“A child can get dessert…daily!”

Our MNT guest this month is Registered Dietitian, Shannon Hayes Buescher, MS, RD, LD.  Shannon is an expert in eating disorders, disordered eating and body image.  Her passion is helping people to find peace with food and their body.  In her work with clients, she moves beyond food, but focuses on one’s relationship with food. As a parent herself, she helps parents realize that we can only help our children have a healthy relationship with food if we do as well. Therefore, her pure passion is to empower both parents and their children to have a healthy relationship with food.

woman hugging her two children in a field

Today I asked her some common questions I get in my practice as well as some of my personal parenting struggles!

Is there a rule of thumb to how often a child should get dessert?

A child should get treat foods or dessert every day! When dessert is only given “x days” a week, it can create a feeling of deprivation with dessert foods. When food/treats are highly controlled, the child is more likely to fall into an unhealthy relationship with food such as secretly sneaking food. This can create guilt and shame and consequent unhealthy eating patterns.

How can we help our children establish a healthy relationship with “treats?”

One key strategy is allowing permission for kids to have treats. Teach them how to listen to their bodies and stop when it feels that their stomach is telling them they have had enough. A child who is limited in “treat” foods, will not listen to their bodies. This deprived mindset undermines their ability to tune into their body’s cues.

What is the harm in using a treat as bargaining chip for eating other healthy foods? For example, “You must eat your carrots or you can’t have your cookies!”

Using treats as leverage creates an unhealthy reward system and gives power to “treat foods.”  It’s not to say on occasion, it can’t be used. But if it’s a frequent occurrence of, “eat your dinner to get dessert,” you are creating a relationship that your child may just eat the dinner, without really listening to their body so they can get the dessert. At this point it becomes more about the child “getting it” versus having an appetite for it. The goal is to teach your child to trust and listen to their body when eating – desserts don’t need to be “earned.”

The goal is to teach your child to trust & listen to their body when eating – desserts don’t need to be “earned.”

This is such a tough place for a parent, but also very common. Parents will often set strict food limits for the overweight child, but practically none for the underweight one. However, children, regardless of size, should be treated the same. An overweight child seeing their underweight sibling getting anything and everything feels like punishment. That inevitably leads to shame, and increases the likelihood of the overweight child turning to an unhealthy relationship with food, such as sneaking it. Whether the child is overweight or underweight, the goal is to instill balance and encourage kids to listen to their bodies. In our family, we use the language “all the time foods.” This describes food that our body needs to grow, give us energy, think etc. “Sometimes” foods, on the other hand, don’t do much for our body but taste good. We need both! Clearly, we need more of the “all the time foods,” but as parents, we teach balance and permission to our children, regardless of their weight.

What is the danger in trying to over-control our children’s eating?

YES! When a parent is too controlling with their child’s food they will inevitably fall into a power struggle. That might result in a child not eating what the parent has served or could lead to a child sneaking/hiding food. Highly controlling a child’s foods sets the stage for larger food issues down the road, such as disordered eating. If food is severely controlled, there are high chances the child feels other areas in their life are too controlled as well.  As a parent, we are teaching our children to listen and to trust their bodies. We need to look at our OWN relationship with food – as we often project our personal relationship with food onto our children.

Dietitian, Ellyn Satter suggests parents offer WHAT a child can eat, but the child should be in charge of how MUCH they eat. Do you feel this rule applies to sweets as well?

Yes, I do. As I do with my children, I remind them to listen to their stomachs and to trust when their bodies have had enough. Sometimes this might mean that they will only eat half of a cookie or sometimes they eat the whole thing. The most important piece is that the child identifies how they physically feel afterwards. Do they feel just right? Do they feel full or sick to their stomach? This is a wonderful platform to discuss what it means to listen to their body even when the dessert tasted so good. How could they listen differently next time if they felt sick to their stomach? Let them come to their own conclusions versus saying, “See, you shouldn’t have had that dessert!” That creates shame. They can figure it out. I have seen it happen countless times with my own kids.  They are much more attuned when they have that next dessert or “treat” food. As parents, we just need to offer the gentle reminder to listen and trust their own bodies.

Learn more about Shannon and her practice: www.hayes-nutrition.com

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.