I get this question often from my 4 year old. But I only hear it at lunches or suppers when we don’t have dessert (and not every one), because the rest of the time she already knows the answer the moment she sits down. That’s because at our house, when we have it, dessert is served at the same time as the rest of the meal.
In my last post, I described to you how I let my kids decide how much to eat (if anything) from the food set on the table. And I don’t limit their portions provided there is enough to go around. And I ended with the mystery of dessert. Would I really let my kids eat as many brownies as they want provided I’ve made enough?
Why I Serve Dessert With The Meal
In most households, dessert is served at the end of the meal. When everyone has gotten their fill of the main course and sides and is patting his full tummy in satisfaction, the hostess clears the table, vanishes into the kitchen, and then reappears flashing a proud smile as she presents…DESSERT: The decadent reward for getting full on nutrition! The hard work is done, you may now enjoy a moment of pleasure.
^Not teaching that lesson is one reason why we now serve dessert with the meal in our house. I don’t want to teach the unintended lesson that dessert is for full bellies. I want my children to stay tuned in to their signals of fullness and satisfaction. Sweets are desirable enough to children that they can learn to override their fullness if they have to do it to get cookies–especially if cookies are scarce. A small study in Appetite demonstrated that kids will eat more calories in order to squeeze in dessert if it was served at the end of the meal. The study authors interpreted the results as a way to help kids eat fewer calories. But that’s not really what I take from this. I’m not into micromanaging calories because I think kids do an adequate job of regulating themselves when they get reliable meals and snacks. What I take from this is that the way we feed our kids can either support their natural self-regulation and ability to respect their fullness or it can teach them to overeat to get what they really want. My personal experience is that if they know it’s coming, they’ll just get antsy at the table or become preoccupied enough with the-sweet-thing-to-come that they won’t stop to eat the main meal. It certainly was the case with my 4 year old before we made the switch. But each child is different and older kids may be more willing to do the required ‘eat your veggies first’ work in order to win pie at the end.
That’s something else I don’t want to teach. I don’t want the meal to be considered ‘work’ while the dessert is elevated to a higher status. When it comes to picky eaters it is all too easy to slip into the dessert-for-broccoli power struggle: Okay, darling, eat another bite of your chicken and two more bites of your broccoli and then you can have dessert. I see this happen in the families who come to me for nutrition counseling. I see it happen with picky eaters whose parents are worried because of their low weight and with picky eaters whose parents are concerned because of their higher weight. It’s not working for either group. Broccoli is wonderful! Chicken is wonderful! Dessert is wonderful! Yet we certainly make a big deal out of sweets. When dessert is a reward it takes on more power. Kids are already naturally drawn to strong sweet flavors, we don’t need to make those sweet flavors into a bigger deal. Plus bribery & coercion as well as other types of pressuring kids to eat typically makes them eat worse, not better.
What If That’s All They Eat?
You might now be wondering, what if that’s all they eat? How can it be okay for kids to survive off of cake and cookies until their tastes mature? Well, for one thing, I don’t serve dessert at every meal or every day. How often you serve dessert is entirely up to you. And portion size matters because, it’s true, dessert may very well interfere with the nutrition of the meal if it is served ad libitum.
It’s Okay to Limit Dessert Served with a Meal
At meals we only serve one portion to each person at the table. And kids get a ‘child-size’ portion rather than a full adult portion (translate that to suit your preferences). It’s treated very much like a scarce food item (filet mignon, $9-a-pint raspberries, etc) and there are no seconds.
Some examples of portions I’ve served: 1 square of chocolate, a lollipop, small slice of pie/cake, 1 coconut macaroon, small brownie, 2-3 tiny candy pieces, teacup full of pudding, teacup full of yogurt mixed with fruit, 1/2 to 1 cupcake (depending on size).
If my kids want to start with their cookie, fine. I know it’s not all they will eat. And even if my kids gobble up their small sweet treat and consequently decide they are done eating for the meal, they probably weren’t terribly hungry to begin with. If that is the case, without that dessert at the table, they would not have eaten much of anything anyway. The dessert didn’t ruin any appetites, it just masked their lack of appetite.
With my kids, it seems the presence of dessert actually warms them up to the idea of coming to the table and relaxes them immediately, improving their attitude about the meal overall. They don’t eat any worse, and possibly better with such a sweet ‘appetizer’ on the table. I love when I catch my oldest going back and forth between bites of dessert and bites of the meal. Here’s one example of both of my kids setting aside their lollipop so they could eat some of their main meal. Pretty cool, huh?
Unlimited Portions as Snack
Any food that is scarce, especially one as desirable as sweets, can create a strong preoccupation in a child. For some kids with a strong sweet tooth, that desire or preoccupation can lead them to overeat the desired food when they get the chance. Serving only a small child-size portion of dessert creates a kind of scarcity. To mitigate this scarcity and to allow my kids a chance to regulate their own portion size of a treat, I will, occasionally, serve an unlimited portion of sweets at snack time. If snack time is appropriately timed (so it’s not too close to the next meal) it won’t interfere with meal food. Serve the sweet with a glass of milk (for example) and you’ve got a balanced snack 🙂
I’ve even done a candy plate with some milk on the side to round it out:
I have to admit, the first candy experiment left me practically biting my fingernails as I waited for my daughter to complete her snack. But with each ‘ad lib sweet snack’ I’ve served, I’ve never ever been disappointed in my kids’ ability to stop. They have never eaten a whole cake, half a cake, or even a quarter of a cake. And I’m confident that my trusting them teaches them to trust themselves around sweets. After all we have serious structure in place. Eating happens seated at the table, not running around. Eating happens at set meal and snack times, there’s no all-day grazing. And *I* get to choose how often I serve various foods. But within that structure, the freedom of the Division of Responsibility, teaches some important lessons that I don’t think I could teach if I micromanaged every bite.
How Often Should Dessert Be Served?
Honestly, I think only you can answer this question for yourself and your family. I love desserts and baked goods. I love chocolate. I could live without them, but I sure prefer not to. For me I serve dessert often enough for us. I know I’ve gone perhaps too long when my kids start begging for dessert–or if I’m longing for it. And if I serve something sweet just to keep them from feeling too deprived, it doesn’t take much to accomplish my task.