Debating the D word: Dessert

When should you shun sugar with your child? PSP parents share tips, stories and advice on how to create and maintain a healthy and balanced diet.


These posts have not been checked for accuracy. The content is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. is not intended to, and does not, provide medical advice diagnosis or treatment.  Never disregard professional medical advice, or delay in seeking it, because of something you have read on the PSP Yahoo! Group or on the web site.

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As one parent shared with the group:

“Somehow, in 3 1/2 years my kid never really caught on to the word "dessert".... but that all changed recently. He is always asking for it. We can’t have it in the house without him climbing in the freezer to get it. And, I’m struggling with what is okay and what isn't and how to set boundaries.

I grew up with no junk food in my house and not having dessert after dinner. To this day I don't feel the "need" to have anything sweet after my meal.

My husband likes having ice cream or ice pops in the house. And, my nanny, who is usually on the same page when it comes to healthy eating, started challenging me this AM on what the harm is in giving a 3 1/2 year old ice cream every day.

I couldn't really answer the question. My original feeling was that it should be reserved for the many, many, many social occasions when his friends are eating it. But she was giving me examples of kids she knew who never had it at home and became obsessed with junk food.

I feel like it is hard to balance... maybe I'm being insane and a little ice cream everyday is not a big deal. Maybe a switch to frozen yogurt will solve all of this. But, will it? I think it is the general habit of daily dessert that I'm struggling with.

One minor detail is that, while to the naked eye he appears to be thin, at his last appointment the doctor said that he is heavy for his size and if he continues on that trajectory he will be considered obese in 3 years. Jeesh!

Anyway, I feel like I'm acting crazy. And I don't want be crazy. My own mother has made me very conscious about what I eat... For better or worse.

Any advice in this problem that really isn't a problem would be appreciated!”



Find substitutes:

-          Homemade popsicles out of fruit juice

-          Dates and other dried fruit

-          Fruit: dress it up and be creative with it. Cut into fun shapes, serve with peanut butter, etc.

-          Yoghurt Parfaits

-          Trail Mix

-          Make whole grain muffins

-          A glass of milk with a few chocolate chips

-          Freeze yoghurt in ice cube trays

-          Freeze banana slices

-          Make Apple Crumble with less sugar

-          85% dark chocolate



From yays to nays, PSP members have a varied outlook on how to handle dessert at the dinner table, after school and at birthday parties.


Find a happy medium and be creative with Sugary alternatives:

I think you can come to a "happy medium" on this without a lot of drama. First, you and your husband run the household, not the child and the nanny. So together, you two decide what the plan is and tell them.  Second, dessert can be a nice, simple ending to a balanced meal. And while typically sweet, desserts don't have to be super sugary and/or unhealthy every day. In our house, dessert ranges from fruit to applesauce to yogurt to half an ice cream sandwich or a small brownie or cookie. And you can easily win the "fruit is not dessert" battle with your son. Just say, "yes it is" and serve it. He can eat it or leave it, but that is what you are offering.  Lastly, the reason many people have a problem with dessert is that kids are getting lots of sugary snacks throughout the day. But if snacks are healthy (fruit, cheese, crackers), then a little sweet in the evening shouldn't be such a big deal.”


“I have found dessert does not necessarily mean a piece of cake or bowl of ice cream. For my kids it could simply be a glass of milk and a few loose mini chocolate chips. But in cases where that doesn't cut it I try to make something homemade. You can even make homemade popsicles by taking regular yogurt and freezing it in ice cube trays or popsicle molds.”


For a while my daughter wanted dessert only for all her meals. No amount of reasoning would work with her. The more I limited sweets the more obsessed she became. One day I heard her opening the fridge at 5am and she was gobbling up a bag of candy. I started reading books on the topic and found a few good suggestions. One was to put a tray of food with main course and dessert on the same plate and the child can eat the food on the tray in any order they wish. That way they would not see dessert as a special elusive food. Also this would give the child control at mealtime. Another technique I found was to prepare healthier desserts. I would get a pretty see through tall cup and fill it up with frozen banana slices and add other fruit then driZzle chocolate sauce and put whipped cream and toasted nuts. Other healthy dessert ideas: frozen yogurt tubes, homemade apple crumble made with less sugar, homemade fruit smoothies which I froze in Popsicle holders. We also did canned peaches with a dollop of ice cream. Funny thing is we are so careful about desserts at home but once my daughter started going to school, they have cake and other treats pretty frequently as someone is often celebrating a birthday in her class of 19 kids. And guess what I notice she no longer treats dessert as as something so amazing.”


“We give our 3.5 year old 1 Medjool date for "dessert" almost every night.  She LOVES it (takes the seed out herself) and I feel fine about this.  There are plenty of other times when sugar is appropriate and fun---but like you, I don't want it to be a daily habit with her (as I write this I am eating my daily chocolate...:). Those Medjool dates are actually fantastic--often I eat them for dessert too--with a little cream cheese and a toasted pecan inside when I'm feeling fancy.”


Desert the Dessert. Chuck the Junk!

“Get the ice cream out of the house. It has next to no nutritional value, being made nearly 100% of sugar and fat (even fruit sorbet is a nutritional scam). If your husband wants it he can get his own at lunchtime when away from the house (assuming he works), or get flavors and types that are "grown up" and make a clear distinction for your kid that it's not kid dessert. Enjoy it after bedtime. Fruit IS dessert! Especially silly fruit with peanut butter, or banana slices cut into stars. Better yet, make this fruit YOUR dessert, too.  We had to get rid of all the stuff that we wanted but didn't want in our kids' diet, so apart from wine, there is NOTHING that we eat that our kids don't. It was super hard. I wanted soda, my Skinny Cow treats, and the like. But getting them out of sight really did get them out of mind, and we are eating far more healthily (and sleeping with clearer consciences) because of it. Don't phase it out gently. Go cold turkey. I cannot imagine a scenario in a month where you'd regret having done this... and I bet you can't, either. :)”


Save the sweets for special occasions and weekends only:

“We've been figuring out our dessert policies ourselves.  I grew up in a house where junk food was plentiful (as was healthy stuff--basically, there was always a lot of food.)  I have a strong sweet tooth, but I also recognize the value of eating healthfully.  Both my family and my husband's enjoy getting together for ice cream sundaes or cupcake outings--it's part of the cultures of our families. For a while, we were having a small amount of ice cream for dessert nearly every night, and I was getting concerned that it was too frequent (not to mention I was getting annoyed when we ran out of ice cream and had to deal with a crying, disappointed child!)  We decided to save "sweet treat" desserts (ice cream, cake, cookies) for weekends and special occasions (birthdays, etc.)  On other nights, we have fruit or fruit-juice ice pops for dessert.  We announced this plan to our five-year-old and, to my surprise, he seemed pretty willing to accept it (though he did get pretty creative about explaining why nearly every night was a "special occasion"--"Today is Tuesday, and I have music on Tuesdays, so it's special!")  Sometimes, though, the "special occasion" is something like, "Surprise!  I picked up donuts on my way home!" or "Grandma sent a box of cookies!"  When we do have sweets, we limit the amount to a reasonable portion (harder to do when we're at a restaurant and they bring a gigunda scoop of ice cream.)  Certainly, there are no sweets if he hasn't eaten a reasonable amount of his dinner.
Overall, this system seems to be working--he hasn't really complained much, and on occasion, he's actually left some cake or cookies on his plate when he felt he'd had enough (after one double-birthday-party-cake-fueled afternoon, he actually told me he'd had too many sweets that day and needed to cut back!)  My goal is to allow him to view sweets as a limited part of the big food picture--tasty and fun, but not one of the essential food groups, and not a mysterious and elusive object of desire.
I see your nanny's point about not wanting your kid to become obsessed with this "forbidden fruit," but I think you can head that off without resorting to daily applications of sugar.  And as for real fruit, well, Little Man might claim that "fruit is NOT dessert, Mommy," but if it's a choice of a banana or nothing, I have a feeling the banana will win out! In any case, good for you in trying to maintain a sane balance in this area--it's so tempting for all of us to go to one extreme or another, especially if we ourselves are very sensitive to our feelings about food!”


Struggling with the “one sweet a day” rule and unsupportive sitters:

“We are struggling with this a bit ourselves. Our just turned 8 year old 2nd grader isn't overweight per se, has always been skinny or at least very much in the normal range for an active boy - but has gotten noticeably "sturdier" in the past 6-8 months and we are monitoring it. My husband grew up in a household with a diabetic father, where their way of handling sweets was limiting them to one a day, so if they got ice cream in the park they didn't have dessert with dinner. My family was not as structured, and sugar was more a part of our lives and I struggle with sugar addiction, so eagerly embraced the "one sweet a day" idea in most cases (2 birthday parties in a day being an obvious exception etc.). But our son has for years thought that means he is entitled to a sweet per day and can get upset if he hasn't had "his sweet" yet and it's bedtime. Which can lead to some strange outcomes, like something sweet with milk at bedtime. And I don't think that works.
Our own overlay is that for the past 12-18 months we have had a babysitter 2 afternoons per week whose idea of an acceptable snack is a Kit Kat bar or Doritos on the way back from the bus stop, so rather than allow her to sit my preferred 3 days per week I'm looking for ways to reduce her to 1 afternoon per week over time - it's her only foible but it's a big one, and no amount of discussions seem to change her behavior, so rather than fight it I just limit her # of afternoons and days he has junk food with her I call that his sweet for the day. But I may not always hear about what he has had.
So I think this stuff plays out over many years, and I wish I had an answer. Would love to know what others think, and how others handle this, including with sitters and spouses who don't always have the same approach, and how to reconcile it.


Advice from a nutritionist*:

“From my nutritionist point of view, ice cream every day isn't the best idea. We know that our brain's reward centers typically want more if they're getting used to something, so 1/4 cup of vanilla ice cream may be satisfying now, but in a month, the chances that DS will want more (or two flavors, or hot fudge on top etc) are high. Same for DH, actually.  Or maybe if you want to keep it to ice cream, it's one spoonful on a special spoon that he and Dad eat together as some sort of special after dinner ritual...??

I suggest for my clients (and keep this rule myself) that everything we eat should have some inherent nutritional value. I love love love chocolate, so I eat the 85% kind, which has iron, calcium and magnesium and very little sugar. (I am NOT saying it's health food, I'm saying it's better than something else!!) Fruit, as others have said, absolutely can be dessert. You can dress it up or serve it as is for a sweet finish to a meal. You could make your own granola bars or whole grain muffins or yogurt parfaits or trail mix and have these be desserts for every day occasions and then feel fine allowing cake and ice cream/cookies/etc for parties and holidays.

From a mama perspective, I struggle with allowing and restricting sweets. I grew up with very limited sugar and starting buying and gorging on candy as soon as I had my own money.  And don't get me started on pastries-I obsess! I don't want my daughter to feel this way, but I definitely don't want her to have a high sugar diet. So it's a balance. I limit sugar in our regular foods (we don't eat sweetened yogurts or cereal or much in the way of simple carbohydrates in general) but she is allowed treats as they are available (birthday parties so far) and eats some of my 85% chocolate. And she's still a baby, so I'm sure I will walk this tightrope a lot more as she gets older. 

I guess this is a long winded way of saying there really isn't a perfect answer, it depends on your kid and your values and what battles you feel like fighting. Obesity is a real concern, diabetes is a real concern and I do feel it's our responsibility to keep our kids as healthy and safe as we can.  Get good nutritional information about what you are buying and eating and use your best judgment.”


How do I get my toddler to eat foods other than cake and ice cream?


"My daughter was the same way -- every meal was some wheat-based baked good, a dairy product (limited to mozzarella, cottage cheese or sweetened yogurt) and fruit.  It didn't help that she ate dinner alone before my husband got home, so she didn't even witness people trying other foods. What worked for us was switching to family dinner (when our schedules later allowed it).  Now she gets the same dinner we do, and the rule is that she has to try everything once but doesn't have to eat more than one bite if she dislikes it.  And even if she rejected something last time, she has to try it again.  After the one-bite rule we don't make an issue of what or how much she's eating, and we also recognize that if she goes to bed hungry she'll eat again in the morning and all will be well. She's six now and really doing much better now with variety, so it seems to be working.  With a willful child I think you really don't want to let food become a power struggle. Another thing I would suggest, which is a hint I got on PSP, is don't assume that if you dislike something your child will too.  Just keep introducing lots of different things and see what sticks.  Also, sociability will help as the child gets older -- my daughter wouldn't touch tomatoes (not after tasting, just a visceral aversion after seeing them).  Well, then her friend brought cherry tomatoes to school for everyone's snack, and now she loves them.  Peer pressure can work for good! And finally, be aware of how many calories she's consuming in beverages.  My daughter would drink OJ all day long and whole milk with meals, and that can be so filling that there's not much incentive to eat foods that don't appeal. When we switched to water except at breakfast she was much hungrier by dinner time. Good luck!  I know it's frustrating, but try to believe your child won't starve herself and things will eventually get easier."


Try using dessert as an incentive:

"I feel your pain!!! Yes the "I don't like it" before even trying it is pretty ridiculous right. I try using desserts as an incentive if my son eats healthy foods. Another trick is I use a cheese shredder to shred carrots and zucchini into muffin mix then bake him muffins. At least he gets some veggies that way. I've also put squash in Mac and cheese. Good luck!


Wait it out:

"I have no advice! I just want to commiserate that I have a 3.5 year old who subsists on noodles (with nothing on them), yogurt, and bananas. She literally eats the same thing every day. It kills me but i just can't get her to put anything else in her mouth. And I'm a nutritionist! My doctor said when she's 10 things MIGHT change. And I hate when people say, just keep offering and finally she'll take it--it's been two years and I've yet to be successful. That said I do always offer...Anyway, good luck and please send along anything that works for you!"


Hide the good stuff:

I am a nutritionist and mama to a kiddo who will be 3 on Saturday. I've found that power struggles are a sure way to lose total control, so simply putting what you want her to eat on her plate and not commenting is a good first step. I've found that ketchup is a godsend-she'll eat anything with ketchup on it, especially if she gets to dip the food in the ketchup. Sauteed spinach, broccoli, carrots, even crackers sometimes get dipped and eaten. We do a lot of fun shaped things, too, like an apple flower for breakfast (apple slices arranged as petals around a sunbutter center) and french toast towers (toast sliced into 4 or 5 finger width pieces and stacked up.  But the biggest ways she'll eat are if she's involved in preparation and if she feels in control of what's being served. So, every morning she has a choice of eggs or yogurt and if she chooses yogurt, she chooses which berries to put in it (I just use frozen and she puts them in the yogurt herself) and if she chooses eggs she's whisking them and putting butter in the pan." Read more about how parents Hide Vegetables HERE

""My friend has a similar problem. She is big on smoothies. She makes them in the blender with yogurt and fruit, but sneaks in veggies like kale and spinach. You could also add peanut butter if it will get her to drink it. I'm sure you can find recipes on line. Good luck!"


Ditch the Desserts:

"Also, try not to have the Teddy Grahams in the house-she can't eat what she doesn't have access to. :-)"


Recommended Reading and Resources


Kids, Carrots and Candy Too:

The book takes on the whole food/eating/body situation that happens between parents and kids.  Their method, which they call "self-demand feeding", teaches how to avoid the hideous, unrelenting struggles that can happen around feeding and body issues. I was raised on this approach and I am raising my kid on it now.”


Ellyn Satter:

“I have found Ellyn Satter (RD,MS,LCSW) to have a very reasonable sound approach to feeding oneself and children that has been helpful to me in avoiding an eating disorder mindset and to take power struggles away from food. There are many pages to view connected to the following link: Ellyn Satter

"I'm in no position to tell you what to do from my own experience (I have two toddlers, but thankfully their stubbornness around food is manageable right now.) But, I have really relied on the book Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter to shape my decisions on how to manage the scheduling, selection, and psychology of feeding them. It's a fantastic and well-regarded book. Maybe it could help you think through various options. (I'd be happy to summarize her main points in a couple of sentences, but I don't want to come across as telling you "just do x, y, z" as if it's simple.) I just bought a million toddler behavior books myself, so I'm sending you sympathetic thoughts!"

"Look up how to feed children by Ellen satter. It's a great philosophy that made me feel very zen about the whole thing. My 5.5 year old used to eat a much wider variety as a toddler and is now down to very few things. It's just a power thing, even now, but I fight the good fight which is that I keep offering him a variety of healthy foods and he eats what he wants off the plate, sometimes all he has for dinner is one bite of chicken and then a huge bowl of broccoli. It's fine. One thing i incorporated when he was very small was a portion of fruit at every meal. It helped tremendously for whatever reason. My 20mo is a much harder person to feed but I just keep trying. She is fine surviving on half a banana and a cheese stick all day which is mind boggling to me. She throws tantrums at dinner most nights but she is still alive :) Maybe try apple slices or carrots dipped in pb- and stop offering junk food! That's the key!"


Daniel Tiger:

"Hi, do you watch Daniel tiger?  There is an episode that talks about trying new food and has a little song that goes with it. It's been helpful with my three year old."


My Child Won't Eat

"I haven't read it yet but several people have recommended this book to me: "my child won't eat" Child-Wont-Eat-Mealtimes/dp/ 1780660057