Common Parental Pitfalls: Treats Misuse and Sugar Abuse

Here we are in another Fall season where Gatorade and fruit snacks are given after every pee-wee soccer game and the traditional pumpkin pail is being swapped out to carry Halloween candy in a larger pillow case.

It doesn’t take a long, hard look to recognize that we have a real disconnect between kid’s unhealthy eating habits and the parental pitfalls that often perpetuate them.

As shared in a previous post on Foods to Avoid versus Encourage with Infants, offering sugar before the age of two may increase a child’s preference for sugar, as well as change their taste preference for sugar-sweetened foods as they age.

This isn’t said to scare parents. It also isn’t meant to shame them.

Instead, it is meant to put a proper understanding in our minds about appropriate sugar intake, and to do so as early as possible.

Whether you are just starting your child out on solids, or you are years in and now looking to scale back your kid’s sugar intake, this post has valuable reminders for all of us.

With advice taken from experts in the field of pediatric nutrition and feeding, this post will highlight some of the most common parental pitfalls related to treats misuse and sugar abuse.

Treats Misuse

Restriction

In the book, “Raising A Healthy, Happy Eater,” pediatrician Dr. Fernando and feeding expert Melanie Potock share,

“Some parents may restrict treats like dessert and ban all forms of sugar, in hopes of establishing good eating habits. At first glance, this may seem like a good strategy, but there are many unwanted consequences of making too much of a big deal about dessert. By saying “no” to all desserts, you may actually be making them more appealing. Kids may end up placing more importance on dessert and lose interest in delicious whole foods that are better for them. Sweet treats will eventually make their way to your child’s mouth, whether you want them to or not. Rather than shy away from sugar, use sweet treats as a way to show your child how to build a healthy and well-rounded diet, despite their external environment.”

Rewards

Pediatric feeding experts agree that using food as a form of reward is one of the most common yet universally ineffective approaches to raising kids who develop healthy eating habits in childhood that carry into adulthood.

In their book, “Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School,” dietitians Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen share how using a reward-based feeding style often has a “reverse effect,” resulting in the opposite outcome of what is intended:

When parents reward their child for eating vegetables with dessert, for example, the child places a higher value on the dessert (reward food).

Furthermore, Maryann Jacobsen goes on to share on her blog how, “using palatable foods as a reward makes them even more appealing to kids. And on the opposite end, using healthy food as punishment, to get the reward, makes kids less interested in the healthy food.” While this may seem innocent enough and to not have a big impact on our child(ren) in the short term, Maryann warns parents of the lifelong implications of using sugar repeatedly as a reward in her post titled, “What Rewarding Kids with Food Looks Like 20 Years Later.”

Bribery

In a study cited in Ellyn Satter’s book, “Child of Mine,” 12% of parents with 20- to 24-month-olds used force or bribery to get their children to eat. Counter to only 5% of parents with 16-month-olds, and we see how quickly parents can adopt new feeding styles in attempts to get their children to eat. While this is a natural struggle for all of us (especially us parents of “picky eaters),” we must remember that bribery is yet another parental pitfall that doesn’t work. Rather than compelling kids to eat more and/or make better food choices, bribery creates a feeding environment where children feel pressure to eat and the Division of Responsibility in Feeding has failed.

Sugar Abuse

Snacks

An article by Today’s Dietitian reports that, “For children aged 2 to 12, an estimated 30% of daily calories are consumed in the form of sweet and salty snacks, and up to 40% of total daily calories are consumed in snacks when sugar-sweetened beverages are included.” It goes on to highlight the concerning link between snacking and childhood obesity, and more specifically, research that suggests:

“Greater snacking frequency of energy-dense foods, such as cookies, chips, and sweets, is linked with increased risk of excessive weight gain in childhood.”

What this article does best though, isn’t state sheer statistics about snacking to create fear mongering among mothers. Snacks are intended to play an important role in children’s diet, especially when offered appropriately. To avoid some of the common pitfalls to sugary snacks of empty calories, consider these “Tips to Guide Smart Snacking Behavior Among Young Children.”

Extra-Curricular Activities

A fellow dietitian who I follow avidly is Sally at RealMomNutrition.com. With a practical approach to feeding kids, she shares real life experiences paired with unmatched professional expertise. One of her most well-known efforts is her “Snacktivism” campaign. In an effort to stop the unhealthy eating pattern of sugar-sweetened snacks being served everywhere, she lays out a variety of resources to help parents, coaches, preschools, churches, and after-school activities all in an effort to institute a healthier snack policy in their programs.

Travel

I’ll be the first to admit packing “special snacks” when we go on long trips. There is something about a special food our kiddos don’t see very often that helps long travel days go just a tad easier. Part of the reason I tote along our own food though is so I am not left scouring the airport or gas station for a suitable snack. I still have criteria for what consistutes these “special snacks,” for which a sugar crash is definitely one of the things I aim to avoid. So let your kids have some special snacks and even a couple extra sweets when on that rare family vacation. Just be mindful that taking too long of a vacation from your stance on sugar may just make it harder on everyone when adjusting back to reality.

For some healthier, non-perishable prepackaged snack ideas to take on trips, subscribe to my weekly email for a free download, “Veggies & Virtue: 20 Best Pre-Packaged Snacks at Target.” Super Healthy Kids also has some great ideas for 15 portable snacks ideas to take with you on shorter weekend getaways when toting a cooler may be more realistic.

In Summary

Sugar is a difficult ingredient for most families to know how to manage healthfully. Without being overly strict, you as the parent can still set appropriate boundaries with sugar intake to reflect the type of diet and lifestyle you desire for your family. Here are a few principles you can start putting into practice. These are great action steps to work through with a spouse and/or other family members.

  1. I/we will establish a sugar policy that fits our family’s values for a healthy lifestyle, instead of overly restricting our child(ren)’s access to sugar/sweets.
  2. I/we will choose fun, non-food rewards when appropriate, instead of using sugar/sweets as a reward.
  3. I/we will maintain a division of responsibility that offers a healthy, wholesome balance of food options, instead of bribing bites of healthy food for more palatable, sweet foods.
  4. I/we will offer healthier snack options, so that snacks can be an opportunity to fill in nutritional gaps.
  5. I/we will join (or lead, if not yet existing) a wellness committee in our respective extra-curricular activities, so that snacks are appropriate for age, activity, and nutritional needs.
  6. I/we will allow some “fun foods” while on trips, but I will guide my child in good decision-making so we don’t derail our overall diets.

What mantra do you most want to focus on in order to minimize treats misuse and stop sugar abuse?