we recommend keeping less healthy foods out of sight until you decide to serve them again, trusting your kids around sweets empowers them to make healthy decisions on their own.
Helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food is important regardless of what diet your family follows. While firm boundaries may be helpful for homework, they're likely to backfire when used to restrict sweets. Nutrition is a long game. Taking a structured, but not restricted, approach can set your child up for success.
For more guidance around feeding kids well early in life, grab a copy of our new book: The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler. This in-depth nutritional guide includes everything parents need to know to nourish babes from birth to tee-ball and includes 50-plus scrumptious plant-based recipes.
Alexandra Caspero M.A., RDN and Whitney English M.S., RDN are both moms and registered dietitian nutritionists. They created Plant-Based Juniors (PBJs), a community for parents and educators interested in properly implementing plant-based diets for children.
PBJs is dedicated to filling the gap in credible pediatric nutrition information for plant-based infants and children. It promotes an all-inclusive “predominantly plant-based” approach, supporting all families from vegan to vegetarian to flexitarian. Basically, if parents want to get more plants on the plate, PBJs wants to help!
PBJs has multiple resources available to support the feeding journey including their new book, The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler (Avery, May 2021), The Predominantly Plant-Based Pregnancy Guide, First Bites: The Definitive Guide to Baby-Led Weaning For Plant-Based Babies, and PBJ’s Batch Cook Ebook.