“ Dessert rules say: if you don’t eat your peas, you can’t have dessert.”
“No pudding for you young lady!”
“Just one more mouthful, then you can have some ice-cream”
Any of these sound familiar? It’s a really common parenting trick to create dessert rules and hold dessert hostage. After all, we’re always looking for levers and incentives, right?
Ditch The Dessert Rules
I teach parents that making dessert rules by eating the healthy stuff is actually a counter-productive strategy, and here’s why:
- Research has demonstrated that making one food contingent on another actually increases children’s dislike of the ‘hard work’ food and makes them like the ‘reward’ food even more, so even if you get a short-term win by encouraging your son or daughter to eat a few more carrots, in the long-term, they will like carrots even less.
- Trying to control what your child eats is never a good idea; it gives rise to conflict and tension at the table which studies have demonstrated make picky eating worse. I help parents learn to stay relaxed at mealtimes and to shift the focus from how and what their children are eating to the fun, social side of meals.
- Enabling children to self-regulate is vital. Self-regulation, as it relates to food, is our ability to respond to our bodies’ cues; to eat because we are hungry and to stop eating because we are full. Poor self-regulation has been linked to various problems later in life such as obesity and eating disorders. If a child is eating something because you have told them they will miss out on dessert if they don’t, you are inadvertently hampering their ability to self-regulate.
When I talk to parents about the importance of ditching the dessert rules, inevitably someone raises the question of how wrong it feels to give your child something sweet and calorie-laden when they have hardly touched the healthier aspects of the meal.
This is a valid point, and if children learn that they don’t have to eat what they’ve been served because they can fill up on a big portion of pie and ice-cream, it makes sense that they don’t have much reason to eat their vegetables.
I suggest that the answer to this one is flexibility. Without telling anyone that this is what you are doing (as you’ll end up back in the realms of withholding the sweet treats as a punishment) just make the decision that, on a day when your child has refused a lot of their main course, everyone gets pudding, but it’s just a small portion of fruit.
And it has to be everybody. It’s really unhelpful to give one child an apple while the rest of the family tucks into something sweet and calorific! It’s not such a bad thing to keep desserts small and healthy anyway – at least while your child is going through a picky phase.
Finally, look at how you talk about food. If you are always enthusing about the dessert and describing the veggies as a chore, your child will pick up on this. Get as excited about the peas as about the pecan pie. Ultimately, how your children respond to food is predominantly influenced by how you respond to food and it’s amazing what messages we unconsciously convey.