Blame Snackwells

I Accidentally Demonized Dessert For My Kid. What Now?

*Hires kid’s therapist for self*

Written by Elizabeth Narins
Originally Published: 
Emma Chao/Scary Mommy; Getty Images

Having been raised in a generation taught to fear fat, carbs, or sugar, depending on which diet Mom was on, I swore I'd set the stage for my kids to develop normal relationships with food. But just a couple years into parenthood, I started to feel like I'd gone wrong somewhere: Every time my toddler would cross paths with dessert (which, admittedly, was extremely infrequently), he'd either binge-eat or attempt to, then throw a massive tantrum when he didn't get to eat, like, an entire cake.

The more he savored sweets, the more power they had over him — something I admittedly began to use to my advantage. While I'm sure there are worse vices, I became that mom who plies her 3-year-old with raisins to get into the stroller, finish dinner, and/or stay in soccer class. There's no question about it: I put sweets on a pedestal, and now my kid's relationship with treats is anything but normal.

I know, I know. I messed up. And to add insult to injury, it feels like "food neutrality" is suddenly coming up at every moms' night out. It could be because of parents like me trying to heal our own relationships with food, or the popularity of new books like Burnt Toast podcaster Virginia Sole-Smith's New York Times bestseller Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture. Either way, I'm starting to wonder whether there's any way to improve my toddler's behavior around sweets — despite my many missteps.

First Stop: Food Neutrality

My first impulse is to learn about this food neutrality thing. How do I trick my kid into believing a plate full of broccoli is just as good as one full of raisins... or brownies, praytell? I ask Sole-Smith and Zoë Bisbing, the psychotherapist behind Body-Positive Therapy NYC.

To be clear, they both tell me that no matter what I do, this isn't gonna happen. "Food neutrality is a tricky concept because it implies you should be emotionally neutral about all foods, and that's not reality," Sole-Smith says. "There are foods we get more excited to eat and foods that bring us joy, and that's an important part of healthy eating."

Teaching our kids food neutrality doesn't just set them up for healthy eating patterns. "It makes space for all cultures and economic backgrounds so kids don't think the food they have access to is morally better than the foods eaten by kids with fewer resources," says Bisbing, explaining that this kind of thinking can contribute to broader feelings of superiority and ultimately, feed into inequities across the board.

As if hitting reset on my family's whole food value system could sound any better. Sign me up! My only question: Now that I've established some cringe-worthy toddler-feeding habits, where do I even begin?

Normalizing Treats

The key to ensuring my kid doesn't see raisins or cookies as so good they're bad, Sole-Smith and Bisbing agree, is putting them right on the dinner table.

The game plan? Serve a plate of your kid's most triggering food alongside other dinner dishes and let your child fill their own plate — without any of the typical commentary we often default to (i.e., four bites of chicken, and then you can have dessert!). And let's just address the elephant in the room: Yes, it's going to be stressful.

"The first time — or maybe the first 10 times — they're only going to eat cookies for dinner," Sole-Smith acknowledges, since it's normal for them to fixate on any food that's previously been restricted. While it might feel counterintuitive, your job is to... sit back and watch them eat the damn cookies! Consider this a reset and a step in the right direction.

Over time, she promises, your child will come to trust that sweets are always available. They might even begin to alternate between bites of dessert and pasta. "They'll eat in this bonkers zigzaggy weird way," she predicts. "The goal is for them to be able to eat, enjoy, and not feel guilty or shameful about eating any foods they like."

That doesn't mean that mealtime should be a complete free-for-all, Sole-Smith amends. Remember: "Parents are still in charge of what foods are offered, how often, and where — like at the table or in front of the TV," she says. In other words, broccoli, corn, and kale can still have a place on your table.

"The goal is to give your kids the opportunity to explore all food groups simultaneously, not allowing sweets to be scarce and sensational," Bisbing says.

How to Normalize Sweets When You (Honestly) Don't Want Them in Your House

Experts seem to agree that exposure to sweets is the anecdote to overexcitement (and binging... and tantrums) when forbidden foods become available. As such, you kinda sorta have to do your own work to help your kids keep their cool around sweets, Bisbing says. That means asking yourself why you feel this way about ice cream — literally where do I begin? — and whether you can overcome the feeling that you can't help but eat it when it's around.

"Parents don't always have the time to go to therapy or practice intuitive eating," Bisbing acknowledges, "but parenthood offers this cool opportunity for us to repair ourselves through the way we parent and, certainly, through how we feed them." So go ahead and eat ice cream for dinner, too. (Why not?!) Eventually, she promises, you'll become desensitized to it so you can take a scoop when you want it and hard pass when you don't — and maybe even forget about that pint in the freezer.

Constant, casual exposure is only half of it, of course. The other half (or maybe more) is how you talk about foods you stock in front of your kids. "When adults in kids' lives are dieting, and kids grow up adjacent to food restriction, they end up chastising themselves for eating," Sole-Smith points out. It's why we all need to do better at changing the narrative around food. "We're conditioned to think things are 'bad' to eat," she acknowledges. "We're navigating a really complicated thing."

HALP, I can't stop bribing my kid with food!

Speaking of complicated: How in god's name does anyone get their kids to do anything without bribing them with food? (I know I shouldn't, but...) "Food bribes don't help nurture a healthy relationship with food," Bisbing agrees. But has she used them? Sure — and Sole-Smith is equally guilty: "Sometimes the only way out is through," she says with a nod to doling out M&Ms during potty training.

During desperate times when we really need our kids to get in the car or leave the playground, Bisbing suggests incorporating snacks in the context of sequencing rather than straight-up bribery. For instance, "First we'll get in the car, and then we'll eat the raisins," rather than, "Get in the car and I'll give you alllll the raisins!" (Ahem, who would say that?!)

And despite what you've been taught about feeding your feelings — the horror! — Sole-Smith says it's not monster-status to pair something stressful like getting a shot at the doctor with something your kid would love doing afterward to decompress, like stopping for donuts. Getting a treat "can be a nice way to connect with your child after a difficult experience," she says. This is different than begging your kid to stop crying by offering ice cream (note to self).

My kid loses his sh*t when he has sugar.

I always thought sugar-fueled tantrums were a thing in my house, but hey, I've never checked my kid's blood sugar.

Adults, Sole-Smith argues, create an unfair narrative around foods like birthday cake where this big bad sugar high kicks in, and every kid starts climbing the walls... until they crash — hard. "Kids may be excited, and they may have a meltdown, but it's probably not the sugar," she says. "It's just that birthdays are exciting, and kids have a lot of feelings." As such, she urges parents not to connect behaviors like crying to food. And for f*ck's sake, let them enjoy the cake — even if they eat a big piece and want a little more.

After a few birthday parties without restriction, you might find that your kid won't end up eating the whole cake anymore; in fact, they'll get more discerning and want just the frosting or cake or only chocolate, she predicts. "The victory isn't deciding what they don't like; it's letting them decide whether to eat it on their own terms, and enjoying what they do like without the guilt," Sole-Smith says.

Project De-demonization

I left my conversations with Sole-Smith and Bisbing feeling confident I could make my kiddo normal yet. In the name of alleviating sugar scarcity, we hit up an ice cream truck after soccer class, and went to four birthday parties in one weekend where I let my son get all up in cupcakes, cookies, and cake. I was even influenced to put raisins on his dinner plate a few times because these moms really seem like they're onto something.

Just yesterday, I noticed my son didn't finish the raisins I packed in his snack. And when we let him take a cookie from a friend's house for the car ride home, we didn't hear one peep about him wanting another. While he did cry that he wanted to go back to play with some garbage truck — kids, amirite?! — I feel like we've turned a corner where he's becoming more in touch with his body and its needs. That I've also felt more empowered to enjoy treats alongside him without guilt is an added bonus. Dessert really isn't the devil, I've learned. May we all let it into our lives!

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