Here’s the scenario: You go to a party. On the buffet table there is a big spread. Lots of real food, and some cupcakes. What do you do?

  • Insist that your kids eat the real food before they eat a cupcake? OR
  • Let them load their plates up with real food and a cupcake?

That’s the scenario Sally at Real Mom Nutrition recently faced. She let her kids each take a cupcake with their meals. Then, Sally didn’t monitor the situation when her boys ate their cupcakes first.

Read Sally’s post: Let Them Eat Cupcakes.

Parents often tie themselves in knots trying to get their kids to eat their food in a certain order.

This feeds the fight. And it misses the main point. The goal is to teach kids proportion, i.e. to teach them to know how much crap they can consume.

Here’s a favorite post that explains. It doesn’t matter when your kids eat their crap; what matters is how much crap they eat.

(If you’re not convinced, read Sally’s post. It will show how this strategy works in real life.)


Parents are obsessed with the order in which their kids eat food!

Or at least that is what an alien visitor would probably conclude.

  • “Finish your food.  Then you can have dessert.”
  • “Two more bites of broccoli before you eat your brownie.”
  • “If you want some ice cream you have to eat your pizza first.”
  • “No, you may not have candy before breakfast. You have to wait until after lunch.”

But really, it doesn’t matter when your kids eat their crap; what matters is how much crap they eat.

Trying to control when your kids eat their sweets and treats is a losing battle.

As far as I can tell, parents don’t fixate on regulating the order of their kids’ eating because they’re concerned about etiquette. (Although, on some level it is true that we do need to teach our little heathens not to attack dessert first so they’ll pass muster at their first black-tie event, but that’s material for another post.)

Instead, parents become timekeepers for two reasons:

1) Parents are convinced that without a little incentive their kids would never touch anything green.

2) Parents are trying to convey something about the relative importance of sweets and treats compared to vegetables and other healthy foods: sweets come last because they’re less essential.

Unfortunately, neither goal can be accomplished by holding out on sweets and treats.

Research shows that:

1) Bribing kids to eat broccoli is a surefire way to ruin its reputation — I’m having flashbacks to high school, and it’s not pretty — just as it reinforces the superior status of sweets.  So kids learn that vegetables are important (like chores) but not desirable. This lesson lasts a lifetime.

2) Pressuring kids to eat something (and bribing or controlling the order in which your kids get to eat is indeed a form of pressure) makes kids eat less of the target food.

Trying to put vegetables and other healthy fare first doesn’t actually work.

Letting your kids control when they eat their sweets and treats isn’t the same thing as giving them a free-for-all. 

You still need to provide some structured guidance.

1) Rather than teach your children that they need to eat healthy foods before they eat their sweets and treats, teach them the about proportion. In other words, teach your kids to eat more healthy foods and lesssweets and treats overall. Read It Doesn’t Matter What Your Kids Eat!

2) Set a daily or weekly limit on sweets and treats and then let your children decide when they get the goodies.  If you’re worried that candy before dinner will ruin your kids’ appetite, make sure the serving size is small.  It won’t just solve your immediate problem; it’s also the right lesson for your kids to learn.  Read Candy with Breakfast?

3) Reinforce the message at parties and other special-eating events where the desserts always look fabulous.  Don’t insist your kids eat the healthy offerings before the desserts. Instead, give your kids some guidance on the goodies, and then direct them to the mains if they’re still hungry. (And make yourself feel better by remembering that at these events the healthy food isn’t usually that healthy anyway.)

4) Consider serving the dessert at the same time as the dinner.

5) Upgrade the quality of your kids’ snacks to include more fruits and vegetables and take the pressure off dinner.  Read 10 Ways Improving Your Kids’ Snacking Will Improve YOUR Life.

Release yourself (and your kids) from the bondage of time.  It will teach your kids the habits they need for a lifetime of healthy eating (and eliminate at least one of the headaches of parenting). Read How Do I Get My Child to Eat More Growing Foods?

For more on this topic read, To Restrict or Not, That is the Question.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~