raising a toddler to have a healthy relationship with food and sugar

Ahhh… the million dollar question. How to raise a toddler to have a healthy relationship with sugar (and desserts and alll that stuff). It’s a question that gets asked over and over on the daily by parents around the world. Is it even possible? Does anyone really have a healthy relationship with sugar? What does that even mean?

Well… first off… a healthy relationship with any food means being able to choose to eat (or not eat) that food, in a balanced and responsible way, and in a way that honours physical and emotional needs, without judgement or fear but instead with a filter of self-love and honour. At least to me it does.

This means …no full on restriction. No black and white thinking that this is off limits or bad. Or thinking that WE are bad for eating it. No feelings of guilt or that we somehow “messed up” or “ruined” something. Eating it because we want to and not because it’s available or because it will “fix” something. Eating the amount we want and need to feel satisfied and not because we lost control. 

And raising a toddler who can do and feel all these things when they’re around sugar is tough. No doubt. And it starts with us learning how to do all these things as well.

OK – so where do we start?

All foods have a purpose

You may have heard this before…food is fuel. It’s a way of thinking about food that has helped me think about the things I want to put in my body vs. don’t want to because of how they make my body feel or work. And for the most part, I’d say this mantra works for me (not everyone agrees with this). But one part that’s often misinterpreted from it, is the view that food is physical fuel only. 

Examples of physical fuel:

  • When I’m hungry – my daily meals satisfy my physical hunger. 
  • When I’m tired and in need of a pick me up, my green juice or my coffee fuel my energy needs. 
  • After a workout out, my protein fuels my muscle growth.

I believe it’s much more than that too. Food is mental and emotional fuel as well. 

Food is a way of celebrating! Food is enjoyed in traditions. It’s pleasurable in and on its own.

Examples of emotional fuel:

  • I get so much pleasure eating my mom’s chocolate chip cookies – they remind me of home.
  • Having this chicken noodle soup is so comforting right now. 
  • There’s nothing I enjoy the taste of more than mint and chocolate together. 
  • I can feel the love my grandmother puts into her cooking at Christmas time.

So when it comes to sugary foods – they have a purpose too! Cookies have a purpose. Birthday cake has a purpose. Sugar in general has a purpose. A calming, enjoyable purpose. It’s how we manage it that matters.

Don’t overly restrict it

I don’t really believe in full on restriction of any food (unless medically necessary) – but especially not sugar. 

You see, restriction leads to preoccupation. It leads to obsession because you CAN’T have it. Even if your toddler didn’t really want it before, they’ll want it and yearn for it if they feel like they’re not allowed to. 

And the thing is, you can’t restrict them forever. It’s certainly easier in their younger toddler years, but as soon as they start going to birthday parties, enter pre-school, see it at play groups etc. they will start to notice. And at some point they WILL be in a situation where they are left to decide on their own if and how much to eat of that sugary food. When they have never been (or rarely been) exposed to it, they don’t know how to handle it. They don’t know how much is too much. They won’t be able to think – “I can have this at home too” – so instead they eat as much as they can get their hands on in one sitting, out of fear that it won’t be available to them again. 

So our job is to teach them how to manage it, not avoid it. 

Let me repeat that.

Our job is to teach them how to manage it, not avoid it. 

And they need to be able to experience it from time to time in order to learn how to do this. 

Let me tell you a story. 

When one of my sons was 3 1/2 years old, I found out something that made me feel like a horrible mom (disclaimer: I wasn’t – I just needed to realize something). One night, after I put him to bed and thought he was asleep, I saw him come out of his room crying so hard I thought he hurt himself somehow. I was so worried and I kept saying “What happened? What happened?”. He hugged me HARD and kept saying “I’m a bad boy” over and over between tears and gasps for air. I didn’t understand why he would say that so I kept reassuring he wasn’t and kept asking why he was crying. 

He led me to his room, opened his closet, pulled back the clothes that were hanging in the back corner of the closet and showed me. There was a big pile of random candy that I had no idea where it came from. And I mean RANDOM. Things from a birthday party treat bag two months ago, one from the theatres from two weeks ago, some I know he got from my mom’s place and things from the pantry. His cry got louder as he hugged me and said “I hide the candy and I eat them at night after your put me to bed! I’m so bad, I’m so bad”. 

I stood there in complete and utter shock. In fact, I could barely process what was happening. I found myself immediately hugging him so hard and started crying myself, saying “No, no you’re not bad!” I wanted to ask him WHY he was hiding candy and I wanted to ask him how long he’d been doing it for and a million other questions, but I couldn’t. All I could do was hold this sweet sweet boy and reassure him that I loved him and he was not bad. The thing is…deep down… I already knew the minute I saw it. 

I calmed him down, sat him on the bed and said “Hunny, do you feel like you need to hide the candy?” and he said “Yes. It’s so hard, I don’t know why. I really like the candy and I know I can’t eat it so I eat it at night.” 

My. Heart. Literally. Broke. 

It was confirmed. I was restricting him way too much. Making him feel like candy was bad or like he could never have it. Even worse… I was making him think HE was bad for eating it! Mom guilt was never more real than it was that night.

The thing was , I didn’t think I was overly restrictive, but this very clearly proved to me that I was. I didn’t need anymore information that that. After profusely apologizing, I told him “How about we start to have a candy/treat every single day. Something he could choose. Would you like that?” and he nodded yes as he wiped away his tears and hugged me again. 

And from that day on, that’s what I did and what we still do up to this day.

The thing is, this exact solution may not work for everyone. But it worked for us in removing the obsession and restriction. And that was priority #1.

Strike a balance between what works for you & what your toddler needs

So, we’ve established that it’s not that you don’t want to offer sugary foods. It’s just that your job is to show them how often it should be eaten and how to manage it when it is eaten. Your job is to show them that it’s normal to enjoy them and how to enjoy them mindfully.

When you have young toddlers, you choose the frequency that feels right for you. Find your comfort zone with how much to offer. For some families, this could mean once per week. For others it could mean 2-3 times per week. If your toddler has an older sibling who is eating more sugary food around them, maybe it’s something everyday. You do your best to set the right environment up with 80-90% nutritious foods and deliberately make room for the less nutritious foods to show up 10-20% of the time. Be intentional about this.

If you notice your toddler is entering a phase of obsession over sugary foods, take that as your cue to start to include it MORE in your meal plan. Let the reigns loose a little bit. Throughout your whole life, managing sweets is all about a balancing act. Some periods they will be consuming it more than others. This usually means summer time and holidays for us. I’ve come to accept that naturally we will be eating food that is not our “everyday” with all the events and the surrounding menus we can’t control and that’s ok. Things always go back to normal once I can regain some control at home with a calculated meal plan. Overall it will regulate itself as long as you are aware to shift directions when you start to feel like it’s gone overboard or they aren’t even enjoying these foods anymore. 

Don’t call sugary foods (or other non-nutritious foods) “Good” or “Bad”

Calling a food “good” or “bad” can lead children to believe that they are inherently good or bad for eating it (actually…this happens a lot with adults as well). In fact, as you can see from my story above, I didn’t even need to do this for my toddler to make this association. Instead – tell them what it is in a very matter of fact way. 

“What’s this?”
“It’s a food we sometimes have at birthdays”
“It’s a chocolate chip cookie”
“It’s called pudding.”

I usually just don’t say anything more than that for young toddlers. 

All they need to know is a) it’s edible and b) it’s a food like any other food. Otherwise – it’s special…it’s different…it’s shunned or its placed on a pedestal above other food. 

If they are older and insist on knowing (or you want to teach them) how the food affects the body, here is what I say.

“This gives your body some energy. It doesn’t help your body grow much, but it does taste really good (or is enjoyed at birthdays etc.)” 

You’re letting them know that this food DOES serve a purpose – not always physical fuel – but another purpose. Birthday cake isn’t there to help our eyes see better or our brains grow. It’s there because it’s tradition to have something sweet to celebrate. 

By the way, even though I won’t get into in this blog post – talking about the fun and enjoyable properties of ALL food (including vegetables, fruits, proteins etc.) is highly recommended so that food is also seen for the emotional/enjoyable/memorable fuel it can provide. This is something I teach thoroughly in my Feeding Toddler online course!

So – the problem is not that they (or you) like sweets and sugar. It’s not bad…there’s no moral stance associated with eating it. We’re not bad for wanting to eat it…for enjoying it. It’s natural. We are hard-wired to love these foods and to find pleasure in them. No problem there. 

Where there is a problem is that our environment is loaded with them! And having too much of them or having it for the wrong reasons means our bodies don’t feel good – we’re not being emotionally and physically healthy. Maybe we’re over-fueling our physical and emotional hunger. Maybe we’re using food to suppress a larger issue. All of these things…your toddler doesn’t need to know or worry about. 

What your younger toddler needs to know is that mom and dad choose our meals and snacks. It’s either on the menu or not, but whether it’s eggs and fruit or a pancake with whipped cream, it’s all just food. 

“Why can’t we have ice cream?” 
“It’s not on the menu”

Nothing about it being bad for you or because we’ve had too much. You be the nutritional gatekeeper on your own, without passing on ideas about food morality to them.

As your toddler turns into a preschooler/school aged child, they can benefit from is knowing that there is food that we enjoy more often than others because of the way it makes us feel. This is a great time to elaborate on mindful eating techniques in kids.

Never use sugary foods as a “reward” or “bribe”

I repeat… never use sugary foods as a reward or bribe. Nothing sets the tone for a bad relationship with these foods like using it as a “prize to be won”. So for example – they get it because they ate all their dinner or did their homework or behaved at the doctor’s. It’s not because they were good or bad (again, with the morality). They are offered it because it’s on the meal plan rotation and they can choose to eat it or not based on if they really feel like it. That’s about it. 

Nothing says “this food is more special than the other” than  telling your toddler “You have to eat your veggies to get dessert”. What your toddler hears is… “I have to get through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff”.” This puts sugar and desserts back up on the pedestal. Let’s level the playing field again. Remember – food is food. One is not earned by eating the other. One is not better than the other. If you choose to put it on the menu, then they have every right to be able to choose to eat it or not, regardless of their other actions.

Show them the beauty in the moderation and teach mindfulness when eating

As my toddlers turned into school aged kids and they became more aware of how different foods affects us, sugary desserts and foods fell under the category of “treats” for us. And my kids know, because I’ve taught them, that it’s a treat because:

  1. It’s enjoyable 
  2. We don’t get it often. 

Anything (food or non-food) that isn’t enjoyed often is a treat. Anything that isn’t that special or satisfies our emotional and taste factors isn’t a treat either. This means food and non-food related things. The beauty in this is that you can cultivate a culture in your home where treats can mean a special fruit, grandma’s special lasagna, a trip to the park, an expensive fruit, time consuming dish etc. It doesn’t have to be offered everyday and it doesn’t have to the least nutritious food out there (or a food at all). In my home, granola bars are a treat (homemade or purchased). In general, I don’t have them around every day and I don’t purchase them on a weekly basis. Flavoured yogurt is a treat. Juice is a treat. Pomegranate is a treat. My mom’s lebanese bread pastries are a treat. Our treats may look different than your treats. If we spend all day every day at the park, it wouldn’t feel special anymore. If we eat something sugary 1 – 2 times a day…it’s no longer a treat. It’s the norm. If they start to feel sick (tummy ache, headache, crashing etc.) from eating something and they recognize that it’s no longer enjoyable…it’s not a treat anymore. There’s beauty in the rarity of consuming these foods and recognizing whether its fueling us emotionally or not. And we want to preserve that.

I also want you to teach them to choosy with their treats! As they get older, sugary foods become more and more easily available and the opportunity to eat them sometimes shows up multiple times a day depending on where they are. If something is made available to them, they can choose if they really want it or not and when they want it (usually as part of a meal or snack – something I teach in my Feeding Toddlers online course). This means that my kids decide – do they really want this juice with their meal at the restaurant or would they prefer a chocolate chip cookie later tonight? They can be picky with their treats and have control and choice over eating what they will actually enjoy most and when they will enjoy it the most vs. eating things because it’s there, even if it doesn’t really mean that much to them. Teaching them to be a little choosy about what they really feel will satisfy them goes a long way. 

Sometimes they have access to unlimited quantities of sweets and candy. Sometimes I purposely give them access to unlimited quantities of these foods. In fact, it’s yet another strategy I teach in my Feeding Toddlers online course. It’s not every time, but just like with too much restriction in frequency, sometimes too much restriction in quantity means they’ll never learn for themselves how much is too much.

Other mindfulness strategies I teach is how to slow down, eat at the table, talk about the properties of the food, discuss hunger and fullness and satisfaction. So many incredible things that don’t fit into this one blog post. But keep an eye and an ear out…it’ll be here soon.

Enjoy sugary or “treat” foods in front of them from time to time

It’s important for them to see you practice what you preach. If mom is always turning down every sweet and candy because she feels like she needs to restrict herself – even if you think you aren’t sending that message – trust me, they will pick up on it. Often times when we DO have these foods, we make a big deal out of it. Instead…enjoy these foods from time to time with them and show them that it’s possible them to fit in without guilt or shame or over-eating or sneaking around. I’m not saying eat everything that comes your way. Just like with teaching kids to be picky about their treats, you also be picky and choose those items that feel really enjoyable to you as a smaller part of your diet. Usually on the weekends I will enjoy something with my kids that I really like. But other weekends, I tell them that I don’t really enjoy that food and turn it down. They know I enjoy dark chocolate and mousse and rich cakes, but also that I don’t like candy and overly sweet foods. When the opportunity comes up for me to eat something I truly enjoy, I enjoy it with them. No guilt, no fuss, no comments besides positive ones.

Overall…

There is SO much I could continue to say on this topic. And look – I’m human like all other parents. I have lots of tricks and tips up my sleeve but total disclosure here that I second guess things as well sometimes. We don’t always get it right. And this is a topic that is probably the trickiest to navigate. Be easy and be forgiving on yourself. 

Want to learn more about how and what to feed your toddler to be a healthy, happy little eater? Check out my Feeding Toddlers online course and join hundreds of parents who’ve learned the joy feeding their toddler can be!

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