Where Should Sweets Fit Into My Child’s Diet?

Lately life has been REALLY busy and i’ve found myself becoming a bit more liberal on saying “yes” to sweets.  Yes, sweets!  Now that our house has just been invaded by coveted Halloween candy, it’s made me reflect upon two questions that I get asked over and over again by parents in Happy Eating Club, “Where should sweets fit into my child’s diet?” and  “Should I reward good eating at dinner time with a dessert?” Many families expect me to be restrictive when it comes to sweets, so they are surprised by my answers and that always makes me smile.  So here’s how I feel about sweets:  I support sweets being offered in a mindful way that teaches children about balance and that doesn’t sabotage their mealtimes.

We all know that healthy foods are best for growing brains and bodies, but achieving a food balance is an important goal.  One step in learning to eat well is teaching our children how to enjoy sweets in moderation.  Birthdays and special occasions are a great way to teach moderation. Simply explaining why we have one cupcake or piece of cake, instead of 2 or 3 is a great start.  Too many sweets make our bodies feel sick and we need to leave room for other types of foods too!  When parents begin to look at sweets from the perspective of teaching moderation to their children, it helps reduce the need to be overly restrictive.

Are you wondering how children fair when certain foods or sweets are restricted?

One particular study that comes to mind gave children healthy foods to eat and kept sweets in a glass jar alongside.  The treats were visible to them, but they were not granted access to them. It probably won’t surprise you that almost all of the kids longed for those untouchable sweets (even though they weren’t sure what the sweet actually was!) and they were all at risk for over-comsuption.

All research points to keeping sweets in the mix with other healthy foods, so you aren’t promoting them as “tasting better” or “more valuable.”  It’s crystal clear that using sweets as a reward for eating healthy foods during mealtimes or as a reward for good behavior backfires and can actually have a negative affect on long term healthy eating.  If earning dessert works to get your child through dinner tonight and tomorrow night, that’s great, but this strategy is not actually teaching your child to like the food you’ve placed on their dinner plate.  It’s teaching them only to tolerate healthy foods to get the prized sweets at the end.  It’s teaching them that sweets are more valuable and desirable.

So how should you give treats?

How often you decide to give your children treats really depends on how strongly your family’s desire is to incorporate them into their diet. Giving sweets too often generates cravings and preferences and giving them too infrequently does the same thing. As you search to find the right balance for your family, think about your child’s activity level, as well as, as how accepting they are of healthier food options.

If you are experience picky eating at home, you won’t want to offer sweets every single day.  Instead, you’ll want to redefine the way that you classify sweets.  For instance, offering fruit or popcorn as a special sweet can replace offering candy, cake, cookies or brownies. If you do offer choices high in sugar, sticking to once a week or once every other week helps to keep cravings from forming.

So does this mean that you have to pass on chocolate cake or ice cream sundaes?  Definitely not! Creating family rituals is a fun way to gather together for bonding, giggling and talking.  Set aside a time of day or night unrelated to regular mealtimes to kick off the start of a new week or to celebrate something positive that is happening for your family.  These rituals can include sweets or be just as fun with healthy treats like the ones that I mentioned above. Again, it’s all about finding the balance that works for your family.

As a culture, we love to come together socially and eat, but for many parents coming together during mealtimes is met with food refusals and it leaves them frustrated and wondering “why won’t you eat?” There are a variety of answers to that question and the answer does vary by the individuality of each child, but one factor certainly is the frequency that children are exposed to sweets throughout the day.

Children are exposed to sweets at the grocery store, school, sports, parties, church and play dates. Treats and opportunities for over-snacking are everywhere, so looking at where your children are already getting treats in their daily activities is something to consider when you are thinking about what type and what kind of treats that you’ll also be adding at home.

Do you offer sweets every day or does your family have a weekly ritual for sweets?

Do you have a picky eater at home?  Place a pediatric feeding expert on your family’s team!  Enroll in Happy Eating Club now to gain live, virtual support and the resources you need to redefine your mealtimes.





  1. This is a fantastic article, and a well balanced approach to kids and sweets – I have 4 daughters aged 19, 17, 9 & 7 and I definitely learnt so much with the older two that I have put into practice with the younger two! I let the girls have sweets for exactly the reasons you describe, I don’t want them to become the ‘forbidden fruit’! But I also have loads of their favourite fruits and veggies on hand too, and they often go for these options over sweets! Strawberries and blueberries top the list as do Sugar Snap Peas and slices of broccoli stem (weirdly a top favourite). I think for a lot of people budget plays a massive part – here in the UK a small box of blueberries is £3.00 and a bag of sweets as cheap as 30p so I can see why parents struggle in that respect too!

    I have explained to my daughters what’s actually in the sweets as well, there was a fantastic photo circulating the web a while back that showed what gelatine is made of – this did the trick, they have become label checkers, lol 🙂

    The biggest challenge at the moment is our local school – they give out sweets at the end of the day as a treat, I have raised this with the school, but I seem to be in the minority that has a problem with this practice, so I don’t suppose it will change any time soon! I’m just sticking with the philosophy that if you fill their diets with nutritious and delicious whole foods, this crowds out the bad stuff 🙂