Donna has extremely helpful advice about mitigating the candy wars with your kids. (I write this with a movie-sized pack of Twizzlers next to me). Most of us need help in controlling our desire for sugar, so it sure is hard to teach our kids what we are still learning.

How Many More Bites Before Dessert?  by Donna Fish

Help!  Is what most parents say in desperation when it comes to the sugar cry from their kids. “What should I do when my kids constantly ask for candy?  I know it’s not good for them to eat too much sugar, but that’s all they want!”

Once your children are exposed to the world at large- through playgroups, at school, at friends’ homes and so on, you are no longer in total control of their food.  Typically, this increased exposure happens after about three years old, when kids often enter preschool.  Even if you were able to keep your first baby away from sugar, your second is usually exposed much earlier on because of her older sibling’s expanding world.  For many parents, trying to find a way to manage kids’ intake of treats can get complicated.  While some kids self-regulate sweets fairly easily by taking a few bites, some demand more and have difficulty stopping, and/or create a power struggle around their intake.

Here are some tips to help you navigate the issue and help take the focus off the fight:

1)    Don’t get held hostage by your worry that you are going to be creating a problem if you say “no.” At the same time, be flexible and understand that while you may not want your kids to eat sugar or have it in the house, they are going to be eating it outside the home and you might want to be around to help them learn how to moderate it if they need your help.

2)    Try to get away from the old ‘good food’, ‘ bad food’ description.  Sugary foods can be described as ‘fun food, ‘food that makes your taste buds happy’ while you teach them nutritional lessons about what other food groups do for them:  I.E. chicken nuggets, (protein) helps your muscles grow strong to kick that soccer ball.  The treat is fun to eat and important too, but they need to balance foods so that they make sure they are taking good care of this body that does stuff for them!

3)    To get around the old:  “How many more bites before dessert?” question, reply back:  “What do you think?  How well have you fed your body with other things to help it grow?”  If they make the decision they are more likely to have one extra bite vs. putting so much emphasis on the dessert.

4)    Give them some choice of when they get the treat.  Do they want it now, or do they want to have it after dinner when everyone else is having their treats.

5)    Teach them how to wait by assuring their access to the treat.  Let them put it on a shelf or in the fridge where they know where it is, and they get to pick when they have it.  Don’t even worry if they eat it before their meal.  It will rarely spoil their appetite.

6)    Every family has their own value system and comfort level with sugar.  Figure out your comfort level and consider whether you need to be a bit more flexible, or perhaps more limit setting.  Don’t be held hostage by any worry that you will create a problem if you say “no”, but begin a dialogue also with your kids so they take some responsibility for the amount of treats they eat and how well they are feeding their body.

7)    Don’t fret about the days when they go from one birthday party to the next.  Even if they consumed massive amounts of treats, by dinnertime or the next day, you can usually offer up a more healthy option.  Remember that flexibility and having ‘off’ days, are part of healthy eating.  Their bodies can accommodate this.

As you may have noticed already, some kids are more demanding than others when it comes to sugar.  Separate out their demands from usual “I want what I want when I want it” behavior and don’t’ worry about saying “no.”  Some kids do need more structure from you to help them to regulate their eating.  Giving them some control within the rules you set, will help them wait out that time to finally get the signal from their belly to their brain, that they don’t need/want that treat anymore.

Facing the reality that there is only so much control that you will have over their lives is a lesson often first learned around food.  You can pretend that sugar only exists outside the home, but giving them the tools and understanding what tools they need from you, will help them learn how to moderate sugar.

Yes, you can give them the foundation to avoid fights with food between you and them, but most importantly, you can prevent them from that fight within themselves later on.

Donna Fish

Donna Fish is a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Manhattan, where she lives with her husband and three daughters, writes her own blog and blogs for The Huffington Post. With the publication of her book: Take the Fight Out of Food: How to Prevent and Solve Your Child’s Eating Problems, she has appeared on and in NPR, Parenting Magazine, Weekend Today Show, Fox News, USA Today and MSNBC and has lectured at Early Childhood Centers of Sarah Lawrence College, Wellesley College, Georgetown University and trained the Head Start Staff of NYC. She lectures to private schools in NYC: Bank street, Village Community School, Dalton, Chapin and more. Donna blogs for us biweekly and she has her own Expert Page on this blog, as do all of our Experts.

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