Tis the season for holiday parties, never-ending buffets and sugary markers of time (I'm talking about you pumpkin pie, candy canes and sugar cookies). And with it comes the traditional (and exhausting) battle between well-intentioned parents and dessert-loving children.
"No, you can't have dessert, you didn't eat your dinner. Eat some x (x = any sort of "main course," like chicken, turkey or mac n cheese) and then you can have dessert." It's a conversation I've heard so many times, you would think it came in the (non-existent) parenting manual. The child obliges, and later turns up with a plate full of sweets and a huge smile.
Everyone thinks they won. The parents are relived that their kids ate something nutritious; the kids are thrilled with their dessert plate. The battle was exhausting but the war is over. Until the next meal.
We recently attended a big family party where the kitchen was transformed into a giant buffet designed to feed a large army. In addition to countless salads, hot dishes and wraps, there were probably 20 different desserts. So just how do you handle the festivities and ensure your kids "eat well"?
1. Come up with a plan as a family before you arrive. On the way over to the party, we talked to our kids about how fun it is to have a family party and how much yummy food would be served. We explained that there would probably be lots of desserts to choose from and we told our kids that they could choose any two desserts to eat -- at the party or at any point later on that day. Our kids are young and two "sweets" felt right to us but obviously everyone needs to find their own idea of moderation. The idea is to give them some framework to enjoy the festivities but also to teach them how to moderate themselves.
2. Embrace dessert. My daughter hit up the dessert section of the buffet first thing. She carefully reviewed the options, made her selections and then moved on to the savory foods. Sure, the other adults eyed me curiously, no doubt wondering why I, who runs a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging young children to eat more fruits and vegetables, thought it was a good idea to start with dessert. But it is. When you are battling the never-ending dessert buffet and your kids, it's important to realize that is not just about encouraging them to eat "healthy food," but it's also about teaching them to not overeat. Dessert shouldn't be a prize or reward for eating the "healthy" food, nor should we encourage children to eat it only after they fill up on the other food. Turning the tide of obesity is as much about what we are eating as it is how much we are eating.
3. Let them eat cake. My kids found a spot at table, sat down and ate their meals. My 3-year-old bit into dessert immediately but then moved on to his salmon sandwich and butternut squash soup. In addition to her desserts, my daughter filled her plate with tortilla chips, mac 'n cheese and a few pieces of fruit. Sure, it wasn't a dream meal from a nutritional perspective. But 95 percent of the time, my daughter eats from what is offered at our home, and that's all real food, so I try not to stress about the other stuff.
4. Don't focus on the food, focus on the feeling. Both of my kids understand that once meal time is over, there is no more food until the next designated meal or snack time. This can be hard to enforce at a party, with lots of distractions and their cousins waiting to play with them, so I don't sweat it but when it's clear that they'd rather play than eat, I do a quick check-in and we talk about how they are feeling. Is their tummy still hungry?
5. There is always another eating opportunity. Both of my kids left food on their plates when they finished their meal and while I don't like waste, I'm glad they stopped when they weren't hungry. To my surprise, both of them actually left dessert on their plates, too. Before you think my kids have super human self-control powers, know that this does not always happen. But they know that if they don't finish their dessert, I'll pack it up and they can have it at the next meal or snack time. So I put half a brownie in a Ziploc, my daughter put it in my purse and a few hours later, when she asked for her sweet, I happily gave it to her.
If they'd gulped down their two desserts right away, that would have been fine too. At the end of the day, they were able to do something most adults are struggling to do: eat mindfully and stop when they are full. And they had a reasonably balanced meal as well. The truth is, feeding children well requires a long term strategy; fighting day to day is both exhausting and counterproductive. Give children guidelines that provide structure but empower them to make their own decisions, trust them and make sure they can trust you, and remember that eating well is as much about what you eat as it is how much you eat.