How to help children curb their sweet tooth (without secretly raiding the candy bowl)

It can be done. Here are 4 steps to finding a solution where the children aren’t constantly begging for snacks and the parents can relax

Do your children have an incorrigible sweet tooth? Would they have chocolate for lunch and gummy bears for dinner every day if you let them? Then maybe you know what it’s like. Every visit to the grocery store involves a tug-of-war over candy in the check-out line: “Mooooom! Just one bag of Skittles pleeeeease!” You frown and tense up...

If we didn’t keep the sweets under control, he’d go totally off the rails. He’s only 3 (or 5, or 8), after all. He doesn’t understand what’s at stake! Too many sweets will make him gain weight, doctors are always going on about childhood obesity and diabetes, the kids at school would make fun of him... Not to mention he’d ruin his teeth!

So we protect them from sweets. We watch them like a hawk. (“That’s your last piece of chocolate, okay sweetie?”)

Or we use the dentist’s chair as a threat.

Or at least we hide the unhealthy snacks grandma sends home on the top shelf. Then we dole them out for good behavior or for cleaning their plate.

Argh. Constant vigilance is exhausting

And the end result may not be quite what we were going for.

Couldn’t we approach the issue of children and sweets a bit differently, you ask?

I have a 2-year-old son Filip and a sweet tooth of my own to contend with. Yet I also know that gummy worms are not the most nutritious choice for lunch. I thought it wasn’t really an issue for me yet, since my son is young enough that all I have to do is refrain from waving a bag of candy in front of his face.

Until I heard this one day over coffee:

The story that almost made me choke on my candy

Tereza’s story opened my eyes. I realized what “keeping an eye on sweets” really means. It’s about much more than just not ruining their dinner:

I was watching my mom and sister recently teaching my nephew to be responsible and not eat so much candy. They pour out half of every bag of candy and tell him that the candy makers must not have put much in the bag. Or that they must have made the portion sizes smaller. 

Then I remembered how my mom used to do the same thing to me when I was little! It only worked until I started making my own decisions about what to eat and when. Once I hit my teens, no one was controlling my portions.

Now I could buy a bag of candy and eat the whole thing in one sitting. And the result? Let’s just say I put on my freshman 15 (okay, maybe 20) a little early. 

My eating habits became a problem I had to work long and hard to overcome. Today when I think about what and how much I am eating and how I feel when doing it, only now do I feel like I have accepted responsibility for my own body and health. Other people made those decisions for me before, and I obeyed. 

When I heard these words a chill went down my spine (and I almost inhaled the chocolate-covered almond they served with my coffee). Memories from my childhood came flooding back. I had the same experience:

Someone always decided about sweets for me
– not WITH me

No one helped me find my own relationship to food, just like Tereza and her nephew. No one was teaching responsibility here at all. Pouring out half the candy was just cutting the rations.
The child had no opportunity to find out naturally what and how much is good for him (or her).
Even though mom and grandma meant well.

And I had the same experience. My parents didn’t ration the sweets, but they only kept dark chocolate in the pantry, which the rest of the family liked – but I didn’t. So when I got the munchies, I opened the cabinet and... Nope, nothing in there.

So my parents got what they wanted: I didn’t eat much sugar.

But the little girl grew up. I moved out and started buying my own food. I went so wild it would have brought a tear to my dental hygienist’s eye.

If you went grocery shopping with me back then, you’d have to laugh at my haul:

Some bread, cheese, spaghetti, marshmallows, gummy worms, chocolate bars, strawberry gumdrops, and a bag of licorice.

And I’m not going to lie, I didn’t feel great after eating all that. But I needed to figure that out for myself.

Now I’m a mama. I’ve started looking for a better way to handle this with my son. So that he won’t have to go through the same thing I did when he’s older.

But – every nutrition expert says something a bit different, and I’ve never found a universal guide to how many grams of sugar are suitable for a certain age. Every family I know is TOTALLY DIFFERENT in this regard. Some don’t eat refined sugar at all, while others have dessert after dinner every day. Some only eat gluten-free desserts sweetened with agave. And of course no two bodies – adult or child – are the same.

So I asked Unparenting mamas what they do. This is what I found out:

In order for children to take responsibility for what they eat and not struggle with it as adults, we need to give it to them straight. No tricks, no dumping out half the bag, just straight talk and working together to decide on guidelines (what, when, how much) that will keep everyone satisfied.

4 steps to reach an agreement on sweets with your kids

… and not go gray worrying about their health.

 Figure out what’s important to you: Not eating white sugar? Avoiding chemicals?

Does it bother you when your child eats three grains of rice for lunch and then downs chocolates from grandma? Let’s pause here for a moment.

What would be your ideal for your son or daughter’s diet and snacking habits? Feel free to get a pen and paper and write it down. Take your time and really ask yourself how you feel about sweets (not the lady from the magazine or your great-aunt, but you yourself).

We all feel differently about it. Some mamas are certain that refined sugar is no good for their children. Instead, they’d like their children to snack on dried fruit or homemade baked goods sweetened with agave. Other mamas don’t really mind sweets so much (maybe they have a sweet tooth, too), but want to make sure their children also get enough vegetables, protein and fruits!

And you? Do you want your children to eat only healthy snacks? Or only eat the occasional snack? Only at grandma’s house or for special occasions?

One Unparenting mama, Tereza Ormsby, doesn’t want to deliberately mislead her children, but also doesn’t feel comfortable letting them eat whatever they like. Here’s how she feels about sweets:

I wouldn’t tell my children that candy will make their tummies hurt, because they would soon figure out it isn’t true, and then they’d start asking: “Hmmmmmm, I wonder what else mama says isn’t true?” Instead I would tell them the truth: that candy isn’t healthy for us and doesn’t give our bodies everything they need to be healthy and have all the strength we need to run and play. I could make a parallel with animals or cars and trains to explain. 

I would also admit that I love candy, too, and I understand that they like the way it tastes, but I need us to figure something out together: “I’d like it if you could come tell me when you’re hungry, we’ll have a healthy snack, and then you have a treat of some kind. What do you think?”

Once you work out how you feel about sweets and what is important to you, find the right moment and...

 Tell your children about it

Tell them honestly what you figured out. (Or draw it with a favorite crayon.) Find some way to show how you’d like things to be.

And ask how your son or daughter feels about sweets. What yummy treats they’d like to eat if they could (and when, and how much…). If your child is just 2 or 3 and doesn’t come up with anything, feel free to help him or her out. When describing how you feel about sweets, suggest what you think is a good way of satisfying their sweet tooth AND their dentist.

The same applies when your (normally talkative) school-aged child says, “I don’t know.” Offer an idea or two. Maybe something like this:

So is candy the only thing you like to eat, sweetie? It’s just that candy has a lot of unhealthy ingredients, and I want your body to be strong and healthy. What if we try to find something else that you like just as much, but it’s healthier? We can try out different kinds of treats until we find the right one. What do you say? 

Or: Sweetie, you really love fruit, don’t you? You like fresh and dried fruit too, right? If we always had enough fruit at home, do you think we could get by without the candy from the store? Fruit is so much healthier, you see, and I’d like us to eat that instead. 

You don’t see immediate results, or your child doesn’t even respond at first? Don’t get discouraged.

These are just the first two steps on the path to finding an answer together. The first important change is now in place: You’ve gotten your child involved. No more stressed-out mama doling out candy rations and feeling awful about it. No more children waiting for a hand-out and then sneaking a bag of gummy bears from the pantry to eat in secret, because forbidden fruit always tastes the sweetest... Now you’re in it together. You’re asking each other and paying attention to what the other one wants. You’re trying to come up with an answer together.

Can you see the difference between this and just hiding the candy, end of discussion? All of a sudden your child has the opportunity to really think about the topic and work with you to find the best answer for him or her. This is laying the foundation for true responsibility in your child.

And now for the third step that will help…

 Make eating a shared project

Get your children even more involved in their food, not just desserts. Let your children come up with a meal plan and do the shopping, cooking and keeping an eye on sweets along with you.

You’ll be freed of the weight of responsibility for constantly coming up with meal ideas, cooking and seeing those grimaces at the table each day. Your children will learn to see food as something interesting they do with mom or dad, something they also have a say in.

You can look for new recipes together, experiment, try healthy snacks, or agree on a time when your child can be in charge of baking something. (I know a boy who’s been baking fantastic desserts since he was 4!)

You can write up a meal plan or start a family recipe book with happy or sad faces to show who liked which recipe best.

You can plan shopping trips together, too (assuming it’s not a grocery emergency where you are down to the wire and have to run out for a few things to stave off starvation). When mom or dad comes home with a bag full of groceries, the children basically have no opportunity to make any decisions. Write out a grocery list together in advance. Decide together how many treats to buy and what kind, and then both of you keep tabs on whether you’re really keeping to the agreement. :)

Have a look at how others have tackled sweets

Some families fill up the candy bowl and everybody helps themselves whenever they want. Others agree on a set amount each week or a small allowance for older kids to buy what they want.

Mama doesn’t have to sigh in the check-out line any more, and the kids (and mama!) don’t have to hide in the bathroom to eat their chocolate. :) This is what some Unparenting families have to say:

Hela bakes traditional desserts with a twist and has agreed with her children on a weekly snack box. Read more:

We don’t have conventional desserts with white sugar at our house. I bake with syrups and malts. My daughter loves cookies made with fruit, so we dry tons of fruit and buy raisins and dates. She can have fruit whenever she likes and we keep a lot of it at home. When she was about 4 she started loving lollipops. At first she wanted one each day, but now she usually has the same one for two days. She’ll give it a few licks, wrap it back up and set it aside.

I gave her a box where I put her snacks for the week. She has a lollipop, dates, figs, raisins, almonds, and some chocolate (80% or homemade sweetened with honey). Most of the time she just eats half of it and the rest carries over to the next week. At first she ate almost everything right away and started asking when the next week would start, but then she started keeping an eye on it herself. I think this is great. She has free access and can eat when and as much as she likes within the amount I set for her. We’re both happy.

– Hela

Anna learned that her two children have a totally different relationship to sweets and stressing over keeping portions strictly equal wasn’t worth it:

I nearly fell into the everything organic/eco-friendly/homemade trap. Like sure, that’s nice, but it’s not worth my family’s sanity. So bye-bye perfect mom! :) And since then even my husband enjoys desserts more.

Our children are totally different on this front: My son doesn’t really care much about sweets, but for my daughter it’s almost like a religious experience. Her day is not complete without chocolate. Big deal, maybe she’ll be a pastry chef one day. :) She’s a healthy weight for her height, and her teeth are good. She eats pretty much everything. She even likes meat. So I respect her need for treats, just like I don’t push my son to eat sugary desserts. I’ve got a pretty big sweet tooth myself and I’m a healthy weight.

My parents never made a big deal about it. They ate pretty much everything in moderation, and made sure to get enough exercise. We do the same. :) I’m a fan of all-organic, healthy cooking and so on. I like the way it tastes, I understand the motives behind it, but for me it just meant stress and the kids paid the price for that. For now it’s not worth it to me, but maybe one day I’ll change my mind. :)

– Anna Burdova

Sweets were an issue for Eva. But now that she has stopped pushing and making things off-limits and agreed with her children on a daily limit, both she and they are much happier:

We had a huge problem with sweets. Before my son started preschool, where they gave out candy, I never gave him store-bought sweets at all. After that I spent quite a long time stressing over him eating so much sugar, but the more I put my foot down, the more sugar became a hot topic at our house. He would ask me a thousand times a day for a piece of candy or juice box.  Then we agreed on a “daily limit” of three gummy bears and one juice box. I set it out on the kitchen counter each morning and it was up to him when to eat it. At first he ate it all first thing in the morning and then whined in the afternoon that he wanted more. Then he started saving some for the afternoon. And now... We’ve had the same pack of gummy bears in the pantry for a month and I don’t even buy the juice boxes any more.  I guess it’s true that when we put pressure on our kids, they push right back. I don’t mean to say that I’d be willing to give him total freedom with regard to sweets. Some freedom, yes, within the boundaries I set. Something we can both be comfortable with. 

– Eva Caklova

 It’s okay to make exceptions

This one is important, so you don’t get in your own way as soon as you start making progress with establishing healthy eating habits. Don’t punish yourself or your child for messing up. Even if you’ve agreed to avoid a certain kind of candy, if everybody at the Halloween party is having some, go ahead and let your child indulge for once.

You don’t want the new agreement about sweets to turn into something unpleasant that you have to monitor (again) and that doesn’t allow for exceptions when circumstances change. Otherwise you might end up back where you started. With an ironclad NO that your child will rebel against as soon as he or she is old enough.

Don’t be afraid to tell your children that you, too, struggle with food. Or with something else. Talk about what kind of cravings you have and what you do about them. Talk about when you last indulged in a truly decadent dessert (my personal favorite calorie bomb is currently vanilla ice cream with raspberries and caramel sauce). :)

That way your children will know they can talk to you when they’re struggling with something. That you won’t react with anger or judgment. That you’ll help them. Because you know what it’s like. You aren’t perfect. And when they go a little overboard with the treats or get a major case of the munchies, they won’t hide it from you.

One more tip: When you know in advance that you’ll be spending time in a “high-risk” environment like grandma’s house or on vacation in a place where they have the most amazing ice cream, talk with your children beforehand and agree on how much you’re going to indulge. You and the kids both.

Do you want your children to be more responsible in general, not just about sweets?

So that even young ones will be able to say things like: “You know what, mom, I swapped part of my lunch for a friend’s Snickers bar, but then my stomach didn’t feel great afterwards. Is there something we can do to fix it?”

This is the kind of open, honest talk you get from children in families who have tried the Unparenting approach. That’s not all they can do, either. They can agree with their parents on cleaning their room or getting ready for school. So the parents aren’t stuck doing it all themselves. Come and see how they learned all that:

I want my children to be responsible

Did you like this article? Be sure to share it...

Do you want to jump right in?

Get the Sleep Guide. You will discover three steps to get your baby to sleep quickly and without stress (and along with them, the first Unparenting principles).

Get free guide
Free Sleep Guide: Discover 3 steps to get your baby to sleep quickly and without stress

Your email address is safe with us

Get in touch: How do you handle sweets at your house?