Most of us were raised with the rule that you don’t get dessert until you finish your dinner, a.k.a. the “Clean Plate Club.” While we tend to parent the way we were parented, this way of thinking is outdated and doesn’t work for kids, as dietitian Kacie Barnes explained in a recent Instagram post: “People think I’m crazy when I say kids shouldn’t have to finish their dinner to get dessert. This is a big reason why it’s not a logical solution to get them to eat what their body needs.”
Using colored blocks, Kacie visually demonstrates how kids’ bodies have a certain amount of calories that they need for the day. It’s not a set number every day, but kids will intuitively know when their body has received enough calories. Some days you might serve a dinner portion that is the exact amount that your child needs to fulfill their caloric needs. But other days, the amount you serve is way too much for them.
“The main thing I want you to understand is that how much you put on their plate is really arbitrary—it may be how much their body needs at that meal, it may be completely wrong. And it’s not your fault if it’s wrong! But that’s why they need to decide how much to eat or not,” Kacie says.
If you condition the availability of dessert on finishing dinner, kids will sometimes overeat to get the dessert they want. “They have to ignore what their body is telling them. They don’t really have room for all of this, but if they really want [dessert] bad enough, they’re going to eat it,” Kacie shares. It’s your job as a parent to provide the food and then leave it up to your child to decide if and how much they need to eat.
In a follow-up post, Kacie explains some strategies that parents can use when serving meals with dessert:
- Serve treats alongside their other foods instead of making them wait until after the meal. This takes treats off the pedestal.
- Don’t make them do anything to earn treats. They get to earn them simply by being a human. Food does not need to be used as a bribe or a reward.
- Avoid judgmental or shaming comments about eating or wanting treats. Things like, “You want MORE?” or “That’s way too much sugar” or “That junk is so bad for you.”
- Make sure they are getting enough calories and protein overall. Sometimes kids will crave sweets when they simply need more to eat!
- Ensure good sleep. When we’re tired, we crave sugar!
- Avoid grazing throughout the day. This is much more likely to lead to just wanting treats because they want to eat something but don’t get hungry enough for a full meal.
- Find some alternatives to traditional treats that they like that are also lower in sugar and have more filling ingredients.
Putting these tips into practice in our everyday lives is one way to help our kids form good eating habits they’ll carry with them into adulthood.