In our efforts to enforce a little moderation on our would-be sugar fiends, we run the risk of turning candy, cake and treats into a bigger deal in a child's mind. We may be unintentionally reinforcing the message that sweets are more exciting than vegetables, and that good times and unhealthy indulgence go hand-in-hand.
A SWEET TOOTH IS A NATURAL PHENOMENON
The first thing to acknowledge is that there is a very real, physical reason why children like candy and fatty foods so much. It's because their metabolism is in overdrive. Because they are growing and learning at an astounding rate, and because they usually accompany that growth with a busy schedule of play, play and more play, their calorific needs are much higher than an adult of a comparable body size.
That's not to say a diet of pure M&M's and soda is a good idea for your 5-year-old, but it is still a fact worth remembering next time your child throws a fit over a chocolate chip cookie.
THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT
Another fact that is often hard for us parents to accept is that banning something outright rarely works - especially if that something is readily available outside of the home.
Instead of preventing children from enjoying any processed foods, fatty treats or refined sugars, we may be better off allowing them to enjoy those foods in moderation, by taking care not to make a big deal out of them, and providing plenty of healthy alternatives.
In an article on forbidden foods, child nutrition expert and registered dietitian Ellyn Satter suggests that when you do occasionally allow fries or chips with a meal, you should arrange to have enough that everyone can eat their fill, because fatty foods don't compete with other mealtime foods in the way that sugary treats can. Even with sugary treats, Satter suggests that allowing children an unlimited supply of cookies or desserts at snack time is not a bad thing. They'll eventually learn that it doesn't always feel too great to overindulge.
SERVE TREATS WITH YOUR MEAL
Many dietitians now advise parents that dessert may actually be better served alongside the main meal from time to time, by presenting cake and broccoli as equally valid, equally exciting and delicious food choices. The majority of food a child is offered each day should still be fruits, vegetables and carbohydrates, but the occasional doughnut is not going to throw their eating off balance.
DO NOT REWARD OR CONSOLE WITH FOOD
A trip to the ice cream store may sound like a logical reward for good behavior or a fun way to cheer a child up if he or she is down. But these kinds of "benefits" can create associations that are hard to break later on in life.
Instead, try giving out stickers, or even just promising your child an hour of your undivided attention. Not only will you avoid creating unhealthy mental associations to food, you'll also create memories for you and your children to cherish.
DOUBLE STANDARDS ARE SOMETIMES OK
Recently, many dietitians have recommend developing a division of responsibility regarding eating, with parents deciding what to offer, and children deciding if and how much they want to eat of what is offered.
"If you drink soda, maintain a double standard," Satter said. "Tell your child it is a grownup drink, which it is. When she is old enough to learn about soda-drinking from friends - probably in middle school - arrange to have soda occasionally for snack or along with a particular meal, such as pizza or tacos."
PROVIDE ALTERNATIVES, PROMOTE EXPLORATION
The most important thing you can do as a parent is introduce a wide range of foods to your children and encourage them to explore, experiment and enjoy the flavors and textures that the world has to offer.
I know, from painful experiences, that there will be many times when your children will refuse the same spinach they thought was delicious only a week ago, or demand yet another cookie, or simply eat nothing at all. These are all natural ways your child explores boundaries and develops their own opinions about food.
Try to remember that you can never, and should never, control what they eat, but can act as a guide by providing them with a broad range of choices. Over time, they will develop their own sense of self-control and moderation, leaving you to worry about your own temptations in the candy aisle.