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#25: A Dietitian’s View On Dessert for Kids

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Serving dessert probably doesn’t seem that complicated until you have kids. Then you start to wonder, how often should they be having this? When do I offer it? Do they need to finish their dinner in order to get it? Do I want to handle dessert the same way my parents did, or does something feel off about that approach? 

Today’s episode is answering a listener question from Natalie! She’s wondering about when to let her kids have dessert, how often, and whether they need to eat their main dish to get it.

Important note!  This episode is geared towards kids over 2, as I recommend avoiding/limiting treats for babies and 1 year olds.

cute girl holding two donuts

Welcome back or welcome in if it’s your first time here to Feeding Toddlers Made Easy, I’m Kacie Barnes from Mama Knows Nutrition, an RD with MCN and 2 kids and this is your place to ask your unfiltered questions about feeding your toddlers, I do my best to walk you through with my nutrition and early childhood expertise. Hit the “follow” button on the podcast so that you will always have the mom support you need cuz feeding kids can bring up so many questions and challenges. My website is a fantastic resource to search through for any questions you have, too. Or you want recipes? There’s recipes. We’ve got it all. Let’s hear from Natalie.

Parent Question:

Hi, my name is Natalie and I have three little girls a six-year-old, a four year old and a one-and-half-year-old. My question is, what’s your advice in terms of dessert? You know, I’ve heard somebody else say you shouldn’t tie dessert with how much dinner they’re eating and either it’s dessert night or it’s not a dessert night. I tried that for a while, but something just feels so wrong about giving them dessert, letting them eat dessert, when they didn’t even touch or try or even look at the main dish. It would be one thing if that was every once in a while with my older girls, but with my middle one in particular, the four-year-old, it is literally every meal. 

I put a safe food on her plate. She will almost always eat the fruit or yogurt squeezer, but for the main meal, she will only eat it if it’s some combination of cheese and bread. You know, mac and cheese or cheese quesadilla or grilled cheese. I want her to be able to enjoy dessert sometimes, but I just struggle with when to allow them to eat dessert. So if you have any advice on that, that would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. 


Here are my 6 core principles about dessert and I’ll explain why for each one. These are the principles that allow your child to have a healthy relationship with food, still get a nutritious diet overall, and enjoy sweets without overindulging or being completely restricted from having any.

1. Dessert doesn’t have to be earned

  • Natalie said, “I’ve heard somebody else say you shouldn’t tie dessert with how much dinner they’re eating.” I agree with that! 
  • Most of us were raised having to earn dessert. Either you had to have good behavior, you had to clean your plate, or you had to eat a certain amount of your meal. 
  • The same way that you don’t need to “earn” your dinner, dessert is a food that doesn’t need to be earned. It’s honestly kind of arbitrary. If you think about it, there are plenty of dessert type foods we serve for breakfast. Donuts, muffins, cinnamon rolls, even pancakes with syrup. I doubt that you would say to your child, “you didn’t behave well this morning so you don’t get any of the pancakes I made.” 
  • Dessert can and should be taken off its pedestal so it’s not this big, amazing thing that your kid needs to earn. Making them earn it can make their obsession with it grow bigger.
  • The other problem is that by making them do X to earn Y, aka “clean your plate” to earn dessert, we’re attaching an emotional piece that doesn’t need to be there. And this kind of thinking has translated into disordered eating for older children, adolescents, and even adults who have continued this way of thinking. Suddenly your parents aren’t there to enforce the rules, but because you want to make sure you don’t go overboard on dessert, you have to exercise a certain number of minutes at the gym to earn dessert. Or you can only eat 1200 calories in your meals to earn dessert. 
  • The less that we emphasize dessert as something to be earned, the more freedom our children have to enjoy it in moderation and without feelings of guilt or shame attached.
  • While using dessert as a reward is a technique that can often get your child to behave the way you want them to, is it the only way? There are other ways to get your kids to do desired behaviors or avoid unwanted behaviors. I’m not saying you can NEVER say something like, “after we finish picking up your toys then we can go to the donut store!” I’m just saying that using dessert as a reward (or taking it away as a punishment) should not be one of the primary ways you encourage your child to act a certain way.
  • One more way to look at it is this; we want to avoid tying food to love or no love. What I mean is that if your child knows they have to do what you want to get dessert, it’s like they get your love and approval when they earn the dessert. But if they didn’t earn the dessert, it feels like they don’t earn your love and approval. You’re allowed to be frustrated about how your child behaved, or how little of their vegetables they ate, AND still let them have a dessert. You can still use other ways to manage their behavior without feeling like they “won” by getting dessert. 

2. Dessert doesn’t have to be over the top all the time

  • A rational fear is that they are going to get too much sugar if you allow them to have dessert. It is important to think about how much sugar they are getting overall in their diet, so that’s not an irrational fear of yours. In that vein – dessert can be something like fruit, or berries with whipped cream, or homemade applesauce, or my Pumpkin Pie Yogurt
  • I personally recommend doing a mix of lower sugar options and then sometimes doing “real deal” desserts, especially around holidays and at parties when those are what’s offered. 

3. Dessert can be served WITH a meal (or even before!) instead of after

  • This is an important switch that takes dessert off the pedestal. It will not affect their overall diet when you do this. 
  • It is likely that they will eat the dessert first when it’s served with a meal. It is likely that they may not eat anything else besides the dessert, especially if they are not hungry. But instead of them feeling like they need to suffer through the regular food to get to the thing they REALLY want, you flip it. You give them the highly desirable food first, and now it doesn’t feel like a restricted item. 
  • I don’t recommend serving dessert with every meal. So even if you serve it once every day, there are still 14 meals a week that do not include a dessert, and give them plenty of opportunity to eat other nutritious foods. That doesn’t even include snack times, which can also be a great time to get in foods like fruits or even veggies. 

4. Dessert doesn’t have to be every day, but it can be if you choose

  • The “how often” is what you feel comfortable with. But if you’re like, “KACIE I DON’T KNOW WHAT I SHOULD FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH!” Then I’ll give you some guidelines and suggestions. 
  • There do not need to be hard and fast rules but some kids who lean towards worrying or controlling will do better knowing when you plan for them to have dessert. For example, for awhile with Teddy we decided on him being able to choose a treat with lunch. He liked knowing when it was coming (so he wasn’t always asking when he could have one) and he liked the structure and routine to it. 
  • To give you some examples, that might look like 2 or 3 of the small Halloween candies, or 4 oreos, or a popsicle, or a handful of marshmallows. 
  • Sometimes we would still have another dessert, like usually on the weekend we will get something like an ice cream cone, or a cake pop at Starbucks, or a cupcake at a birthday party. 

5. Liking or eating dessert does not make a child unhealthy

  • If that’s the only thing that they eat then we can objectively say that’s not providing them with all of the nutrients they need to thrive. But the fact that they prefer the taste over other foods? Normal. Expected. Does not mean they will be unhealthy. Give lots of opportunities for other foods and it’s OK to fit dessert in too. It’s not going to sabotage allllllll of the other things you’re doing to keep them healthy and well. It’s not like the sugar goes into the body and snatches away the nutrients they got from the other food they ate.

6. Your child liking or eating dessert does not reflect on how you are doing in your parenting

  • Do you ever feel a little bit of a letdown when they only want the dessert, and not the vegetable or the protein? Or do you feel really good when they DO eat the veggie or the protein? I want you to think about, what if instead I could let myself feel good about all the positive things I’m doing for them and role modeling for them, and not have to feel bad about a choice they make that doesn’t feel like the ideal scenario? Eating dessert is part of the life experience. It doesn’t have to bring up feelings of guilt, or shame, or inadequacy. You CAN get to a place where you feel neutral about them eating dessert. 

Final notes

I want to touch on one more thing that Natalie said. She said, “Something just feels so wrong about giving them dessert, letting them eat dessert, and they didn’t even touch or try or even look at the main dish on their plate.”

That’s because you want them to get good nutrients and you feel like it’s important to do that for your children. I’m proud of you for feeling that way. But two things can be true. You can care about them getting what they need, and you can know that eating dessert does not prevent them from getting what they need. It may feel that way sometimes, that it’s preventing them from getting what they need. Especially when I say that dessert can be with or before a meal. But they have the freedom to go ahead and eat more if they are hungry. You do not need to refill their dessert. And they are getting plenty of other meal opportunities where you can load them up with nutritious items.

I’m going to leave it there for today but can talk about dessert again, especially to get into the topic of “how much” since we didn’t get a chance to really dig into that today so we can do that in the future. If you have other questions on dessert or do want to hear about how much, please send me a DM on instagram.

If this episode made you think, answered a question you had, or gave you a new insight you didn’t have before, let me know by giving me a 5-star rating and a review telling me what you got out of this episode that was helpful.

Talk to you next time!

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