I LOVE dessert, always have.  But keeping my affection in check can sometimes be a challenge.  That’s why I know how important it is to teach kids to “use” dessert correctly. (Plus, the research backs me up.)  It’s not what you eat that matters. It’s how often and why you eat something that counts.  (For more on this idea read It Doesn’t Matter WHAT Your Kids Eat.)

Teaching kids about dessert is tough.  That’s why I am grateful to the reader who posted this response to Two More Bites

  • The only place I struggle is when my daughter eats very little of her healthy food and tells me she wants dessert…  I ask her to have a little more healthy food before having sweets.

Sound familiar?  We’ve all been there.  It’s amazing how kids can be full when the peas are served and starving when the ice cream truck makes an appearance.

What can you do?  I mean, it’s important for kids to eat their veggies.  Right? Well I don’t think so.

In the general case I think teaching kids to eat vegetables is very important.  But sometimes veggie-eating has to take a back seat.  In this scenario there are 2 much more important LIFETIME lessons children need to learn: 1) You don’t have to earn dessert; 2)Don’t eat when you are full.

1) You don’t have to earn dessert.

Let’s face it, kids come already equipped to value dessert over other types of foods.  They don’t need any “help” in that department.  Making them eat the “bad” stuff to get to the “good” stuff only makes them prefer brownies over broccoli more than they already do.

From a habits perspective, linking dessert to dinner undermines your long term goals.  Do you really want to teach your children that finishing their food – or even eating more of it – entitles them to dessert?

2) Don’t eat when you are full.

I know kids aren’t always trustworthy when it comes to reporting their hunger, especially when they want to duck out of dinner.  But if we want to keep kids connected to their tummies we have to believe them when they say they’re full, even if they’re not.  PLUS…

  • If kids are fudging their fullness to score dessert, they’re actually doing the right thing by saving room for dessert, instead of tucking in when they’re stuffed.   Requiring kids to eat more before dessert undermines this naturally good habit.

Three things you can do to neutralize dessert (and get your kids to eat their veggies):

1) Start offering dessert every night.  Instead of serving sweets each time, go European: offer up fresh fruit, plain yogurt, or even a little cheese.  Dessert will have a little less allure and you won’t worry when your child ditches dinner in favor of dessert.  And…

2) Let your children have dessert no matter how well they’ve eaten. Do this even when you are serving up the sweets.  If your child is particularly focused on dessert (or worried about getting her share) consider giving her dessert WITH her main meal and letting her eat it whenever she wants. And…

3) Size dessert so it’s small.  It will teach your children that sweets are eaten in smaller amounts than healthy food and this is one of the most valuable lessons they can learn.  In addition, small desserts won’t ruin your kids’ appetites whether you serve dessert with dinner or they finagled their fullness and need an after-dinner HEALTHY snack.

Make ALL 3 of these changes and you’ll definitely disarm dessert.  And when you do, the veggies will come along nicely… over time.

Remember, it’s not so much what you feed as what you teach that matters.