Setting Sweet Limits in a Sugary World


By Radha Marcum, Senior Editor

I was your typical child of the 1980s. Bombarded by the bright colors and sweet promises of cartoon bunnies, leprechauns, toucans, and rainbows, I begged my mom for those boxes of cereal. But my mother was a 1970s’ convert to plant-centric vegetarian diet, so Captain Crunch crossed our kitchen threshold once a year, on my birthday.

Now that I’m a mom, I feel what she was up against. And yet, things were in many ways so much simpler then. There was virtually no middle ground. There was highly processed cereal, and then there were rolled oats or millet puffs. We got millet puffs.

These days, when I take my kids shopping it isn’t nearly so black and white. There are organic whole-grain cereals that look healthy enough, but they actually contain a ton of sugar, for example. Then there’s the issue of managing what the kids want with what I know is healthy. Over the years I’ve learned some tips for a calmful approach to kids and food.

Here are a few strategies that have worked for us.

Keep it upbeat.

Your child selects the drink with the highest sugar content? Say something like, “That’s an interesting choice. Let’s look at the sugar content. Oh my goodness, this has 60 grams of sugar! What do you think . . . is that good for your body? How about this choice?” Then offer an alternative that actually tastes good—very lightly sweetened fruit tea, for instance. If that’s not available, I might suggest that my child split the sugary drink with me or someone else. Giving in a little bit is better than giving in a lot.

Provide interesting shapes and textures—and spice.

Aside from emphasizing fresh fruit as an alternative to sugary snacks, learn which colors, textures, and tastes your child likes and stock up on those foods. Some of our favorites: tangy kiwi fruit rounds, crunchy carrots, creamy plain hummus, lightly cinnamon-laced fresh apple slices.

Empower kids to make choices.

From a very early age, I taught my kids to look at grams of sugar per serving. Now they do this automatically before handing me a package. They know to consider, “Is that a realistic portion size?” and how to double the number if the serving size seems inhumanly small (often it does). I allow them to choose any option that falls below a set threshold (for cereal, that’s 4 grams per one-cup serving).

Don’t start the day without lean protein and healthy fat.

Studies show that you crave sugar when you’re not getting enough of these. Our family eats eggs, vegan sausage patties, or scrambled tofu. To that, we add fresh fruit, whole-grain toast, and sometimes cereal. Smoothies are an excellent way to get fresh fruit and protein. Add chia, flaxseed, or sliced almonds to cereal or smoothies for a dose of healthy fats.

Leave the house for a treat.

Aside from Girl Scout cookies in the freezer (I know, I know), we don’t keep big treats around the house. That way, it’s not a big temptation. Every once in a while we bike to get ice cream or pick up a treat at Whole Foods after a hike—but not every time.

Allow choices when eating out.

I split the difference between being strict and lenient when eating out. Instead of letting them eat whatever suits their fancy, I allow my kids only one of the following: sugary drink (such as juice, not soda), a processed carbohydrate (such as pancakes), or other treat such as a dessert. They don’t always go for sweets, and I celebrate their good choices whenever they make them.

Be realistic.

I think parents should feel empowered to set limits, and to firmly say no—as my mom did; and yet at times it truly is better for everyone’s benefit to break the rules. Be educated, calmly educate your kids, and be consistent and firm—but be realistic. Vacations, birthdays, and family gatherings are not the time to go ballistic trying to control sugar intake. Remember: It’s the small, daily habits that add up to a lifetime of health, not strict adherence to rules.


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