Managing Sweets (Part 6): 10 Strategies for Ending Kids’ Sugar Obsession

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on February 18, 2011

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We’ve covered a lot in our managing sweets series — the culture of eating, how kids become sweets-obsessed, real life success  stories and the science of sugar.

Yet despite all this information, the reality is managing sweets in an overly-sweet world is challenging, to say the least.  But with the right strategies and mindset, it is possible to have the best of both worlds without compromising health.

So we are ending this series with 10 positive things you can do to raise children who have a healthy relationship with sweets.


Part 1: Lower your child’s sweet threshold. Sweet taste begets sweet taste.  If children sip on super sweet beverages and foods all day it will take even more sweetness to satisfy them.

1. Reconsider sugar-sweetened beverages: The 20% increase in sugar over the past 40 years is primarily due to sugar-sweetened beverages.   Yes, soda is one of them but so are energy drinks, juice drinks and coffee drinks (See this post for the different between juice drinks and 100% juice).

To give you an idea of the added sugars in sweetened beverages (each teaspoon of sugar contains 5g of sugar) consider this: one tall Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks contains 35g of sugar (some of it natural sugar from milk), a 12 oz can of soda has 39g of sugar and natural drinks like Capri Sun and Honest Kids have 15g and 10g respectively.

One of the downsides to liquid calories is that the body doesn’t register them the same way it does solid calories.  In a 2000 study published in the International Journal of Obesity two groups of young people were given an extra 450 calories from either liquids or solids (jelly beans).  While the jelly bean group compensated by eating less, the liquid-calorie group not only ate more food but also gained weight.

2. See how low you can go: I regret the day I gave my daughter sweetened yogurt because the next time I served her plain she refused.  When possible, keep your child on everyday foods that are as close to natural as possible — saving the sweets for “desserty” type foods.

But as I mentioned in my last post, adding sugar to nutrient-dense foods can improve the diet quality of children.  So experiment with different products and recipes that offer maximum taste with as little added sugars as possible. Some parents will add a little chocolate syrup to their child’s milk or honey to plain yogurt.

Remember to check the grams of sugar and ingredient lines in different products.  Don’t miss our list of lower sugar yogurts and cereals.

3. Spoil your child’s palate: No doubt your child will be faced with lots of overly-processed sweet foods throughout their life.  But at home, you can up the ante by thinking twice about bringing these foods in your home and, instead, provide homemade desserts, wholesome treats and dark chocolate (my personal favorite).

The idea is for kids to appreciate, and even become picky about the kind of sweets they enjoy.  I know that this has happened to me over the years. If after one bite I don’t truly enjoy something sweet, I don’t continue.  And knowing I have to make my own chocolate chip cookies to truly be satisfied means it doesn’t happen as often.

Part 2: Level the food playing field by treating sweets like “just another food we eat:” Treating sweets like the be-all-end-all or the bad, forbidden fruit brings too much attention to these foods piquing kids interest even more.

4. Stay neutral when it comes to sweets:  While it’s not always possible to stay totally calm when it comes to kids and sweets, try your best to stay neutral and matter-of-fact.  Here are examples of non-neutral vs. neutral behavior:

Non neutral: A 3-year old brings a bag of candy home from Valentine’s Day.  The parent takes it and puts it on the counter.  In the morning the parent finds the child with the stash eating like crazy and yells: “What are you doing?  You don’t eat candy without asking!!? The parent takes it away and says they can’t have anymore.  The child is crying and yelling: “I want my candy!”

Neutral: Same scenario as above but instead of reacting the parent informs the kid (in a calm voice) that there is a time and a place for candy but it is not before breakfast.  The parent gently plies the bag from the kid’s hands and lets them know they will get some for snack time later.

5. Serve dessert with dinner: “The most helpful advice I’ve found is often the hardest for families, and that is to serve a child-sized portion of dessert WITH the meal, but no seconds on dessert. ” says feeding expert Dr. Katja Rowell from Family Feeding Dynamics.  “It really does neutralize it, and also puts all the food on a level playing field.”

Rowell explains that kids are likely to eat dessert first for awhile but they eventually learn to enjoy and tune in to the entire meal without obsessing or fretting about what they have to eat, or how many bites will earn dessert. “There is data to suggest that bribing kids with dessert makes them less likely to enjoy new foods, and that’s certainly what I’ve seen.”

One of our readers wrote in with her success with this strategy: “I have noticed that if I go ahead and add a small sweet to their dinner plates, both of my girls will eat a more balanced meal instead of ‘holding out’ for dessert,” says Ramona, a mom of two young girls.

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6. Assure kids they can have more another time: According to a 2002 study published in Abnormal Psychology, restrained eaters who were told they were going to be on a diet soon ate significantly more food than those in the non-diet group.

Children who feel deprived feel this way too.  When they aren’t sure when they’ll get sweets again, they often eat past the point of satisfaction.  It’s the get-it-while-you-can phenomenon and is likely one of the reasons dieting is associated with weight gain over time.

The solution is surprisingly simple: remind kids they’ll have sweets again at a future date — and follow through with regular offerings in and outside the home.

Here are some examples:

Can I have cake, mama?  We usually have cake at birthday parties, the next one is Sarah’s coming soon.

Can I have a cookie?  Let’s have them for snack next week. Good idea!

Can I have ice cream (after dinner): You know, we had something sweet already today.  Let’s have ice cream another night.

7. Let them take the lead sometimes: I made chocolate cookies the other day and offered them at snack time — at the table.  My daughter ate two cookies and then said “more cookies please.”  I gave her one more cookie and after she finished she declared she was done and that she “could have more another time.”

In addition to assuring kids they will get sweets again, letting them have times they can eat until they are satisfied is important.  Feeding expert Ellyn Satter stresses this in her books as a way to avoid scarcity with eating and I have incorporated it into my feeding routine.

This is very different from allowing kids to eat sweets whenever they want.  Instead, ask them to sit at the table, be present with food, and eat until they are satisfied.  Kids that feel deprived may eat past the point of satisfaction for a while but once they realize the treat is no longer scarce they’ll enjoy the food without feeling like they need to get it while they can.

Part 3: Teach children how to eat sweets in the real world: Here’s advice from three leading pediatric dietitians about guiding children to make smart choices in the real world.

8.  Talk frequency instead of good and bad: For younger children, teaching them that there are some foods we eat more often than others works well.  Angela Lemond, RD, certified pediatric dietitian who blogs over at Mommy Dietitian, explains.

“Instead of demonizing foods as “bad,” parents can explain to their children that high sugar, low nutrient foods are supposed to enjoyed only “sometimes” because they contain no lasting “super powers” that will help them (insert child’s favorite past time),” she says.  “Fill the house with healthier foods that are naturally sweet such as fresh, ripe fruit that is easy to grab and eat.”

9.Teach older kids the 90/10 rule: Jill Castle, MS, RD, pediatric nutrition specialist who blogs over at Just the Right Byte,uses “the 90/10 rule” with her clients.  She teaches families that 90% of what kids eat in a day is good-for-you, growing foods (MyPyramid foods) and the other 10% are Fun Foods (sweets, “junk food” like chips/high fat, high sugary foods, soda, etc).  She says that for most kids, this ends up being about 100-200 calories per day or 1-2 Fun Foods.

“The great thing is that the child can understand this concept, and I always make sure to tell them (and the parent) that they are in charge of choosing WHICH food will be their fun food, ” Castle says.  “Then we role play different scenarios, like school, church, parties….this helps the child get ready to make decisions in the real world.”

10. Help them make the hunger connection: While parents often offer meals and snacks at certain intervals at home, the real world has food available 24/7.  Teaching kids they don’t need to eat simply because the food is there, like chips at the soccer game, is a valuable lesson.

“When I’m talking to kids about hunger/fullness and dessert I always try to teach them that desserts aren’t “bad” but many times we eat dessert when we’re not hungry, after we’ve just finished a meal,” says Katie Mulligan, MS, RD, practicing pediatric dietitian who blogs over at Nurturing Nutrition.  “I teach kids that they can have cake, but instead of eating it right after dinner when your belly is full, how about waiting a few hours until you’re actually hungry or even have it the next day when you’re truly hungry for it?”

The missing link

I’ve been reading this book called, “Becoming the Parent You Want to Be.” What the authors said in the chapter on kids and discipline struck a chord with me:

” When children have been helped to make decisions based on empathy, understanding and their own critical thinking skills rather than on just what the “rule” says, they have a skill they can use in a multitude of different situations and carry with them for the rest of their lives”

I feel this way about sweets and other fun foods — we need to teach kids (and ourselves) the skills needed to balance all foods in the diet — not just healthy ones.  And we have to resist the temptation to teach kids the opposite: that they can’t be trusted around those foods (needless to say I’m not for banning sweets in schools).

And Rowell reminded me that “Kids will be kids, and they have sweeter tastes than ours, so some whining, even if everything is going well is normal.”  Lemond also points out that, “kids are in the rapid growth phase and that’s why they crave sweets.”

I wish there was one proven way to manage sweets with growing kids but that isn’t the reality.  But hopefully this series has got you thinking of new and effective ways to handle the sweet stuff at home and in the real world.

Got a question about the sticky topic of sweets?  Leave them in the comments.

References:

Di Meglio DP, Mattes RD. Liquid versus solid carbohydrate: effects on food intake and body weight. 2000 June;24(6): 794-800.

Urbszat D, Herman CP, Polivy J. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet: effects of anticipated deprivation on food intake in restrained and unrestrained eaters. J Abnormal Psychol. 2002 May; 111(2): 396-401.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Vennesa February 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Thank you for these suggestions! This is a great post.
Number 8 (frequency) reminded me of something my kids preschool teacher does. She has the kids cut out pictures of different foods. On a paper plate she writes “Healthy Food” on one side and “Sometimes Food” on the other. They paste the pictures on whichever side they belong. Then they come home and teach the family all about what they learned.
So much better than having good food and forbidden or bad food!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 18, 2011 at 7:14 pm

That’s great Vennesa! Hopefully the days of “good” and “bad” foods are on their way out!

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Candice February 18, 2011 at 2:40 pm

I enjoyed this post. I like to be reminded to remain calm in the face of sweets! I actually sent my daughter a “big” cookie in her lunch today as a random treat!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 18, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Thanks Candice. It’s hard to stay calm as a parent overall, but I sure do try, especially when it comes to food!

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goodfountain February 18, 2011 at 5:38 pm

This was a great series and gave me a lot of ideas to helps me with my older, sugar-obsessed, daughter.

Next up now I need a post (or series) for the salt/carb-addicted child like my #2. She’d live off pretzels and pasta if I’d let her. :)

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 19, 2011 at 3:55 pm

I’m glad it’s helped goodfountain. The advice really applies to all less-than-nutritious foods ; )

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Healthy Kids Challenge February 22, 2011 at 6:23 pm

I just want to say a big THANK YOU for this post. And the series…but especially this one. Having positive things families can do is important. Personally, as a parent, I employ most all of these tips, even having dessert with dinner, and it does take the emphasis off the sweets. Thank you!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 23, 2011 at 9:32 am

Healthy kids challenge — Thanks so much! I’m glad the series was helpful.

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eva @5FruitsNVeggies December 30, 2011 at 10:42 am

i just got this link to this blog post from another blogger…
i am not tooting my own horn, but i was happy to see that i am treating candy in our house in the right way…
i learned way earlier on when they were in pre-school and the thought of cupcakes and an avalanche of candy exposure was the beginning of the end that i had to ‘manage’ the situation…you use the word ‘manage’ as well…
i need to prepare my children for real life–and real life means constant exposure to candy and processed foods…and without knowing your list of strategies above, i have been implementing them starting 10 years ago….and i can vouch for you, that they work….i am not saying it’s been easy, but if a parent sticks to these values then it works….however, it means the parent needs to abide by them as well ; )
great post!

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ellen briggs October 15, 2012 at 12:38 pm

How do I contact Maryann to ask her to be a guest on an upcoming radio show on Which Sweeteners are Safe for Kids?

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Colleen Grossner February 26, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Great article! I love how you include specific examples of situations and responses :) I would say the rules/principles we go by at my house are a bit stricter, but they go with explanations all along the way about why we eat what we eat. Our biggest tool is probably is savoring! Well, here it is in case you or others are interested :) http://fresh-you.blogspot.com/2013/02/lucky-seven-tips-for-kids-and-sweets.html

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Leann Trowbridge June 9, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Wow. Thank you so much. While I’ve been generally following most of these guidelines, your suggestion of serving dessert with dinner struck a chord with me. I’ve been trying it, and so far, it looks like it may revolutionize our dinner-times– and get my kids to eat more of their healthy food! There is actually time for regular conversation when the negotiating over sweets disappears.

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Andrea June 30, 2013 at 7:33 am

Thank you for the helpful series.

My daughter is 4 years old. She is obsessive about sweets and will constantly talk about candy whether we have any or not. Many of the ‘8 DO NOT do’ steps (from part 4 of your series?) – I have been doing! oops! So I am going to work on changing those.

My one question is:

It is suggested that I should not manage the amount of candy she has when we are at a special occasion (party) so that she does not feel restricted. Does this mean that the first few parties will entail over-indulgence and I will basically need to turn a blind eye before she starts to slow down on eating as much as possible in one sitting? I am wondering if I will need to prepare for a few months of watching her over-eat?
Without any advice on this, I may then panic again and start to limit her- as it just doesn’t feel right to have her eating so much candy. She is already slightly on the heavy side (regardless of healthy eating and exercise) and I think this is why my husband and I feel so strongly about always controlling the amount of candy she has.

Thanks again for your series. A great help!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 1, 2013 at 6:49 am

Andrea,

Yes, when you first allow a child who has been restricted to eat sweets freely she is likely to over do it. But once she realizes she isn’t restricted, she will eat less and become less focused on those foods. The research shows restriction is linked to eating in the absence of hunger and higher weights in children. As your child gets older and goes to friends etc., you run the risk of her sneaking food and overeating at her friends. If you can get a handle on this now it will help. eover this in my book Fearless Feeding. Let me know if you have any other questions.

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Andrea July 23, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Hi again Maryann

I just wanted to send you an update. I posted here on June 30th (two posts above) asking you how long it would take for the candy ‘obsession’ (of my daughter, age 4) to subside.

It has been nearly one month.

The first 10 days she ate all the candy out of the candy box which we used to keep. Every day she woke, the first thing she asked for was for candy. One morning she ate a whole chocolate bunny (quite large). I found this very difficult (as that turned out to be her breakfast), but I kept reminding myself that we needed to try something new as the old way wasn’t working. The box is now empty and we will not be replacing it.

By the end of 10 days, she had slowed down on asking for candy. We now wake up, get ready for school and get through the whole day without talking about candy.

It has been nearly one month and this morning we were at a buffet breakfast and there was cake. I offered some to her and she simple said,’no thank you’.

Additionally, we are not asking her to finish all the food on her plate. There is no reward of desert for finishing a ‘forced’ dinner.

The other day she ate half a sweet desert and left the other half saying she was full.

We have noticed big changes even in just one month. Thank you. I can honestly say that the first 10 days seemed slightly out of control and were very difficult for both my husband and I. The control over her food (specifically sugar) had become quite a stress in our lives- and changing our ways was also a challenge.

Many thanks again, Andrea

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Kate October 21, 2015 at 12:50 pm

Thank you so much for update, Andrea. It’s very encouraging!

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Star June 6, 2014 at 11:21 am

I let my 4 yr old so. Have sweets about 3 times a weak but he is never satisfied. He is so obsessed with them that he steals sweets from anywhere and eats sweets found in the street on the floor. I’ve tried everything, why is he soooo obsessed!

I was going to cut them out completely as he’s never satisfied or appreciative when he has them. I don’t know what to do

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justanotherjoe May 16, 2015 at 8:23 pm

It is a nice article. However, this is okay after you have skipped the most important step of all. Avoiding the sweets in the first place. Very young children do not need cookies, cake and ice creams as well as junk food. Fruit is far sweeter and better than anything else you might give them artificial or even home baked. It is odd that we feel young children have a processed sugar deficiency. Even as they get older. You may not be able to influence what they eat outside of the home, but you can let family and friends know where you stand. In closing. You the parent must be the example. If they see you do it they will be inspired. Just keep in mind we live in a world where people wait until bad things happen before they decide to do the right thing. Sadly if your child becomes diabetic or obese then family and friends will be more likely to provide good choices and yes will likely blame you for letting the child get this way despite their obvious contribution. This is why you try to avoid unnatural sweets like the plague. Once diabetic those past processed foods become deadly and will be almost impossible to break them of it. Processed sugar has an almost drug like affect on the brain. But the article does not seem to introduce the obvious option to avoid processed sugars and junk food at all cost in the first place. That is what is most disturbing.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 21, 2015 at 6:07 pm

My articles are based on the latest evidence of feeding children. Unfortunately, tightly controlling a child’s intake of sweets seems to have a backfiring effect increasing the chance that they will eat in the absence of hunger. I get emails all the time from parents trying to do as you say and they find their kids go crazy with these foods outside the home or learn to obsess about them. See this article http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2014/04/got-a-food-obsessed-kid-research-warns-dont-restrict-them/

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Ruth hopkins September 23, 2015 at 4:52 pm

I and many other parents hopefully agree with you justanotherjoe! We must remember just because our government allows our children to be targeted by the sugary food industry does not mean we as parents should just endure all the problems this causes for our children’s health and not inform them of how they are being controlled by outside sources and coaxed into eating these highly addictive foods for a reason. Money. Health of our future generation should prevail. Teaching children the benefit of fresh fruit and veg and how to plant seeds is surely the answer and teaching them that a bag of sweets does nothing for your body but to make you sick.

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Andrea October 21, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Yes, I can understand the evils of sugar. As a side note to the above, my husband and I do not eat processed sugar. We eat only whole foods. We also have our own garden and plant our vegetables with the children. We have always taught them how to look after their bodies and the importance of health.

We do live in society though and avoiding sweets altogether on a day to day basis with a 6 year old is near impossible. (This is unless I have brought our own food with us to eat when we are out.) Our modern world is full of external influence from outside the home.

I do not forbid my child to eat a piece of cake at a friends Birthday Party. I would also not expect other parents to change their ways and not have sugar cake at their own children’s party if that is what they want. Schools are getting better, but where I live, the children still receive white bread and cookies daily. Sugar is everywhere when we go out.

Teaching is a good thing, yes I agree. But we found that even with teaching and restriction, we were still being exposed to sweets and my daughter was even more interested and determined to have them when they were around (i.e. parties and friends houses). This is where our problem started.

It has been 2 years since I first wrote on this website and my daughter seems a lot more balanced and knows the importance of choosing wisely. She is not obsessed with sugar as she was previously and I believe this was due to the advice we used from this website.

However, regardless of what my husband and I eat, at the moment my daughter will definitely choose that piece of cake , ice tea and bag a favours at the end of the party- every time ; )

Thanks for the help Maryann. It’s a great website.

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get backlinks November 30, 2015 at 12:58 am

Hey justanotherjoe, i get what your saying and where your coming from, believe me but we are living in this society, surrounded by this, and to say no sweets to me seems like shutting your kids off from the world. Maybe people could try the no sweets diet in cut off style bush living and succeed, but to ask of this living in our society really seems quite mean. I think its much healthier for the children to join in with their community and not feel left out. I have two daughters, and my four year old loves sweets. She gets loads of fruits and organic foods however, and I try my best in telling her about too much bad sugars. Before i had children I used to say I’m never giving my kids sweets!! I have had two root canals as I ate too much sweets growing up, and I now try to avoid eating processed sugars. I work in the organic food industry and follow healthy eating thats for sure. So I get your comment, but, its not realistic or fair. And lastly, do you even have kids???

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