When your child reaches a certain age, around two or three years old, treat foods seem to become a bigger deal. The odd dessert that your toddler would either take or leave, suddenly becomes GOLD in your child’s eyes. Here’s what to do when your child is treat-obsessed.
It is normal for kids to want sweet delicious dessert foods often–after all, children have a biologically-driven affinity to sweeter foods, which may be a protective function (sweetness signals “energy-rich”). Kids also have more taste buds than adults do, which could possibly explain why they–usually around the age of two or three–start to turn their noses up to bitter vegetables (think green veggies). Also, bitter compounds, in historical times, signalled “toxic” or “unsafe,” so this could also explain why kids often reject them (but learn to accept them in their own time as they get older). Now that you know that your child is completely normal, read on for tips on how to tame the sugar monster in your home.
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Say “yes” instead of “no”:
Instead of saying “no” to your preschooler when he demands a treat at a random time—let’s say before a meal—which would most likely escalate into a tantrum, take a moment to pause, take a deep breath, and say “Sure! You can have a treat, but you get to choose when you have it. You get one treat today, so would you like to have it now, before dinner, or would you like to save it for after dinner instead? If you choose to have it now, you won’t have any leftover for after dinner.” Or something along those lines.
When kids feel as though they CAN’T have something, they become frantic about having it NOW and ultimately, a breakdown ensues. But when you give them structured choice—”you can have this, but it will be under ___ and ___ conditions. You choose,” the treat becomes a little less desired and because they know that ultimately they CAN have it (or a portion of it), the urgency seems to subside. Allowing your child to choose when he gets to have his treat also nurtures his strong desire for a sense of control and independence in his life, while still setting boundaries.
Don’t make them a big deal:
Try to stay neutral when it comes to treat foods. If your child brings home a something sweet from a party or school and you immediately take it away and say “these foods aren’t allowed” or “you can only have one a day” then your child will likely lash out and want the treat food ten times more than when he walked through the door. Instead of making a big deal out of it, try to stay calm, matter-of-fact and neutral. Say something like “that’s kind of fun that you got those from school today. You can enjoy a few after dinner tonight if you want, but let’s put them away now so that you don’t spoil your meal.” Or something along those lines. Or you could include them in a meal or snack and say “let’s all enjoy a few when we have our afternoon snack” and then pair them with fruit and yogurt as an example. This way, it puts the treat food on a more level playing field with other healthier foods (which I’ll talk more about in a little bit). Similarly, if someone gives your child a treat, try not to say “Wow, you’re such a lucky boy to get a treat like that!” because this tells your child that treats are a BIG deal and that if they are a “prize”, rather than just another food.
Eat the way you want your kids to eat:
As mentioned in a great post by Maryann Jacobsen, “Children learn to see food the same way their parents do, which may not always be healthy. Research shows that parents who eat for emotional reasons, feel out of control with eating (called disinhibition) and worry about weight (their own and their child’s), not only are more likely to utilize controlling feeding practices, but tend to have children with similar issues.” Kids who are treat-obsessed may be observing their parents who have unhealthy or out-of-control treat-eating habits (sneaking food, obsessing over food, binge eating, emotional eating, etc.) and modelling after that. It’s important to address your own eating issues as a parent so that you can model not only healthy eating, but also a healthy food relationship. Read about how to nurture your personal relationship with food here and here.
Reassurance that there will be treats in the future = more relaxed kids
If your child asks for a treat food, but for whatever reason you do not want them to have one, try responding like this: “I understand that you really want a treat right now, but it’s not treat time. You have had your treat already today, so there aren’t any more, but you will get another chance to have one tomorrow. What do you think you’ll want to have?” instead of saying “no, you are not having a treat now”. It’s important to set limits on treat foods, so that there is some structure, however it’s also important that kids learn that treats aren’t forbidden or highly restricted. As soon as a child feels that something is forbidden (like treats), that thing automatically becomes more desirable. This is when kids may start to sneak food and overindulge when they get the chance, which can lead to unhealthy weight gain, not to mention an unhealthy relationship with food long-term.
One thing that I personally notice with my son (who definitely has a sweet tooth), is that if he asks for a treat and my husband or I say “no”, he automatically freaks out. He is three, so this tantrum-like response to “no” is fairly normal, however, if I calmly come down to his level, and first let him know that I hear and understand what he’s saying (“you are telling me that you really want a treat”), set my limit (“I understand, but we’ve already enjoyed our treats, so we are done for the day”) and then let him know that there is another opportunity to enjoy them tomorrow (“But guess what?! We’ll have another chance to have one tomorrow!”), 9 times out of 10 he says “ok Mom”.
Separate treats from parenting:
Try not to bribe your child with treats (“If you’re good in the grocery store, you can have a cookie”) or use treats as a reward (“you were such a good boy at the doctor, would you like a cookie?”). If you reward your kids with sweets, this increases their desirability and appeal. Much the same, rewarding your kids with dessert foods because they ate their veggies at dinner is clearly communicating that veggies are to be avoided and desserts are to be desired. This may work VERY well short term (and trust me, I know how tempting it is to use this strategy), but long term, you’re not doing your child any favours. The more frequently parents use food as a reward or punishment, the more likely it is that their children grow to eat for reasons other than physical hunger, such as stress, boredom, anxiety, or happiness.
Try to keep treats (or food in general) separate from your parenting techniques.
Serve a treat WITH a meal instead of after:
From time to time, offer your kids a treat with the rest of their meal instead of afterwards. Last Fall, I gave my son a few smarties with his lunch (he asked me if he could have some after lunch- they were leftover from Halloween). He was a bit confused when I offered them with his sandwich and veggies, but didn’t say much about it. Sometimes kids either rush through their meal to get to their dessert quicker or “save up” for their dessert, eating less of their meal than they usually would. Putting the treat on a level playing field with the rest of the meal decreases the urgency to finish and takes the treat’s “appeal” down a notch or two. My son continued to eat his meal and every few minutes popped a smartie into his mouth. Since then, I’ve offered a treat alongside meals randomly, and my son (now three and a half) thinks it’s fun, but still eats the rest of his meal like he normally would.
If this was helpful, you may want to learn more about the online course that I’m offering parents of picky eaters (dealing with treats is part of the course too!). Here’s more on Turning the Tables on Picky Eating!
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