My oldest son started at a new school where every single day he is offered a sugar-laden dessert with lunch. I have a beef with this. Kids shouldn't be taught that every meal, dinner or lunch ends with something sweet. This creates a habit and a craving that can be challenging to break later in life.
So how often should kids be given dessert?
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There really isn't one right answer, because not all children are the same. Some are more susceptible to a sugar addiction, some eat healthfully throughout the day while others do not, and a toddler is a different creature than a teenager.
Let's first look at sugar sensitivity. Some kids are just more sensitive to sugar than others. According to Kathleen DesMaisons in her book "Little Sugar Addicts," "Certain people ... are born with an imbalance in three parts of their brain and body chemistry: They have low serotonin (the chemical that "quiets" the brain and helps with saying no), low beta-endorphin (the brain's own "painkiller"), and volatile blood sugar. These three disturbances set them up to react profoundly to the druglike effects of sugar." So pay attention to your child when she consumes sugar. A child who exhibits a negative response to too much sugar should have less, and probably shouldn't regularly have dessert.
A child who eats well on his own all day can probably have a sweet snack more often than a child who isn't getting enough nutrients in his body. Protein and healthful fats slow down the effect of sugar and simple carbohydrates, so a child eating well throughout the day might be less affected by any sugar consumed.
Age should also be taken into consideration when deciding how often a child should have dessert. To sum it up: Little people need little desserts. And dessert should be a completely foreign concept to really little people. My 18-month-old daughter doesn't yet know about dessert. She will learn about it soon enough from peers, school and her brothers, but for now, I see no reason to tell her about it.
Assuming your child eats healthfully all day, doesn't seem to be overly sensitive to sugar and is old enough to ask for dessert, why shouldn't she have dessert every night? Here are a few reasons:
Dessert has become a bargaining chip for getting children to eat dinner. It is tempting for parents to rely on dessert as a bribe or incentive to get dinner down. This sets up an unhealthy message that dinner is dreaded and dessert is to be desired.
Raising blood sugar before bedtime can inhibit a child's ability to fall asleep, and when the resulting sugar drop occurs, the body releases adrenaline so the child might experience a disruption in healthful sleep.
If a sweet treat is going to be part of our day, I would much rather give it to my children with their afternoon snack instead of after dinner when they should be winding down. I try to ensure that there is some protein in the afternoon snack, too, which helps maintain their moods and energy better than the sweet alone.
Children often eat dessert regardless of whether they are hungry. Our goal is to teach children to listen to their bodies and to eat only when they are hungry. Children who are given dessert every night often eat it because it is handed to them, not because they are still hungry or truly in the mood for something sweet.
Desserts are too big. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is onto something with his ban of supersized sodas. Ice cream cones and cookies these days are much larger than they were when I was a kid. Dessert should be the equivalent of one scoop of ice cream, without the chocolate sauce and sprinkles, or two small cookies. Everything doesn't have to be supersized, especially when feeding pint-size people. Save the sprinkles and toppings for special occasions.
Desserts are often drowning in sugar. Seasonal fruit or desserts made with natural sweeteners are wonderful alternatives.
There is nothing wrong with something sweet sometimes. But "sometimes" is the operative word. The sooner we teach our kids that dessert is a sometimes circumstance, the sooner the battle over dessert will disappear. Then we can enjoy our dinner.