How you choose to feed your kids is your personal choice as a parent. Every parent will feel a certain way about feeding their kids, especially when it comes to "treat" foods. Some parents may never allow their kids to have treats while other parents may have them readily available for consumption daily. And then, of course, there most parents who take an in-between stance on feeding their kids treats, and this is where it gets a bit tricky — there is a big gray area. Should you be offering treat foods once a day? What is defined as a "treat" food? Should your kids have to finish their healthy meal before having a treat? There are not really "right" or "wrong" answers to these questions, but here are some quick tips to help you navigate the tricky parenting area of feeding your kids sweets and treats:
When the words "treat" or "junk food" are used, it automatically increases the desirability and mystique of a food. It also implies that the food is almost forbidden, which, in turn, may encourage your kids to feel guilty about eating it or save up for the big indulgence that is to come. I try not to label less-than-healthy foods anything but what they actually are. For example, ice cream, cookie, chocolate, potato chips etc. Most parents wouldn't say to their kids "eat your healthy food" when they are referring to the broccoli on their plates, right? So I, personally, refer to each food, regardless of its nutritional ranking, by its name. Warning: I still refer to these foods as "treats" throughout this post for the sake of simplicity.
Instead of bringing a huge bag of potato chips to the couch while watching a movie, portion out an equal amounts into smaller bowls for everyone so that there is some sort of accountability with portions. The psychology behind this is that most of the time, when someone is offered a larger (or unlimited) portion of a food, they will eat more of it. We are programmed to eat foods to completion, therefore, if ice cream, chips, candy, or any other food for that matter is portioned out, it gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate whether we want, or need, to keep going (to portion out more). If we have had enough, but there is still food in front of us (especially yummy treat-like foods), we often fall victim to the see-food syndrome and over-eat.
Up the ante at home and treat your kids to real food. I find that I am really picky when it comes to indulging in treat foods. My mom always had delicious homemade cookies and always baked homemade birthday cakes and other dessert foods for special occasions. You know... with real ingredients like butter, sugar, eggs etc. rather than "hydrogenated palm oil" and "high-fructose corn syrup". Rarely did we eat packaged, processed treat foods growing up, and I believe that is one of the big reasons that I am more selective with my indulgences now. If I take a bite of a less-than-amazing cookie, I usually stop there. Although your kids will be exposed to a plethora of store-bought, processed treat foods throughout their childhood, they will likely become more selective with what they actually eat if they are exposed to high quality delicious foods at home from an early age.
Sweet taste begets sweet taste, just like salty taste begets salty taste. In other words, the more sweetness your child is exposed to on a daily basis, the more sweetness it will take to satisfy their sweet tooth. If your kids are used to having super-sweet treats and drinks everyday, they will crave that super intensely sweet taste more. So instead of buying chocolate milk, add a tiny amount of chocolate syrup to regular milk and call it chocolate milk. Or instead of giving your kid a juice box, give them "juice water" which in our household means 95% water and a tiny splash of real 100% fruit juice. Another example is yogurt. Instead of buying sweetened yogurt, buy plain and sweeten with a bit of honey, fruit or maple syrup. Same goes for homemade desserts — play around with the amount of sugar that you add to cookies, squares etc. to see how little sugar you actually need to still produce a yummy and satisfying product.
I cringe when parents give their kids fat-free, sugar-free ice cream or those gross 100 calorie packs of store-bought cookies. Artificial treat foods, in my mind, are much less healthy than the real thing. I'd rather my child taste real ingredients and know what food is meant to taste like than be exposed to artificial sweeteners and other chemicals at a young age. Not to mention exposing your kids to "diet" foods at an early age is sending the wrong message and could encourage disordered eating behaviours and body image issues early on.
Try not to create too much anticipation around dessert or a treat. For example, I often hear "Friday night is treat night" or "we have one treat day a week." Making a big deal out of serving sweets or treats or limiting them to only one day a week will only increase the excitement and anticipation of it, often resulting in over-indulging or the "get it in while you can" mentality. Instead, try randomly offering dessert after a meal or randomly suggesting that the family go for ice cream. This way, your kids won't "save up" for it or associate it with a particular day of the week or meal of the day. About once or twice a week we offer our son a homemade cookie or another homemade dessert (or a trip to the ice cream shop) but it's random enough that he doesn't ask for it everyday or expect that dessert is coming after a particular meal. Sometimes it's after a lunch, sometimes it's after dinner or sometimes it's in the middle of the day. From my experience, the more random, the better. I usually caution parents not to replace a healthy meal or snack with a treat food though to make sure that nutrition is not compromised.
Try to stay neutral when it comes to treat foods. If your child brings home a bag of Easter eggs or Valentine's Day candy from 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 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.