Inside: Are your kids fixated on dessert? Do they rush through the meal to get it? Serving dessert with dinner just might change your life.
When my kids were younger, I went to a potluck dinner with other neighborhood families.
Someone had brought mini cupcakes and put them on the table along with the rest of the food. So when the kids went down the line with their paper plates, guess what they wanted?
Mini cupcakes, of course!
Parents said “not right now” and “after you finish your chicken”.
Yes, the lone dietitian in the group let her kids put a mini cupcake on their plates, along with chicken and fruit and carrots. My kids ate their cupcakes first then ate their other food and went off to play.
The other children continued to pester their parents about the cupcakes. They wanted to know: “When can I have one?” and “I took three bites of chicken. Can I have one now?” and “How about NOW?”
The parents were, understandably, annoyed–at their kids for sure, and probably at me for being the mom who let her kids eat cupcakes with dinner.
Truth is, a year or two earlier, I wouldn’t have let my kids have a cupcake with dinner either. I would’ve asked them to eat their meal before moving on to dessert.
They would’ve nagged me. They would’ve taken a few bites of their dinner, convinced me they were full, and then promptly gobbled up their cupcake.
But this strategy changed everything
I had read about a strategy from feeding expert and dietitian Ellyn Satter that sounded just strange enough to work: Serve dessert WITH the meal.
Satter, author of Child Of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense, among other great books about feeding, says that when dessert is taken down from its end-all-be-all pedestal, it becomes just another part of the meal.
Dessert–typically the grand finale of dinner, the good stuff you get after eating the yucky stuff—loses its power, including as a bargaining tool. In other words, no more “two more bites of broccoli and you can have dessert” negotiations!
Why dessert with dinner works
When your child has a cookie on his dinner plate at home or at a party, it’s hard not to feel like you’re doing something wrong. But consider what happens:
- It doesn’t result in nagging or negotiating about sweets.
- Even if they have the cookie first, they can move on to their other food and eat until they’re full. They don’t rush through dinner to get to dessert.
- It keeps the cookie on the same value level as the other foods. The dessert is just another item they eat, not the fabulous prize they get after choking down a few carrots.
Why dessert shouldn’t be a reward
Though dessert is often used as a reward, major health organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommend avoiding food rewards in general–for good behavior or for eating veggies, for example.
Some research has found that when parents use food as a reward or punishment, kids are more likely to prefer high-fat, high-sugar foods (like the ones often used as rewards). One study in the journal Eating Behaviors found that adults who recalled their parents using food as a reward or punishment were more likely to say they had issues like binge eating and restricted eating.
When getting dessert is dependent on eating vegetables, kids may also start seeing veggies as a gross thing they have to get through in order to get something good. In one research study, preschoolers who were asked to drink a certain kind of juice in order to get a fun play activity actually grew to like that juice less and less.
Now it’s your turn
Want to try this dessert with dinner strategy? It’s easy. Just put dessert on the table, alongside the peas and the chicken and the rice. Don’t make a big fuss about it. Let your kids eat it whenever they want. (Will they eat it first? Probably. And that’s okay.)
One caution with this approach: Don’t make the portion of dessert so big that it wrecks their appetites, warns Satter. Give only one small serving per person. For young kids, that might be a small cookie or a small scoop of ice cream.
This strategy also works well at parties and buffets, when the desserts are often presented on the table along with the other foods.
Or there may be nights at home when you simply say, “It’s not a dessert night” if asked about it by your kids.
Dessert with dinner might feel scary
Logically, this might make sense to you. But putting it into practice can be a little harder.
I’ll admit, I was nervous the first time I tried it. A neighbor had brought over frosted cupcakes, and as we sat down for dinner, it was all my kids could talk about. So I decided to let everyone take a cupcake and put it on their plates.
What happened? My older son ate his first and continued on with dinner. My younger son took a bite, decided he didn’t like it, and ate his dinner.
No drama. No tears. No big deal.
Where we are now
Now that my boys are teenagers, things are a lot different. At some point in their early teens, their appetites surged, and they started eating more at mealtime. They rarely left food on their plates–and often ate a second dinner before bedtime. (Read more: How to Feed Your Hungry Teenager: Healthy Meal & Snack Ideas)
So dessert naturally became a non-issue for us. These days we typically have some kind of dessert every evening after dinner, whether it’s a homemade cookie, popsicle, or simply a small handful of chocolate chips.
Because my teens’ calorie needs are high, and I feel good about what they’re eating at mealtimes, I know there’s room for sweets. And I know balance is important.
Where to go next
- Satter says that giving occasional, unlimited access to sweets is actually a good thing. Sound terrifying? Here’s what happened when I tried it.
- Sign up for my free email series about picky eating. You’ll get a new strategy each week, plus recipes and resources.
- Have trouble legalizing sweets in your own life? Here’s how to break up with food rules.