Thanks to Katie who sent me this question:

My son (almost 5) is playing soccer for the first time this year.  I just got an email from the coach that the parents need to chip in even more money so that she can provide popsicles for the kids after all the practices and games.

WHAT?  Now, I do love popsicles, but I’m not so keen on my kid feeling that an hour of exercise deserves a sweet/colourful/completely devoid of nutrition “treat”.  I know my kid and after about 3 weeks the soccer/popsicle connection will be cemented in his brain.

Am I being way too uptight? Should I put up a stink?  Offer to bring fruit?  Talk to my son about it and let him have at the popsicles?

From a habits perspective I hate the idea that kids are being taught to consume junk with athletics.

So Katie, I’m with you. I feel your pain.  And no, I don’t think you’re being way too uptight.

You can try to convince the coach that she shouldn’t serve popsicles—Read my friend Sally’s success story for inspiration.—but it’s not the only thing you should do.

In addition, I say use this opportunity to begin teaching your son about how to navigate the food world he lives in.  Read When School Nutrition Stinks, but here’s the general plan: You figure out how much, your son figures out when.

  1. Talk to your son about how to fit sweets and treats into his diet so that fruits, vegetables and other real foods dominate his day.
  2. Teach your son to plan for popsicles by moderating his intake of sweets and treats on soccer days.  When possible, allow your son to do this for himself: “You can have this cookie now or you can have a popsicle after soccer.”
  3. Bring fruit for your son to eat, and enough fruit to share, but don’t bring so much that you take over snack time—not because you might step on some toes, which you probably will—but because being the one who always brings the healthy snacks is both a financial and an emotional burden.
  4. Allow for some wiggle room, those times when your son will have had his treat before soccer but wants another one after the game. Remember, it’s the longterm lesson you’re after.

Most parents I know worry that their children will feel excluded if they aren’t allowed to eat the same food (and I use the term food liberally here) as everyone else. 

To this I say:

  • Possibly. and
  • It depends on how you handle it. and
  • Sometimes it’s worth the risk because there are important lessons at stake here.

Here are some points I think are worth considering:

1) If children have adequate access to sweets and treats they won’t feel DEPRIVED in the sense of, “Kids hoard candy if they’re not allowed to indulge.” Your child might feel a little deprived, but we’re talking limits, not total restriction. One of the most valuable lessons you can teach your son is that he doesn’t have to eat sweets and treats every time they’re offered. He also doesn’t have to have sweets and treats just because they’re being offered.

2) Although children believe it’s not “fair” when other kids are allowed to eat sweets and they aren’t, parents don’t have to reinforce this belief.  Instead, parents can teach their children that when it comes to sweets and treats, “fair” is eating what is right for your body, not more than what’s right, and not what’s right for someone else. “Maybe Jimmy didn’t already have a donut today. This is his time for a treat. You already chose to have yours. Remember?”

3) Even when kids resist limits, limits are good. Put another way, if limits were always eliminated because kids didn’t like them, where would we be?

4)  When children are allowed to choose when they have their sweets and treats they’re more comfortable accepting limits because they’ve been part of setting those limits.

5) It’s easier to accept being different when you don’t feel deprived.  (See point #1.)

To be fair to the coach, she’s probably thinking that popsicles aren’t that bad because she thinks::

  • Popsicles are primarily water —and kids have to rehydrate. Actually they don’t need to rehydrate as much as you think. Read Soccer Moms, BEWARE!
  • Popsicles have sugar, but nothing compared to ice cream.  Actually, sugar varies widely in popsicles. One Popsicle brand grape popsicle has 8 grams of sugar, one Dreyers All Natural Grape Fruit Bar has 18 grams of sugar.  In comparison, ½ cup of Dreyers chocolate ice cream has 15 grams of sugar.
  • Some popsicles contain actual fruit.  Some do, though none of them contain the range of nutrients found in real fruit: one Dreyer’s Grape bar has 25% of Vitamin C—all of it added— but none of the Vitamin A, calcium, iron or fiber found in actual grapes.

On the other hand, this coach clearly isn’t thinking about long term habits.

But, Katie, I’m glad you are.  It will help you navigate successfully past this soccer snack situation so you can teach your son the skills he will need for a lifetime of happy sports and healthy snacking.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~