This article first appeared on the U.S. News & World Report For Parents blog.
When my kids were younger, I thought about how I would handle sweets. I actually had a goal in mind. I wanted my kids to walk by the candy jar. I wanted them to see and acknowledge treats… and walk on by.
I didn’t want them to dig in every time they walked by a plate of cookies or a tray of brownies.
I didn’t want them to stuff their faces at a party or while they trekked door to door on Halloween.
I didn’t want them to do this…because I did that when I was a kid.
Dessert was Scarce
My family lived on a food budget in the 1970’s. My mom, like me, cooked most dinners and packed our lunches for school. She had a structure with mealtime, and meals were a priority in our home.
I am not very different from my mom in this respect.
My mom bought very few sweets.
She’d buy one package of cookies each week and rarely any candy, ice cream, or other sweet treats. A container of frozen orange juice for Sunday morning breakfast (after church) and a weekly box of sugary cereal were always on the grocery list.
She preferred cooking over baking and would make homemade sweets and desserts for parties and holidays. Her special coffee cake at Christmas, banana bread, homemade chocolate eclairs (in a 9 x 13” pan) and Divinity were irresistible, literally.
My three siblings and I routinely ate the weekly package of cookies within days– sometimes in just one. The same fate happened to the homemade desserts.
Gone…almost as soon as they were made.
Sweet Restriction in the Formative Years
As an adult who can look back on my own childhood experiences and see it through the lens of a pediatric dietitian, I see where my mom might have done things differently.
My mom, like many mothers across the country, didn’t know what she didn’t know. And, she did the best she could with the knowledge she had.
She didn’t understand the psychological effect food scarcity or restriction can have on children.
Here’s what I mean: the rare appearance of sweets in my childhood drove me to focus on them more, seek them out, and go overboard when I succeeded in getting them.
The strategy of “I don’t make or have any desserts in the house” increased a desire for sweets, rather than a dislike or a moderate view of them.
This isn’t just my observation on my own experience, there’s scientific evidence for this.
Food restriction, particularly with sweets and treats, has an interesting effect on children. In a 1999 article appearing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that preschoolers who were restricted from eating high fat, high sugar foods experienced changes in their behavior, selection of, and eating of the restricted food. Translated: they were more responsive to the restricted food, selected the restricted food when they could, and ate more of it when the opportunity arose.
Other studies show that food restriction may lead to higher weights and poor eating habits.
A 2014 study in Appetite teased out more details about food restriction. Not only did children who experienced food restriction eat more of the restricted food when they could (high responsiveness), they also had more conversations and questions about them.
Furthermore, those children who had low self-control or who had a big appetite were more susceptible to the negative effects of food restriction such as high reactivity to and eating of the foods that were restricted.
In short, restriction may not promote moderate food consumption in some children, rather, it can encourage the desire for those foods.
As an adult and a pediatric nutritionist, I know that eliminating or restricting sweets and tightly controlling them may foster a desire for them.
Like it did for me.
Neutrality over Restriction
Now, if I buy a bag of candy, I put it out on the kitchen counter in a bowl, or in the candy dish in the dining room.
I have worked hard to be neutral around candy and other sweets in front of my kids, and to have them around more than my mom did.
You might be surprised to know that I almost always have ice cream in my freezer, a candy dish in my dining room that is full, and I routinely bake or buy sweets and treats.
I think (and hope) this approach has removed the forbidden aura that can co-exist with candy and other sweets. Since these foods are available in my home, I also work hard to model food balance in my meals and snacks, and incorporate structure and boundaries with eating.
For my children, candy doesn’t seem to be laden with other feelings, like scarcity or restriction. They, like most kids, enjoy sweets and include them… or not.
The good news for me is I have come a long way in my relationship with candy, sweets and treats.
I understand my “history” with them.
But truth be told, I still love candy…especially sour candy.
I doubt that will ever change…
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