Even though we’re all born with a love of sweet foods, a full-fledged sweet tooth and the cravings that come with it are more a product of our environment. Eating a diet high in sugar leads us to crave more foods with even more sugar. The first step to reducing our “need” for sugar, therefore, is figuring out all the places that extra sugar is getting into our and our children’s food. There are the obvious culprits, of course – candy, baked goods, sugary cereals – but it can be quite surprising, and unsettling, to realize just how prevalent sugar is when it comes to foods we may think of as healthy. Much of the packaged and processed food sold at grocery stores is loaded with sugar. Some particularly naughty culprits are granola, yogurt, beverages, jams or jellies, canned fruit, and tomato sauce. Foods marketed as “low fat” also often have extra sugar to replace the taste you lose when you remove the fat. Figuring out the biggest contributors can help you and your family develop a battle plan to start cutting back.
Barring a child from enjoying a treat every now and then, especially on a holiday that more or less is focused on sharing sweet treats with friends, is an unrealistic endeavor. However, there is plenty of room for cutting back. Two of the most common “uses” of candy are rewards and bribes. It’s tempting to use some chocolate to get your child to finish her homework, or take them out for a sundae after earning a high mark. However, associating sugar with the feeling of relief (finishing homework) and pride (getting good grades) has the potential to devalue both the sugary treat and the activity or endeavor. Instead of turning to sweets, consider some potential alternatives. For example, lots of children crave nothing more than honest, effort-focused praise after they’ve done something really noteworthy, just so they know you are really proud. The American Academy of Pediatrics also warns against the growing “tolerance” to candy as bribes and rewards; eventually, children are going to expect bigger and bigger incentives, potentially negating their natural motivation to succeed and feel good about their work.
Another area to reconsider is the use of sweets as a marker of celebrations. Birthdays, sports games, holidays, and family milestones are often defined by a cake or other sugary sweet. Some schools have begun trading in the birthday cupcakes for healthier options, or celebrating in a different way altogether. When your blogger was in elementary school, a school birthday was focused exclusively on the treat, even though there are plenty of other ways to spend those twenty minutes. Maybe the class can snack on some strawberries while the birthday child leads a game of freeze dance. Birthday parties and sports games also seem to be dominated by brightly frosted cupcakes and candy bars, but it’s likely that fruit and popcorn will go over just as well if the kids are really engaged in having a good time with the activities.
Finally, consider changing the culture around “junk food” in your house. Rather than making chocolate and cookies the forbidden food under tight lock and key, make them available just like all the healthy food you’re already offering around the clock. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but we all know that we crave what we can’t have. Helping kids learn how to balance their nutritional needs and make choices that will make them feel good on the inside is a surefire way to set them up for good eating habits. That doesn’t mean your nine-year-old isn’t going to eat one too many cookies every now and again, but habits are developed throughout our childhoods, and kids will naturally choose foods that their bodies need if all the options are on the table.
If you are considering recalibrating the way your household consumes sweets and treats, don’t forget to be open and honest with every member of the family about it. Even young children can understand the value of nutrition, and we know that they’re much more likely to be on board if they have a voice in the matter.
For more information about some healthier snack options for growing bodies, the American Academy of Pediatrics has published a short guide that may be helpful.