Feeding with Freedom; a series. Part 5: Dealing with Treats

The other day at lunchtime, I laid out the offerings along with a plate with 2 homemade cookies on it, one for my 4 year old, and one for me.  I don’t often serve treats with a meal since my son does not always ask for it, but I like to change it up and make sure that he does not become too preoccupied with sweets and treats.  He of course ate a cookie to start and vivaciously proclaimed that he was done. I asked him to make sure his belly was full and he said it was, so I reluctantly let him down from the table. Doh!  My plan had backfired, this time. Most of the time he will eat some of his meal, then his treat, then eat more of his meal.  But this day I guess he was not too hungry and the cookie was enough to fill him up. Oh well…I still think it was worth it.

My son has plenty of access to treats.  When I say treats, I mean foods that are high in fat and sugar, and fairly low in nutrients, such as chips, fried food, candy, cookies, and other sweets.  He knows he is allowed one treat per day (and there are occasionally more), and that he is able to choose what he would like.  Sometimes he asks for a treat, others he does not.  A “treat” to him can vary from ice cream to animal cracker to chips, and occasionally fruit, but this is still widely unacceptable as a treat to him. I’m working on it.  The important thing is that he knows he can have them (though I do limit portion size) often, which takes a lot of the value and importance of treats away.

Valeria Rech Mallett2

As we as parents all know, there are treats being served up everywhere we turn.  It is a major part of life and eating these days, especially for kids.  From birthday parties to school functions to sporting events and even just snacks, opportunities for kids to enjoy sweets and other low nutrient foods are (too) many. Our children can no longer live in the normal, every day world of being a kid without being offered treats.  These types of foods are designed to be extra salty, or sweet, or just the perfect mix of the two, that make us want to eat more of them than we need. Therefore, it is so important  to teach our children to navigate the world of treats in a balanced way, especially when we are not there to look over their shoulder.

Here are a few good guidelines for helping children develop a healthy relationship with sweets and treats:

  • Do not use sweets and treats as a reward.  Treats then become more valuable than other foods and hence more desirable.
  • Do not withhold treats.  By telling a child they must eat X, Y, and Z in order to get their treat, pressure is being applied, which sets a negative tone for the meal. To read more about pressure at mealtimes see Part 3 of this series.
  • Serve sweets and treats along with the regular meal.  Limit portion size, but allow your child to eat their treat at whatever point in the meal they like.  This also takes away a lot of the perceived value in the treat and lets children know that they are readily available.  In my case, it also prevents my son from rushing through his meal so he can have his treat.
  • Serve treat foods such as fries or chips with a meal on occasion, and allow your child to eat as much of them as they want.
  • Serve sweets during snack time in an unlimited amount on occasion (like a plate of cookies on the table) and allow your child to eat as much of them as they would like. This takes away the “forbidden” status of treats and sweets, and does not compete with other foods since they are served for snack.  Also, it doesn’t take too many times for a child to eat too many cookies to realize that more than a couple will just make their belly hurt!

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Using these techniques are especially helpful for the child who seems “obsessed” with sweets.  When sweets and treats are withheld, children become fixated on them and will often overeat treats when they gain access to them. By providing ample opportunities to enjoy treats in small portions, children can learn to regulate their intake and enjoy treats without becoming preoccupied.  The key here is small portions–provide opportunities to enjoy treats but do not grant unlimited access except on occasion. Making treat foods too readily available can lead to weight gain over time, and can also prevent children from learning to like more nutritious, whole foods.

The portion control used with treat foods may seem somewhat counterintuitive to the Division of Responsibility,      (read more about the Division of Responsibility in Feeding here) which allows children to decide how much to eat from what is offered.  Therefore, allowing a child to have unlimited sweets on occasion eliminates that feeling of “scarcity” that could develop around the controlling of treat portions.

Achieving balance when it comes to sweets and treats can be difficult, and will be different depending on the child and their liking for these foods. Children are born with an innate liking for sweets, but some just naturally have more of an interest in sweets than others. I have always been careful to not make a big deal about treats with my son, and I think this has contributed to his healthy relationship with them.  Depending on his mood, he will leave half a cupcake or other sweet uneaten when he’s had his fill, because he knows there will be more treats in days ahead. I have noticed his preference for sweets increasing as he gets older, and I am just trying to be aware, responsive, and calm about the whole thing.

The techniques here may seem a little different, and you may be doubting that they will work with your children.  I encourage you to try them out for a while and see if it helps to alleviate some of the special powers that treats and sweets seem to hold over our children.  I’d love to hear how you handle treats at your house!