After settling into a nice routine in January that included far fewer treats than December, with its holiday parties and visits to see family, we had Valentine's Day and All The Chocolate. That, coupled with the steady—and very sudden—stream of birthdays in my toddler's classroom has me feeling like there are just Too Many Treats. (That's probably the title of a Berenstain Bears book, right?)
I realize that this is not news to any parent of a little one. And honestly, finding reasons to celebrate with yummy food is usually a good thing—provided that it's not undermining an overall diet. I doubt there will ever be a magic formula for balancing fruit snacks with kale chips or ice cream with chia pudding, but I've come up with a few strategies that help me feel like everything will be okay, that things will all balance out. Here it goes...
1. Always, when possible, pair a sweet treat with protein.
This could mean offering milk with a cookie or a cupcake, giving a few nuts or a bit of nut butter alongside a brownie, or topping pudding with a dollop of thick and creamy yogurt. Adding a bit of protein to a sugary snack helps energy levels stay even and it can prevent a sugar crash. And what to do if your kiddo won't touch the protein component? Try again in 30 minutes or an hour for the same effects. I'd much rather try to get my girl to drink some milk or nibble a few almonds with her cupcake than to force her to skip it all together.
2. Downsize the portions.
Whenever we go out to our local coffee shop, L wants hot chocolate. I expect it and so I request that they make it with a very small amount of mix and that they put it into an espresso mug so it's smaller than the smallest standard size. This volume is usually perfect for her and since the hot cocoa I make at home is very light on the cocoa, she doesn't question the flavor. Get the kiddie-size ice cream cones, opt for small snack packs of fruit snacks, and choose mini cookies and cupcakes when you can.
3. Go for high quality.
I never worried about giving my toddler tiny nibbles of intense dark chocolate since I wanted to expose her to that flavor. I'd rather her prefer it to milk chocolate, which has more sugar. If I use chocolate in baking, I try to use bittersweet for the same reasons. (That said, chocolate is still an occasional treat since in large amounts, it does contain caffeine.) If we have a plan to go out for ice cream, we don't mess around with subpar frozen yogurt—we go to the ice cream place that we like best. And if we're in a place that has treats that I know don't taste very good (one of the coffee shops in our town has the stalest cookies ever), I explain that we'll get a different treat at home or from another store. I'd rather deal with the energy required to convince my toddler to wait for something better than to let her down with a crappy cookie.
4. Don't worry so much.
I know, I know, there's an obesity epidemic and our kids are eating too much sugar. I'm the first one to tell you that I cut sugar as much as I can when we're eating at home. But I do it so that when we're out in the world at a birthday party or a special event, we don't have to worry so much. My girl is too strong willed to take no for an answer if she sees other kids eating something that she wants and for my family, we value the social aspect of enjoying food together too much to restrict her intake at those sorts of events. You have to make the right choice for your family in those cases, but this approach works for us.
5. Remember the big picture.
I want my daughter to be able to enjoy her food, no matter what that food might be, and I don't ever want her to feel like she can't have something. I want her to learn to trust herself, and for her hunger cues, her taste buds, and the feeling of fullness to guide her to better choices. I am well aware that restricting a kid's diet can lead to all sorts of larger issues with disordered eating and body image issues, so my aim is for moderation—and, most of all, happiness.
Our way may not be the right way for you and your family, but I think that we all have to do the best with what we know to work for our families. And I also think that all of this is tied to how our kids see us parents interacting with food and treats...which is it's own topic all together!
Do you guys have any tips that help you navigate this issue with your little one?