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Sweets and Treats: How to Handle Dessert with Kids

You just finished lunch and your toddler is asking for cookies. What do you do? Now it’s 4 pm, and they’re asking for cookies again. It’s dinner time, and they’re asking AGAIN! Do you give in?

Kids can be very…persistent. (I kind of want to say annoying, haha!) We all love them dearly, but when you hear the same question for the 20th time that day, you just about want to run out the front door screaming and pulling your hair out.

So how do we handle dessert when sweets are found just about everywhere, kids love them, yet we as parents know that it’s not best for them to eat sugar all day every day?

Dessert for kids |

Here are some general guidelines to help you when thinking about how to include dessert in a healthy way for your kids.

First of all, dessert is JUST food. It’s not the most nutrient dense or healthy food. But at the end of the day, it’s just food. I say that because it’s important for our kids not to attach too much emotion to it. And we start that process by being neutral ourselves about dessert. 

Here’s what dessert is NOT:

  1. It is not a reward in exchange for trying something new. That can lead to valuing sweet treats more than other foods. And it can make kids feel like other foods are just something they have to tolerate in order to get what they really want- dessert.
  2. Dessert is not conditional upon what or how much your kid ate from their meal. We don’t negotiate to finish their plate or eat their vegetables in order to get dessert. Again, this is sending the wrong message about dessert being something they have to earn.
  3. Dessert does not always have to be something over the top. Dessert can sometimes be traditional things like cookies or ice cream, but dessert can also be a bowl of fruit with vanilla yogurt, or toast with almond butter and honey.
  4. Dessert is not something for us to banish completely. If kids never are allowed to have it, they can develop an unhealthy obsession over it. The exception is children under 2- they don’t need any sugary treats. They don’t even know what they are missing, and it can help them avoid developing a strong preference for sugar.

And now let’s talk about what dessert IS:

  1. Dessert is something that can be included regularly in a healthy diet. You as a parent have to decide how often feels right to you. Some parents like to keep dessert to just weekends and special occasions. Some are okay with more than that. Decide what feels right to you.
  2. Dessert is often better served WITH a meal rather than afterwards. I know you’re thinking, “won’t my kid only eat the dessert then?” And yes, that is a possibility. But serving dessert with a meal takes away its special power, and sends the message that this is just another food we are eating today. A lot of kids will choose to eat the dessert first if it’s offered, but then they will go on to eat the other foods at the meal, too. (This concept reminds me of eating trail mix. Doesn’t everyone pick out the good stuff first? And then if you’re still hungry you eat the rest… Maybe that’s just me!)
  3. Dessert is guilt-free, both for you as the parent serving it, and for the child eating it. Kids should never be made to feel bad in any way about enjoying a treat.

Establishing Boundaries

Back to my original question- what do you do when your kid is asking for treats all day long? You need to set up some boundaries. Like I discussed above, you need to decide as a parent what you are comfortable with. Can they have one treat per day? Can they have whatever they want on the weekend, but stick to a no dessert rule on weekdays? That way, when you need to say no, you have a reason behind it that you feel good about. They may still be upset, but stand your ground. They will learn from you when it’s an appropriate time to have dessert. They are too young to decide what is appropriate on their own — they need you to do that for them.

But know that you can be flexible. If there’s a day when things get out of control – like a party at school, followed by cookies after school, followed by an evening event with treats – learn to roll with it. Maybe offer fruit for dessert the following couple days. Being mindful of it will help you balance things out.

How much is too much?

Read this post to learn about how much dessert is appropriate for your little one.


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Kacie Barnes holding an apple
Hi, I’m Kacie!

I’m a mom of two and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. I offer e-guides and e-books (go to my Shop page), workshops, brand partnerships, and nutrition counseling. Check out my blog for nutrition and feeding tips for your little ones.


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