My child gets one treat a day but is still obsessed with junk food

“We have a big box of treats, and every day my son gets to pick one. But he’s still obsessed with treats, and nagging me 24/7 to have more. What am I doing wrong”?

Answer: While some kids have no issue with the one-treat-a-day rule, many kids find it restrictive and it actually increases the interest in these highly palatable foods.

It does the opposite of managing treats: a strict one treat a day rule sets kids up to desire these foods more, and as they get older and have more opportunities (eg tuckshop, pocket money, friends’ homes) they may sneak/ swop/ lie/ beg to get the foods they want.

By elevating these foods status through restricting amounts, it makes them more desirable. Simply the concept of limited amounts makes the kid want more.

Ir reduces their autonomy to eat to satisfaction. Imagine every time your husband bought home your favourite chocolate, he allowed you one piece and no more. You would feel deprived and controlled – sometimes just one isn’t enough to fill your craving.

What’s the solution?

HINT: It doesn’t mean a-free-for-all eat sweets and treats all day every day. 

But it means allowing children access to these desired foods, within structured and balanced meals and snacks which over time often lessens the child’s interest.

It means they may eat more than you would prefer, but over time will become balanced and normal – because guess what – one day you won’t be there to control what they eat, and then what?

Here’s what it looks like in real life:

  1. Offer these foods regularly within a structure and along with other foods. Without fanfare. Eg once a week after school snack is made up of a plate of cookies, apples, strawberries, and a glass of milk. Make sure there is enough to eat as much as they want. Over time, they won’t eat the whole plate.
  2. No bribing /rewarding/threatening/ incentivizing with treat foods.Ever. (besides for photoshoots) If your kids’ school does this often, contact me for advice to address it.
  3. Make all foods morally equal. Don’t ever say “sugar is bad for you” or “this is junk”. Show, don’t tell. Eg by them seeing salad at every dinner and fruit at every breakfast, and treats not at every meal, they will learn what balance is by seeing it. By telling them its bad for them, you make them want it more.
  4. Include it sometimes in their lunch box. You don’t want them to feel deprived. And if 90% of their lunch box is nutritious, then a few cookies or a bar of small chocolate is not going to ruin their life. It will make them feel normal, and stay away from trying to beg/ bribe/ swap from their friends. I often ask my kids: what do you wish I bought you for school snack. Sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t. But I like knowing what they want more of, and deciding whether or how to include it.
  5. Dessert with the meal. Sometimes, offer a single portion of dessert with the meal. It neutralizes the playing field and I am amazed every time I see my kids licking their ice lollies in one hand and alternating with spoons of mincemeat in their other hand.
  6. Don’t justify your choices. You are in charge of WHAT you serve and WHEN
  7. Don’t say NO. I say later, tomorrow, next week etc…. I don’t want to make it into an issue or something which feels punitive. However, I maintain MY authority by deciding WHEN, WHAT and WHERE of feeding.
  8.  If they are preoccupied with a certain food, consider bringing it into the rotation. Serve white bagels/pizza every few weeks, or make white rice every fourth time you make rice. Avoid setting up certain foods as “bad” or “good”. Serve the bagels with a favourite veggie or fruit. (I love this one, it’s from Katja Rowell)
  9. Sometimes there are limits – Eg if there is one slab of chocolate to go round, then we have to share and everyone gets a portion. Sometimes we have 2 helpings of ice-cream and we leave the rest for Dad. Sometimes, we get as much as we want. It’s all about attitude in the end and some unlimited access.
  10. Breathe. Oh my gosh. This is still so hard for me. Sometimes I freak out at how much junk they have eaten. And then I see them nibbling at a cookie, and choosing the tuna and cucumbers, and I know we are on the right track. But it has taken months and months of building trust to get here. You can do it!

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