Today I did something that might shock you.
I gave my toddler Pumpkin Cookies as part of her meal.  Yup, a Certified Nutritionist and health-nut mom willingly allows her child to have dessert  with her dinner.
Even more surprising, this was a conscious and a strategic decision.
Many children (especially “picky eaters”) seem to reject foods that are good for them and embrace foods that are not-so-good.  So it’s not surprising that when dealing with a selective eater, we are tempted to use treats to encourage them to eat the good stuff.
Have you ever spoken these words?
  • If you eat your dinner then you can have a treat”
  • “You can have a cookie if you go pee on the potty!”
  • “You were a good boy today, so mommy is going to buy you some ice cream“.

Put yourself in your little one’s shoes…if they can ONLY have a cookie after they do something they do not want to do, then that cookie must be good.  Really good.   If our child can only have a treat on special occasions then they interpret that as a restriction and take advantage when it is available (possibly having more than one).

kale onesie

As much as I would LOVE my daughters to gush over greens like kale every day, that is not likely.  We are surrounded by unhealthy options every day and so are our children.  It’s clear that giving them free reign over eating sugar-laden foods is detrimental, yet the reality is that forbidding them will likely backfire as well.

That’s why I give my child dessert with dinner (sometimes).

We won’t always be there to tell our children what they can and can’t eat, so they will need to learn how to make the best choice on their own.  What we can do now is build the right foundation for those decisions.  Here are a few ways to do that:

Help our little ones understand why we eat what we eat

For instance, you can explain why you choose certain foods by saying “We eat chicken because it will make us strong so we can do gymnastics” or “This fruit is going to give you energy so you can run fast at the park”.  Once they start to connect certain foods with relevant and relatable benefits, their motivation to eat them will improve.

Try not to label sweets or unhealthy foods as “treats

The goal here is not to make sweet or unhealthy foods seem more appealing than healthier options.   Even removing the term “treat” altogether will make a difference.   If sugary foods are called “treats” (which has positive connotations) then any food we do not label as a “treat” automatically becomes less appealing.

One day I realized I ended up tweaking this strategy to increase my daughter’s intake of nutritious foods by saying: “You can only have a few pieces of broccoli because mommy and daddy want some too”.   And what do you know, she is more likely to eat her broccoli and reach for more.  Or I’ll comment in a very upbeat voice,Guess what we’re having for a snack, Sienna!  Avocado and eggs.  Yippee!”   And she does get excited about eggs.   I haven’t seen the research on this reverse psychology we employ, but it has worked thus far!

Give your child dessert at some mealtimes.  

As mentioned above, once in a while I add a dessert to our meal.   By doing this, cookies and other less optimal foods don’t become forbidden (and as a result, more desirable).

One caveat: Over 90% of the “treats” I offer my toddler are much healthier versions of cookies, cakes, and other snack foods.  I’ll usually make something like these pumpkin cookies which are made with healthy fats (coconut oil), protein (eggs) and fiber (pumpkin) so I won’t be cringing when she wants another.

Based on Ellyn Satter’s approach, the recommendation is to limit dessert portions to one per person at meals so they don’t end up indulging on just the sweet stuff and nothing else.

I admit I had a real problem with this approach.

After all, I am a nutritionist who knows a lot (maybe too much) about how the wrong foods impact our health.  However, the research (and my personal experimentation) have shown that it’s effective in creating a healthy relationship with food for my girls and my clients.   Every parent has to make that decision based on what they feel comfortable with.

Feel free to reach out to learn more about the other evidence-based strategies I use to improve our children’s nutritional intake and relationship with food.