Five DOs and DON’Ts of Dealing with Dessert for Kids

Aug 30, 2010 by

Fresh Fruit Cake

You’d like to have a calm, peaceful dinner where everyone eats the meal, and cheerfully and without fanfare enjoys a little dessert afterwards at least once in awhile. Instead, you find yourself in a battle over eating the meal or not, or if we can just eat dessert, and how much dinner has to be eaten, or how much dessert can be had and who got more. It’s enough to make you wish away their childhoods.

Here are a few tips on reaching a peaceful coexistence of children and dessert.

DON’T:

  1. Don’t differentiate too much between dinner and dessert. Be casual about dessert, rather than acting like, “Wow, at last something we can enjoy after the drudgery and duty of dinner!” Show equal and genuine enthusiasm for a good meal, without going overboard and being manipulative about it. If you position dinner as something you want children to eat and dessert as something they want to eat and have to eat dinner to get, you reinforce the good-for-you equals yucky and bad-for-you equals yummy fallacy.
  2. Don’t use dessert to make a child eat dinner. Never make getting food contingent on eating some other food. It’s counterproductive.
  3. Don’t allow kids to fill up on dessert after refusing a meal. It allows them to keep doing it.
  4. Don’t let them eat anything later if they are still hungry after eating only dessert.
  5. Don’t pay attention or react to their fussiness about dessert or dinner, or let them draw you in to arguments or power struggles over food.

DO:

  1. Do allow them to start with dessert if they really want to. They might eat dinner after that when they realize they’re still hungry. Also when everyone else is enjoying dessert together later, they’ll probably be sorry theirs is already gone.
  2. Do allow them to eat only dessert, if that’s what they really want to do. Act like you don’t care, but are only a bit surprised.
  3. Do allow them to remain hungry after a meal if they choose not to eat when it’s time to eat. Temporary hunger is the best teacher.
  4. Limit the amount of sugary food. It’s one of the most detrimental things you can eat. One serving is certainly more than enough, especially if it’s a daily habit.
  5. Replace purchased dessert items with fresh fruit. It’s impossible to overeat fresh, unsweetened fruit. The next best thing is to serve only homemade desserts. Homemade desserts are fresher and more natural, with fewer preservatives and artificial ingredients. Purchased, industrially produced desserts are also easier to get, so we tend to eat them more casually and more frequently. Homemade is more special occasion. It requires work, so that’s another speed bump. Make it worthwhile if you are going to eat dessert.

Coming soon:

How to Have Dessert without Making it a Bribe

Related posts:

How to deal with food tantrums

Leveraging dessert to get kids to eat dinner every night

Why dessert as a bribe is a bad bargain

Six ways to insure kids eat dinner whether there’s dessert or not

Eating power struggles with kids: Why they’re useless and how to end them

7 comments
Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Rosie Kate, I can see why you'd be bugged by your son's picking things out of his food. It would bug me, too. I remember in college seeing a guy in the dining hall picking all the celery out of some dish and thinking very judgmentally, "Buddy, you better be doing that because you swell up and die of allergy from celery." I think you were absolutely right to tell him to remove them quietly, not let him tell you about it or be rude. No complaining or whining allowed. If this behavior is completely ignored I think it will go away. It's a way of having power, I think. If he gets no emotion whatsoever out of anybody for doing it, what fun will it be for him? That's probably the best way to see it disappear, in my opinion. Maybe he's trying on the behavior for size, trying on who he is and how it works for him, asserting his independence, as you suspect. One thing I might consider trying: I wonder if saying once that it bothers you to waste the food would be effective. People (even an adult once) that have left food on their plates at my house I have been known to take and eat myself rather than toss it. I wonder how he would react if maybe you try once taking all the discarded zucchini and eating it yourself. If it's not too gross. Maybe require him to use clean, separate silverware if he is going to remove pieces so that you can eat it. Act like you really want it but don't want it all fingery or from his mouth. Make him work very hard! Act like of course this is worth it to him. I think treating food as precious is a good thing. Act like you would NEVER expect him to eat it if he doesn't want to, but that you NEED it, that food is precious and valuable and you like it. The "leaves more for the rest of us" attitude can be effective sometimes. Or you could put all the zucchini back in the dish if there are left-overs, very innocently, and let him start over on it the next meal. Let it become more trouble than it's worth, very casually, very nonchalant. Another thought, and I actually really like this idea the best, would be to say, "If you are going to pick parts out, I'd rather you not take any at all. That is not an acceptable way to eat. You do not have to eat anything you don't like or feel like eating, ever, but this dish has zucchini it in. That's what it's made of and how we eat it. I do not want to have to throw out a pile of zucchini. You can just eat the carrots tonight if that's all you want. Absolutely! But we all want some carrots, too, so you can't have them all." Have another component, such as carrots or whatever, to the meal, but one that may leave him hungry. Don't pay any attention to what he does or if he is hungry later. He might decide being picky is not really all that rewarding. I think the most important thing to stay true to is always leaving kids totally in charge of what goes in their mouths from among the foods you choose to offer. No pushing to eat and loads of not allowing to eat when, what, and where you don't want him to. Thanks for your question! I'm glad to get your questions and comments!

rosie_kate
rosie_kate

Great tips! Thanks! I'm really enjoying this series of posts. You have lots of great ideas, and it helps me to formulate my "plan" for these instances.

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Thank you, Rosie Kate, I'm so glad you are finding some useful ideas here. I'd love to hear how things are going or if you have any ideas for me!

rosie_kate
rosie_kate

Hm... I do have another thing I'd like to hear your thoughts about. How do you deal (or not deal) with a child who picks through food for ingredients he doesn't like? My 5yo son went through an "anti-onion" phase, in which he complained about bits of onion in his food. I told him to quietly remove them, but not to be rude about it. Now it's zucchini (of which we eat lots because we have lots in the garden, of course!). Same rule applies, but it kinda bugs me (I'm making sure not to let him know that, though, because then it would be a control game). Anyway, I've been using your tips to good effect. He tries to be picky, but he's not getting anywhere with it. It's a fairly recent thing (he's always willing to eat anything, and even now, it's only certain things that he complains about, or according to his mood) and I'm pretty sure it goes along with other aspects of his gaining autonomy.

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Hi Rosie Kate, just checking back if you tried my suggestion with your son? Dying to know if it helped....

Lindsey Dietz
Lindsey Dietz

Thanks, Anna, for a great post and one I certainly needed to read. Just last night my in-laws were negotiating dessert during mealtime. I love them to pieces, but sometimes I just want to say, "Stop it! Dessert or not, they're either going to eat their food or go hungry! No more bribing!" {tongue in cheek, because I'd never, ever say that...}

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Thanks, Lindsey! I hope you are settling in well after your move. How are meals going, other than the well-meaning "help" from your in-laws?