Valentine’s Day is here, and this year I have three of the cutest little Valentines to shower with sweets and treats. But wait, aren’t you a dietitian? Dietitians are supposed to only eat healthy foods, right?
This momma loves her chocolate and her kids have definitely inherited the chocolate-loving-gene. That being said, I am raising my kids to become healthy and mindful eaters, which means I offer a variety of food ranging from healthy to… not-so-healthy. And in my home, we try not to focus on the food (wha?). We instead try to focus on the enjoyment of food!
Valentine’s Day is a holiday just like any other, but with the emphasis on sweets, it can be a difficult one for kids (and parents) to navigate. After all, I am voluntarily giving my children chocolate! Managing treats for kids is one of the most common challenges of parenting because they can so often be linked to behaviour. And let’s be honest…who doesn’t love a treat? So, how do you offer treats to your child without turning them into a treat-obsessed monsters, you ask?
Here are my top three tips:
Treats, defined, and why I don’t actually call them “treats”:
Treats are generally defined as those foods that don’t contain a whole lot of nutrition, but DO contain a lot of calories, added sugar and/or saturated fats. You know… chocolate, cookies, cake, chips etc. They really shouldn’t be served to kids under two, and shouldn’t take up a lot of tummy space in kids two and older, but they’re part of life and are fun and yummy to eat. They will inevitably be a part of your child’s life, and we as parents need to teach our kids how to enjoy them mindfully.
Now, a treat in one household might not be considered a treat in another. For instance, in my household I always have baked goods like cookies, muffins, energy bites available. We also freeze grapes and bananas and sometimes dip them in a bit of chocolate. In my mind, all of these foods are considered “treats” (along with the kinds I mentioned above), but perhaps some of these wouldn’t be considered treats in other homes. Regardless, I try not to refer to any food as a “treat” around my kids. Instead I would just call them by their name. “Ice cream”, “cookie”, “chocolate covered strawberry”. Calling them “treats”, “junk” or even “fun foods”, in my mind, makes them more sought after, mystical, or more negatively, forbidden or bad. They’re just food.
What’s important to remember is that treats can be food, but not necessarily the sugary treat. It’s important to remember that a treat can also be an experience, a visit to grandparents, a skiing adventure, you name it! My point here is what defines a treat is not necessarily the nutritional content of a food, but the experience itself. So, this Valentine’s Day while the kids are creating their Valentine’s Day cards to give to one another (and their grandparents) I think it would be great to offer a few heart shaped chocolates and treats. Or better yet, make a few chocolate goodies like truffles (with lots of red and pink sprinkles) to make as gifts for friends and loved ones. Yum.
Offer sweet treats regularly and without strings attached.
This is the tip I find the hardest to convey to clients. And in truth, it was the hardest to follow when I first started feeding my kids. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, considering most of us grew up with the “clean your plate, or no dessert” mentality. Sound familiar? What we realize now is this form of feeding can create a compulsory need to finish everything on your plate regardless of hunger. What does this mean? That even if you’re not really hungry, or that you’ve already satisfied your hunger, you will likely overeat because that is what has been expected of you. Plus, rewarding your child for an empty plate with a treat-like food, puts that dessert food on a pedestal and increases its desirability. Crazy I know. Food should be reserved for feeding and nourishing your child (and sometimes for fun), but never for a reward or punishment.
Don’t treat treats any differently!
When I offer a cookie to my kids, I will often provide a few other things as well, such as apple slices and cheese, to put them on a level playing field. I might even use Ellyn Satter’s treat strategy of offering a treat WITH a meal. You heard me–alongside their chicken, broccoli and rice. Try it–it actually really works to create mindful treat-eaters!
Hiding, restricting or over-controlling treats will lead to treat-obsessed kids, which will create a whole other set of issues. If you’re restricting treats by saying, “we don’t eat sugary food in this house”, chances are, when they’re at their friends house or at grandmas, they’ll over consume because they know they won’t have access to it when they get home. Or when you finally do offer a treat, they’ll go to town on it. Instead of saying “no” to a Valentine’s Day chocolate, say “yes”! But define the parametres. Together with your child, come up with a plan of what, how much, where and when the treat will be consumed. This way, you’re not saying no, you’re giving your child some control, but ultimately, you’re in control of the when and where food is served, which is important.
Try the 90-10 rule:
A colleague and fellow Pediatric Dietitian Jill Castle came up with an interesting strategy that works really well for some families when it comes to treats and helps parents by giving them a more defined plan. The idea is that 90% of the foods served to kids are nourishing whole foods, and 10% is reserved for treats or as Jill refers to them as “fun foods”. This ensures that kids are filling up on nutritious foods but still able to enjoy the odd treat. For most kids, 10% works out to about 1-2 treat foods a day. This seems reasonable to me.
I hope these tips are helpful and that they help you come up with a treat strategy that works for your family. If you need more personalized guidance on this, or anything regarding nutrition and your kids, don’t hesitate to contact us at The Centre for Family Nutrition!
Happy Valentine’s Day!