Don't Sugarcoat It

How To Teach Your Kids Food Neutrality Without Spoiling The Sh*t Out Of Them

Anti-fat bias activist Virginia Sole-Smith weighs in on how to navigate ice cream truck season without turning your offspring into little Veruca Salts.

Written by Elizabeth Narins
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock, Stocksy

Blame it on diet culture or the belief that sugar is the devil, but until recently, I was super strict about letting my 3-year-old have sweets. Then I realized that the world is full of sugar whether I let him have it or not; making sweets scarce was robbing him of both joy and any hope of a healthy relationship with food.

My come-to-Jesus moment set in after flipping through Burnt Toast podcaster Virginia Sole-Smith’s New York Times best-seller Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture. The book explores the harm of anti-fat bias on kids and gives parents — many of whom grew up hating our bodies and fearing whole food groups — strategies to navigate a biased world so our kids can, you know, have healthy relationships with food and be at peace with their bodies. (#Goals.)

While we all want our kids to be healthy, I learned that restricting sweets to holidays and birthdays was creating a scarcity mindset that probably had a lot to do with why my kid would seriously lose it around dessert.

Well, it turns out that seasonality can have the same effects, Sole-Smith told me in an interview: When the ice cream truck is absent all winter and suddenly rears its obnoxiously loud siren in the springtime, it’s no wonder our kids can’t stop asking/begging/whining for ice cream all summer. And yet, we say no most of the time because it will spoil their appetite for dinner... or maybe we just worry that ice cream will be the thing that breaks the scale.

So, how do you build a foundation for food neutrality?

Increased Exposure

Lest our kids pick up on our unfounded fears of food and start to foster it themselves, Sole-Smith prescribes reliable exposure to coveted foods to instill a sense of food neutrality, or the value system that prescribes no moral value to food regardless of its ingredients and nutritional content.

“When kids don’t see certain foods enough, they get extra excited for them,” points out Zoë Bisbing, LCSW, therapist and creator of Body-Positive Home. And it makes sense: If my kid knew he’d get dessert in his lunch every day, I doubt he’d go down kicking and screaming for just “one mowh” cookie before bedtime. “You can neutralize food by increasing regular exposure to it.”

The thing is, I don’t want to be the mom who says yes to sweets every time — and it’s not just because I live in Brooklyn, where ice cream trucks charge $6 for a teeny tiny kiddie cup of soft-serve without sprinkles. ($6!) I don’t want my kid to expect to receive everything he asks for, whether it’s dessert every time we hit the playground or toy every time we hit that god-forsaken grocery store aisle with the toys. (Why do they do this to us?!)

Finding myself between a rock and a hard place, I asked Sole-Smith how to position summer treats as no big deal for my toddler — without spoiling the crap out of him when he asks for ice cream every day. (He must have my genes.)

“You have to push through that initial excitement and let them have it until they get over it,” she says.

Shame-Free Limits

Letting him have ice cream sounds easy enough, especially since I sure as hell want all the ice cream too. (And ixnay on the commentary — like “What a big scoop! You better walk that off later!” — cringe.) But then “you decide when it’s treat time and be really clear about how it fits into your routine,” she recommends.

FWIW, Bisbing is on board: “It’s about setting limits without shaming them or bringing about anxiety,” she says.

In Sole-Smith’s house, treat time is after school when her kids get free reign of the snack cabinet. “Sometimes they choose a bowl of chocolate chips and sometimes they choose an apple, but I let them work it out,” she says. It’s the beauty of making treats available with regularity — kids stop obsessing over foods they know will always be there.


So, after I break the bank on hooking my kid up with ice cream on the regular, my assignment is to designate just one ice cream truck day a week. This way, when my son sees the ice cream truck man and devolves, I can explain to him that we get ice cream on weekends and— gosh darn it! — today’s Monday, then wipe the sweat off my brow.

Not that it’s going to be easy. This I know. “The hardest part of parenting is setting limits and dealing with screaming, crying, and anger when your kid doesn’t get what they want,” Bisbing says. “But to promote food neutrality, we need to set reasonable limits around how much of something they are being offered, and how often.”

Besides “Too bad it’s not ice cream day!”, another line I think I’ll try is, “Nope, we’ve got ice cream at home.” Then I’ll take the $6 bucks to buy a half gallon of ice cream and put my money where my mouth is. (And they said parenting isn’t fun!)