Similar to other holidays that have a hefty dose of candy, with Valentine’s Day around the corner, I often get the dessert question: to dessert or not to dessert? There are two main schools of thought on the recent dessert debates. On one hand, offering children (and adults) a highly preferred sweet treat at the end of the meal can help to motivate children to eat a predetermined amount or variety of different foods. On the other hand, it is important for children to learn how to make healthy decisions without some external motivator. In these houses, the treat is on the plate and presented with the rest of the meal. If the child eats the cookie first, so be it. That is all he is getting and if he is still hungry, he will eat some portion of the remaining food on his plate.
But it really depends on which of these two options is the best. Each family culture and structure is different and I do not believe that either of these options are the perfect fit for all families. In my house, dessert during the week is fruit. I serve it at the end of the meal, not for any specific purpose other than I want to get dinner out on the table and cutting the volume of fruit my children eat takes time. My children eat much slower than I do (or perhaps I eat a bit too quickly, but I’m working on that). So while my children are still at the table eating, I get up to cut the fruit. The counter and the table are very close to each other, so I’m still part of the conversation and family interaction. On the weekends, dessert is a traditional-style dessert (think cake, ice cream, etc.). The other rule in my house is that to get dessert, everyone has to eat at least a little bit of everything on their plate. Otherwise, they will literally eat an entire orchard at the beginning of the meal and eat nothing else (that is unless there is pizza for dinner). But by no means does anyone need to finish all of the food on their plate.
When thinking about the dessert or non-dessert culture that you want to establish in your home, think about the following points:
1. What is an appropriate type of treat that you want your children to have per day/week?
This will help you to decide what types of desserts/treats that you want to have in the house for snacks and during meals.
2. Limit the treat to one serving
No matter when your children have access to a treat, they should be able to get one serving. This will ensure that they are not too full to have other foods during meals.
3. Encourage your children to eat a little bit of everything that was made for the meal.
This is regardless of whether you offer a treat during or after the meal.
With the almost unlimited access to treats either during school or in a typical American pantry, it is important to think about how and when children can have access to treats. When they do have them, remember to remove the guilt. They should enjoy what they have. But thinking about how to thoughtfully integrate these foods into your home will set your child up for success and teach them that moderation really is key.