If You Give a Cat a Cupcake

Just like the series of books by Laura Numeroff , if you give a kid a cupcake, there’s more meaning in that one cupcake than just the fact of being a cupcake! In our “Something More Than Fish” blog post, we discussed a similar concept. Today, however, we’re using “cupcakes” to help parents determine when and where certain kinds of foods should be eaten. Think back for a moment. Did you label a cupcake as “good” or “bad” or perhaps just a “treat” the last time you served one? Was it a “reward” for finishing dinner or simply a nighttime “snack”? Moral judgments—good or bad, food rewards, and dieting/restricting specific foods—are not recommended for children or even for adults. All of these judgments lead to adopting the moral label of the food eaten, eating for external reasons (not hunger/fullness), binge eating, and food sneaking. But don’t get discouraged or overwhelmed by these concepts. What I find works best with my kids and my clients—whether 10- or 40-years old—is to encourage that all foods be eaten some of the time. It’s a powerful tool for everyone! When your children are at a birthday party or grandma’s house—or adults are out with friends—they can self-regulate portions and eat to feel energized rather than deal with food, eating or weight issues. Not only will this free your children, but it will also free you from worrying about what happens when they go to their best friends’ houses and are served chips and even perhaps sodas! 

I’m not saying all foods are equal; there are foods higher in nutrition and others lower in nutrition. Please keep in mind, however, even “foods” like sugar candy or table sugar or soda (though I hate to admit it!) still provide nutrition in the form of energy—otherwise known as calories. To keep things simple in our home, we have identified foods as “everyday” foods and “sometimes” foods. Everyday foods are those that are nutrient dense, essential for growth and help to promote health and prevent disease. Whole-grain pumpkin pancakes with dark chocolate chips, peanut butter, chicken, whole-wheat pasta, 2% and non-fat Greek yogurt, dried mango, hummus, spinach and apples fall under the “everyday” foods category. I mention these foods since my boys eat them almost daily.

The “sometimes” foods are lower in nutrition; they include cookies, puffs, booty, chips, candy, jello, cheese slices (processed cheese products—not 100% cheese), fake butter and such. You get the idea. These foods lack vitamins and minerals, are highly processed so you can’t actually call them “foods,” or are highly saturated in fat and promote heart disease.


Mind you, my kids and even I myself will eat “sometimes” foods…well, sometimes every day! The menu may look like sweet potato, kamut pancakes with dark chocolate chips and milk for breakfast; Annie’s whole-wheat mac & cheese mixed with spinach and two sides including apple slices and two cookies in their lunch box—followed by cupcakes with water or milk after school while on their way to sports class; and then real fish sticks, fruit, cheese, whole grain or white pasta (or spelt pretzels for my little one) for dinner; and a Greek yogurt for nighttime snack. And by the way, many times the cookies or muffins (pumpkin or corn) I send come back home with them. One may be eaten and the rest saved for later. This is one of the ways I know that food is neutral in my boys’ minds. They know “Hey, I don’t need to scarf it down!” because they can have it later. My daily intake would include the same pancakes for breakfast, lunch with my clients or a whole-grain wrap with cheese, avocado and tuna followed by a KIND bar and an apple. Dinner may be salmon, a whole grain and veggies made with olive oil plus a nighttime snack of a cupcake.

Every day is different for me as it is with my kids as well. The goal I keep in mind is wholesome, nutrient dense, and less processed foods 75% of the time, and the rest, well, I just enjoy! But I do make sure to use portion control via internal regulation—mindful or intuitive eating. I stock my house with “everyday” foods such as fruits, veggies, eggs, whole grains, olive oil, cheese, fish, and hummus. We do keep “sometimes” foods in the house…but just enough to last one week. I let the kids pick out their snacks at Whole Foods—perhaps puffs, cookies, or mini cupcakes. Too many choices mean too many decisions for little kids. Try to keep snack options and/or packaged foods to less than five in your cupboard. 

The concept here is to provide wholesome nutrition the majority of the time…and don’t worry the rest of the time. As a parent, it’s your job to keep the kitchen stocked with nutrient dense choices and give your children the tools and the options to eat “sometimes” foods. You’ll be helping your children create positive relationships with eating and neutral relationships with the foods they eat. So go ahead. Stock your home with wholesome foods and produce. Serve balanced meals…and be worry free when feeding your children cupcakes and or apples for snacks this week!

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