We’re all looking for ways to reduce sugar intake. We inherently know that too many sweets and refined sugars can be a health hazard for our kids.
Learn about how to reduce sugar intake, understand how much added sugar is appropriate for kids, and 25 ways to reduce sugar intake so that your child achieves a healthy diet and eating pattern.
Many American children are getting too much sugar in their diets.
The recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA) state that children’s added sugar intake should be no more than 6 teaspoons per day.
Children under 2 years should skip it all together.
Let’s noodle on that for a bit. Even the new 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans support this: No added sugar for children under the age of 2 years.
Read: Sweets for Babies?
Before we dig into the 25 different ways you can reduce sugar intake, let’s explore some basics.
What is Added Sugar?
Added sugar is the refined sugar that is added to foods during processing.
For example, the sugar found in candy, cookies and cakes. These are added to the recipes and are obvious sweets and sources of added sugar.
Other foods aren’t so obvious. Foods such as cereal, yogurt, spaghetti sauce, and yogurt aren’t so clear.
They’re hidden sugars.
You need to watch out for both.
Recommendations for Refined Sugars and Kids?
As I mentioned, the current recommendations for children is no more than six teaspoons per day. Yet, most kids are far past this level.
Again, this isn’t the number of teaspoons you actually add to your child’s food.
It’s the daily added sugar allowance your child eats in a given day from all food sources, both obvious and hidden.
[If you want the lowdown on your child’s daily added sugar allowance, according to age, read The New Sugar Recommendations for Children]25 ways to slash added sugar in your child's diet -- pick one and get started! Click To Tweet
Who Needs a Better Sugar Balance?
In truth, probably all children would benefit from cutting down on sweets and reducing their sugar intake.
If you look at the statistics on sugar intake, the rates are almost consistently higher in children of all ages (including teens) than they should be.
One of my favorite strategies for re-balancing the overall diet to a healthier place is the 90-10 Rule for sweets and treats I created for my clients when I was in private practice. It was easy to understand and implement for parents and kids alike!
Kids with ADHD May be Sensitive to Sweets
Some kids are extra sensitive to sugar. That is, their behavior changes when they eat it.
They may become more aggressive, hyperactive or difficult to parent.
A small percentage of kids with ADHD have been shown to be sensitive to sugar in their diet (as well as some sugar substitutes).
25 Ways to Reduce Sugar Intake
I’ve got 25 different ways in which you can pare down the obvious and hidden sugar in your child’s diet.
I suggest you pick the tactics that would work best for your child and your family, and get going!
1. Teach “Candy is Special”
Limit candy to one “regular” serving when allowing it. That means, no super-sized portions. Check out the sugar content of popular Halloween candy for an inkling on just how much sugar is in candy. Teach your child that candy is for special times, not everyday.
2. Use Recommended Serving Sizes
Follow the recommended serving size on the back of the package (usually 2 or 3 per serving) for treats like cookies. No box or bag of food in front of the TV!
3. Canned Fruit in “Own Juices”
Purchase canned fruit that is “canned in its own juices,” rather than in syrup or heavy syrup. You’ll automatically cut down on the sugar content.
4. Instill a Policy for Sweet Treats
Consider a policy for sweets during the school week, such as “only brain food (nutritious foods); treats and sweets on the weekend.”
5. Primary Beverages
Use water and milk (or a non-dairy fortified substitute) as the primary beverage offerings for your child, most of the time. This is in line with the current beverage recommendations for children under age 5.
6. For Special Occasions: Soda
Limit soda and other sugary beverages to special occasions.
7. Limit Juice
Watch the amount of juice, even if it’s 100% juice. According to the recent guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children under 1 year of age should not consume fruit juice; children age 1 to 3 years should be limited to 4 ounces per day; children aged 4 to 6 years should consume no more than 4-6 ounces; and those kids aged 7-18 years, no more than 8 ounces per day.
8. Shop Smartly: Sugary Cereals
Be careful of sugary cereals, and try to choose a cereal with less than 9 grams of sugar per serving. (Hint: Click on the link to get a chart of the 17 lowest sugar cereals for kids!)
9. A Sugar Trap: Granola Bars
Alert! Granola bars can be a sugar trap. Use my granola bar guidelines and buy granola bars with less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
10. Cut Sugar in Baking and Cooking
Cut the amount of sugar you add to homemade recipes. It’s easy to cut out ¼ cup of sugar without any major impact on taste, especially in baked goods like quick breads and cookies.
11. Don’t Spoil Yogurt
Don’t spoil the health benefits of yogurt. The most sugary types of yogurt are the ones with candy or chocolate you can add to the yogurt (nestled on top or alongside the package). The versions with fruit on the bottom carry a punch, too. Plain and flavored yogurts contain the lowest amounts. Read: How to Choose a Healthy Yogurt for Kids
12. After-School Snacks: Make Them Healthy
Make sure after-school snacks are nutritious and preferably showcasing a source of protein, healthy fat, and/or fiber. Check out my 51 snack ideas for kids! Or, if you really want to renovate your snacks, check out my Healthy Snack Planner for Kids.
13. Make Your Own Popsicles
Make your own popsicles. Puree frozen or fresh fruit in a blender with water or milk and freeze into popsicle molds. If you’re purchasing popsicles at the grocery store, check out some of the healthiest popsicle varieties.
14. Use Natural Sugars at Mealtime
Offer fruit at most meals, if not all of them. Fruit offers that sweet flavor kids may crave without all the sugar.
15. Refresh with Frozen Fruit
Frozen fruit makes a refreshing treat. Try freezing grapes, mango and banana for starters.
16. Cut Down on Pre-Made Meals
Cut down on pre-made meals. Prepared meals like chicken teriyaki can carry quite a bit of sugar! As an extension, carry out meals like Chinese can also be high.
17. Watch Out for Sports Drinks
Get a handle on sports drinks. Young athletes can over-consume them, adding extra sugar to their diet. Most young athletes do just fine with water. (Exception: exercising in a hot, humid climate or for over an hour).
18. No Food Rewards
Don’t use sweets as a reward for eating healthy foods, or for trying a new food. This is bribing your child to eat something healthy, and in the long run, it can change the way your child views sweets (as more important and desirable) and more nutritious food items like vegetables (as less desirable).
19. Sprinkle the Sweet Stuff Sparingly
Sprinkle sugar sparingly when adding it to fruit, cereal, or toast.
20. Be Aware of Hidden Sugars
Honey, agave, sugar, syrup, chocolate sauce and more are fancy words for hidden sugar! Use them in moderation.
21. Dilute Sugary Foods
Dilute the sugary foods your child likes with its non-sugary counterpart. For instance: Mix sugary cereal with a low sugar cereal or mix plain and fruited yogurt together.
22. Read Ingredient Labels
Surprise, surprise! Hidden sugar is often found in mayonnaise, bread, baby food, crackers, tortillas, sausages, salad dressings, packaged oatmeal, and more. Keep your eyes open and read the ingredient labels. It can appear in some of the most unexpected places, and if it’s listed early in the ingredients, you know the product packs some serious amounts. (Hint: names for sugar include words that end in -ose, like sucrose or glucose, and indicate sugar.)
23. The 90-10 Rule for Sweets and Treats
Use the 90-10 Rule and Limit sweets to one or two per day on average, and keep the portions petite when you can.
24. Even Savory Foods Can Be Sweetened
More surprises: canned soup, salad dressings and tomato sauce can harbor hidden sugar, even though they don’t taste sweet.
15. Use Mini-Portions
Use mini-portions of sweets and treats as much as possible. If baking your own sweets, make cookies bite-size, cut brownies into “bites,” and use the mentality of quality over quantity.
Use My Ways to Reduce Sugar Intake Today!
As you can imagine, there isn’t one magical step that will reduce your child’s overall intake, however, taking a few of these proven tips and working on them will add up!
Which tips will you work on to slash the sugar from your child’s diet?
I discuss this topic further on The Nourished Child podcast in these two episodes:
Need More Help with Feeding Kids?
Check out my nutrition education website for parents where you’ll find workshops, classes and guidebooks to help you raise a nourished child, inside and out!
This post was updated in November 2019.