Leveraging Dessert to Get Kids to Eat Dinner Every Night

Aug 6, 2010 by

If you gotta eat dinner to have dessert, you'll eat your dinner. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Free Stock Photos

“We have no problem with my kids eating their dinner,” my friend Ashley told me. “Every night I make dessert. I don’t mind doing it. We all enjoy having it. The kids know that if they don’t eat their dinner they won’t get any dessert, so every night they eat their dinner and they get dessert. We have no fights about it.”

Several other moms told me they have dessert all the time, too, for that very reason: it’s one of the key tools in their toolbox to make their kids eat meals.

Recently, a mom asked me this question: “Our problem is that we like to have ice cream (our junk food of choice) in the summertime after dinner and if our kids don’t eat their supper they can’t have ice cream. Well, it makes them eat their dinner sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t, and of course when they don’t get ice cream they have tantrums. I get what you are saying and want to play that way, but I want my ice cream too. Arg!”

Sugar, Sugar Everywhere

Now, I’m not a dietician or a nutritionist or a doctor.  What do I know?  My expertise is in how to get kids wanting to eat whatever it is you want them to eat, not because they want to get something else, or for any other reason than that they want to eat it. I have no qualifications in nutrition, so maybe I’m wrong. Listen if it makes sense. But from what I’ve read, sugar is terrible for you. We eat far too much of it.

If life for your kids is anything like it has been for mine, sugar is unavoidable. My kids were bombarded with sugar everywhere they turned: school, church, friends’ houses, restaurants, parties. I felt like I could never give them any at all myself because they already got such an overdose everywhere else.

So that’s one problem. Sugary dessert every day seems like a lot to me. If your dessert is just all natural fruit, I’m all for eating it every day. Otherwise, it’s uncalled for. There are better ways to get kids to eat. Harmless and healthy ways.

Sugary desserts every day are bad enough, but having a sugary dessert every night because your kids won’t eat dinner otherwise is far worse. Giving them something harmful in order to get them to ingest something beneficial hardly seems ideal. It’s abnormal and unnecessary. It’s an example of sacrificing the permanent on the altar of the immediate. Something’s gone wrong with the system if that’s what it takes.

Coming up:

Why Dessert as a Bribe is Bad Bargain

How to Insure Kids Eat Dinner Whether There’s Dessert or Not

How to Have Dessert without Making it a Bribe

How to Deal with Food Tantrums

Dos and Don’ts of Dealing with Dessert

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

I think food is one of the most interesting subjects and I think it's great to get kids interested in it and how what we eats effects us. I used to tell my kids things like that I'd read that kids who ate some certain number of hotdogs were nine times more likely to get leukemia. I think a little healthy fear is a good thing! The movie SuperSize Me was great to show my kids, too. They never wanted to eat fastfood again! She might also notice feeling worse after she eats junk food if she is used to eating really healthy foods almost all the time. If she listens to her body, it's going to tell her quite a bit about what's good for her.

Lindsey Dietz
Lindsey Dietz

My daughter has been asking a lot lately, "Is this healthy?" whenever we're eating something. I think I've rubbed off on her a lot! Our family, like 99.9% of all other families, enjoys healthy things and non-healthy things. We just have to keep it in balance. I tell my kids that it's ok to have an ice cream or pizza every once in a while because the majority of what we eat is really good for us. She still asks if it's healthy though... I'm glad she's concerned about it. I hope it helps her make good decisions for herself as she gets older.

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Thanks, Lindsey. Great to hear from you again. Bribes are used a lot in our society for all kinds of things, I'm sure you've noticed. Have you ever read Alfie Kohn's books (Punished by Rewards is one)? I think kids need to get their foundation for good eating through enjoying what's good for them and being guided by their appetites more than anything else to eat well. I avoid having them view it as a duty, as I think it takes the joy out of it and devalues the food. My goal is for my kids to love healthy food, not just eat it against their true desire. I also try to avoid the "good-for-you is yucky but we do it because it's right" vs. "bad-for-you is yummy but we avoid it because it's wrong" fallacy. I like to emphasis how bad for them bad stuff is--also I just didn't give them much access to it!-- rather than pressing them to eat the good. I let their hunger drive the good eating.

Lindsey Dietz
Lindsey Dietz

Great post! Unfortunately, we used to use the dessert bribe. We don't use it anymore, but my kids still ask what's for dessert after lunch and dinner. I simply and matter-of-factly reply, "You know, we don't have to have dessert after every meal, and this is one of those meals." I can't keep them from asking, but I'm not going to offer them sugar in exchange for eating their broccoli. They're going to eat their broccoli because they like it and it's good for them, not because they're getting rewarded. You wouldn't (or shouldn't) bribe your kids with a sucker for obeying or for sharing their toys or for helping when you ask. Why should you give them a sucker (or cake or ice cream) for eating? They should choose the good behavior, not for the reward that's in it, but because it's the right thing to do. That's why we stopped bribing dessert in exchange for a dinner well-eaten.


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