How We Do Dessert

“What’s For Dessert?”
By Adina Pearson, RDN of Healthy Little Eaters

Photo Credit: Alexis Fam Photography via Compfight cc

Why I Serve Dessert With The Meal

In most households, dessert is served at the end of the meal.  When everyone has gotten their fill of the main course and sides and is patting their full tummy in satisfaction, the hostess clears the table, vanishes into the kitchen, and then reappears flashing a proud smile as she presents…DESSERT:  The decadent reward for getting full on nutrition!  The hard work is done, you may now enjoy a moment of pleasure.

^Not teaching that lesson is one reason why we now serve dessert with the meal in our house.  I don’t want to teach the unintended lesson that dessert is for full bellies.  I want my children to stay tuned in to their signals of fullness and satisfaction.  Sweets are desirable enough to children that they can learn to override their fullness if they have to do it to get cookies–especially if cookies are scarce.  A small study in Appetite demonstrated that kids will eat more calories in order to squeeze in dessert if it was served at the end of the meal.   The study authors interpreted the results as a way to help kids eat fewer calories.  But that’s not really what I take from this.  I’m not into micromanaging calories because I think kids do an adequate job of regulating themselves when they get reliable meals and snacks.  What I take from this is that the way we feed our kids can either support their natural self-regulation and ability to respect their fullness or it can teach them to overeat to get what they really want.  My personal experience is that if they know it’s coming, they’ll just get antsy at the table or become preoccupied enough with the-sweet-thing-to-come that they won’t stop to eat the main meal.  It certainly was the case with my 4 year old before we made the switch.  But each child is different and older kids may be more willing to do the required ‘eat your veggies first’ work in order to win pie at the end.

That’s something else I don’t want to teach.  I don’t want the meal to be considered ‘work’ while the dessert is elevated to a higher status.  When it comes to picky eaters it is all too easy to slip into the dessert-for-broccoli power struggle: Okay, darling, eat another bite of your chicken and two more bites of your broccoli and then you can have dessert.  I see this happen in the families who come to me for nutrition counseling.  I see it happen with picky eaters whose parents are worried because of their low weight and with picky eaters whose parents are concerned because of their higher weight.  It’s not working for either group.  Broccoli is wonderful!  Chicken is wonderful!  Dessert is wonderful!  Yet we certainly make a big deal out of sweets.  When dessert is a reward it takes on more power.  Kids are already naturally drawn to strong sweet flavors, we don’t need to make those sweet flavors into a bigger deal.  Plus bribery & coercion as well as other types of pressuring kids to eat typically makes them eat worse, not better.

What If That’s All They Eat?

You might now be wondering, what if that’s all they eat?  How can it be okay for kids to survive off of cake and cookies until their tastes mature?  Well, for one thing, I don’t serve dessert at every meal or every day.  How often you serve dessert is entirely up to you.  And portion size matters because, it’s true, dessert may very well interfere with the nutrition of the meal if it is served ad libitum.

It’s Okay to Limit Dessert Served with a Meal

At meals we only serve one portion to each person at the table.  And kids get a ‘child-size’ portion rather than a full adult portion (translate that to suit your preferences).  It’s treated very much like a scarce food item (filet mignon, $9-a-pint raspberries, etc) and there are no seconds.

Some examples of portions I’ve served: 1 square of chocolate, a lollipop, small slice of pie/cake, 1 coconut macaroon, small brownie, 2-3 tiny candy pieces, teacup full of pudding, teacup full of yogurt mixed with fruit, 1/2 to 1 cupcake (depending on size).

If my kids want to start with their cookie, fine.  I know it’s not all they will eat.  And even if my kids gobble up their dessert and consequently decide they are done eating for the meal, they  probably weren’t terribly hungry to begin with.  If that is the case, without that dessert at the table, they would not have eaten much of anything anyway.  The dessert didn’t ruin any appetites, it just masked their lack of appetite.

With my kids, it seems the presence of dessert actually warms them up to the idea of coming to the table and relaxes them immediately, improving their attitude about the meal overall.  They don’t eat any worse, and possibly better with such a sweet ‘appetizer’ on the table.  I love when I catch my oldest going back and forth between bites of dessert and bites of the meal.

Unlimited Portions as Snack

Any food that is scarce, especially one as desirable as sweets, can create a strong preoccupation in a child.  For some kids with a strong sweet tooth, that desire or preoccupation can lead them to overeat the desired food when they get the chance.   Serving only a small child-size portion of dessert creates a kind of scarcity.  To mitigate this scarcity and to allow my kids a chance to regulate their own portion size of dessert, I will, occasionally, serve an unlimited portion of sweets at snack time.  If snack time is appropriately timed (so it’s not too close to the next meal) it won’t interfere with meal food.  Serve the dessert with a glass of milk (for example) and you’ve got a balanced snack.

I have to admit, the first candy experiment left me practically biting my fingernails as I waited for my daughter to complete her snack.  But with each ‘ad lib sweet snack’ I’ve served, I’ve never ever been disappointed in my kids’ ability to stop.  They have never eaten a whole cake, half a cake, or even a quarter of a cake.  And I’m confident that my trusting them teaches them to trust themselves around sweets.  After all we have serious structure in place.  Eating happens seated at the table, not running around.  Eating happens at set meal and snack times, there’s no all-day grazing.   And I get to choose how often I serve various foods.  But within that structure, the freedom of the Division of Responsibility, teaches some important lessons that I don’t think I could teach if I micromanaged every bite.

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How Often Should Dessert Be Served?
Honestly, I think only you can answer this question for yourself and your family.  I love desserts and baked goods.  I love chocolate.  I could live without them, but I sure prefer not to.   For me I serve dessert often enough for us.  I know I’ve gone perhaps too long when my kids start begging for dessert–or if I’m longing for it.  And if I serve something sweet just to keep them from feeling too deprived, it doesn’t take much to accomplish my task.

 

Adina Pearson, RDN has been a registered dietitian for 12 years. Before having children of her own, she had no interest in pediatric nutrition. Kids change things! She’s now most thrilled when she sees a child patient on her schedule. Her new passion for helping parents feed their kids well inspired her to start a facebook page and blog. More recently, she has started an online toddler feeding course in collaboration with another dietitian.  Adina lives in southeastern Washington with her husband, two kids, and two labradoodles. To read more on Adina head to her website: www.HealthyLittleEaters.com

Ice Cream, Brownies and Sweets, Oh MY!!

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Like I’ve said before, I’m kind of sensitive to the idea of categorizing foods as either “good” or “bad,” not just because I specialize in eating disorders as a professional RD, but also because—on a personal level—I too once restricted myself from sweets and seemingly evil foods. (Really, who hasn’t at some point in their lives?)

My approach may not be black or white, but it’s simple. Rather than distinguishing food as good or bad, I prefer to consider their nutritional value. Some foods, like fruits, vegetables and oatmeal, are wholesome. Others, like brownies and ice cream, are less wholesome (lower in nutritional density). At the end of the day, however, none of these foods should be designated as good or bad.

My goal for my own kids and, for that matter, my clients as well, is to cultivate this neutral mentality. And while my kids may not eat enough vegetables, they at least seem to have mastered this concept.

Here’s a perfect example. On the last weekend of summer, my hubby and I decided to trade in our usual Hamptons weekend for a trip to the Jersey Shore. The kids were thrilled. They love the beach, the ocean and, of course, the ice cream stands lining the two-mile stretch of Wildwood’s boardwalk. They were especially excited to ride the kiddie coaster and eat cups of delicious and refreshing ice cream all weekend. And they did.

On Saturday afternoon, Hubby and Grandpa took Billy and Bobby to the boardwalk to ride the motorcycles, roller coasters and carousel. They topped off the day with ice cream.

Then on Monday, we went back to the boardwalk. Mommy wanted ice cream, so of course the boys asked for ice cream too. Without thinking twice, I said sure. What’s the harm in ice cream, after all?

But what happened next is shocking—even unheard of! (Though in my household, it happens all the time.) Billy took two bites of his vanilla chocolate swirl with rainbow sprinkles before getting distracted by a water gun game and tossing his treat into the nearest garbage bin. Apparently, his desire to win a sword just like Bobby’s was stronger than his need for a sugary snack.

My husband and I stood ogling Billy, who was now ice cream-less. He just threw away a perfectly delicious $4.00 ice cream! It’s not that I wanted him to eat it, especially if he wasn’t hungry, but my hubby and I would have been happy to take it off his hands!

What it comes down to is this: because Billy was never taught to think of ice cream as some taboo form of food, he didn’t feel the need to chomp it down to the last bite. Apparently, he views ice cream as a neutral food. Check!

Recently, I mentioned another example of this while discussing the “one lick rule.” In case you don’t remember, Bobby and Billy had wanted pizza and a brownie, and I allowed the boys to have both. During that instance, the boys were able to use satiation cues as they ate their pizza to save room for their brownie. Even then, they only ate a small portion of the brownie and gave the remainders up. They both did this on their own intuition—so go boys!

Do you discuss different foods in terms of “good” and “bad” in your household? Are your kids able to stop themselves from consuming an entire brownie, or do they prefer the entire treat at once?