Do you feel like you’re raising a cookie monster?  This month’s question is one that that most parents struggle with especially when your kids are preschoolers.

Q.  My child has a sweet tooth – he pesters me for sweets all the time.  I don’t want to deprive him of occasional sweets, but his pestering is out of control!  How can I best manage this?

A.  Hang in there!  Managing your son’s “sweets” is the perfect approach for curbing a sweet tooth. Which by the way, really does exist.  Several studies have found that babies are born craving sweet-tasting foods.  Most likely a “survival of the fittest” trait since breast milk is a naturally sweet food.  But the amount of sweetness each child prefers, varies with genetics.  Some kids, like my youngest, Michael, are bitter sensitive.  This means they have a low tolerance for eating certain bitter-tasting foods like broccoli and cucumber.  These kids are notorious for being picky eaters and constant sweet cravers.  Here’s the good news: there’s a quick at-home test for bitter sensitivity and better yet, by age six, most kids out grow it (Michael did and broccoli is his favorite veggie!).  Here are a few tips to help you manage your son’s sweet tooth:

  • Moderation is key. Penn State researchers have found that when kids are restricted from eating sweets their desire to eat them increases, and they’re more likely to overeat when they get the chance.  So when your son asks for a cookie, instead of saying “no,” tell him when he “will” be having some – at a future snack, meal, or birthday party.
  • Sweets – no big deal. Routinely offering sweets a couple of times a week, takes the thrill factor away and will help your son get use to eating them.  Also, it’s a good idea to avoid what I call the lollipop effect.  That is, using sweets as rewards or bribes for good behavior such as sitting in the shopping cart or being brave at the pediatrician’s office.  This reinforcement strategy gives sweets way too much power.
  • Out of sight, out of mind. Keep the cookie jar off the counter.  Make sure the treats are in a drawer your son can’t reach.  Use the grocery checkout lane without the candy stand.  Record your son’s favorite show and fast-forward through the ads for sugary snacks. The fewer the reminders, the less likely your son will ask for the sweet stuff.
  • Make your own healthy, sweet treats. Kids who get used to homemade sweets like muffins, snack bars, and cakes learn to prefer those to processed treats. Plus, you can use more nutritious ingredients such as whole-wheat flour, oats, nuts, and fruits.  Just be sure to serve child-size portions!
  • Sip smart. Limit sugar sweetened beverages to parties and outings and stick with milk or 100% fruit juice with meals and water between meals.

While all of these tips will help curb your son’s sweet tooth, the most important thing to remember is that as parents, we are role models.   If your son sees you eating a variety of healthy foods and enjoying a cupcake every once in awhile, he will learn, too.  Good luck!

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