When I work with parents of picky eaters, they often assume that I am anti treat foods because I recommend re-thinking snacks. This couldn't be further from the truth, but there are three things to consider if you want to make sure that you always give your child edible treats in a way that is emotionally healthy.
1. Don't make treats dependent on behaviour
This can happen in so many ways. Treats can be used as a bribe, they can be used as a reward, or they can be withheld as a punishment. All of these do something powerful to a child's psyche: they give a message that sweet foods are intrinsically linked to approval. And the same goes for salty foods, fast food, processed foods... the food type isn't important, the message is.
Whatever it may be, if something is given as a treat rather than as part of the daily meal schedule and if that is bound up with behaviour, you are basically saying to your child, eat this food and feel good about yourself. Eat this and feel loved.
This association between food and approval can echo down the years - many adults admit that they reward themselves with treat food sometimes, or use food to fill an emotional gap. In extreme cases of what is termed 'emotional eating' or 'comfort eating' this may lead to major problems with weight and health. Part of giving your child a positive relationship with food is making sure that their eating decisions are not emotionally driven.
2. Never give into pleading
I mean literally never. We've all cracked under pressure at one time or another when faced with a pleading child, especially if you factor in sleep deprivation, stress, being in a hurry and all the other pressures of family life. But if your child learns that they can change your mind about how you feed them by pleading (and they will learn this incredibly fast) this will have major repercussions.
First, it will give them a sense of power and control that children strive for (especially in the toddler and pre-school years) because this is part of their developmentally appropriate quest for autonomy and experimentation with where the boundaries are. If they start to use food as an arena for power play, this can get very problematic and can fuel picky eating.
Not to mention that, at a basic level, your life will be a whole lot easier if you always stand your ground. As with inconsistency in any area of parenting, once you have shown that you will change your mind about something having said 'no', it makes sense to your child to persist in the future. If 'no; always means 'no' they will quickly learn that it isn't worth putting their energies into pestering you.
I'm all for listening to children and I think it's really healthy to sit down and have a family discussion if they feel your rules are unfair, but that's very different from giving in because they wear you down.
3. Choose your words carefully
The words you use when you are talking about food around children are SO important. If you talk about having a 'sneaky' cake, or being 'naughty' you are conflating eating and how you feel about yourself in your child's mind.
If you find yourself frequently feeling guilt or shame in relation to your eating, maybe now's the time to start to address this - this could range from seeking professional support to speaking to someone you trust like a close friend or your partner if you have one. However hard you try to hide your true feelings, unresolved issues will affect your parenting. But there is support out there.
If you are dieting, think twice before you talk about it in front of your child. It's great to express a wish to eat healthily but this needs to be relaxed and moderate and free of guilt or any other negative emotion.
So how should we be handling treats in a way that is emotionally healthy?
This sounds paradoxical, but there are two ways you can make sure that treats are not connected with feelings of self-worth. They look like opposites, but it's very achievable to use both approaches at different times in a way that fits with your ideas on nutrition, your lifestyle and your personality: Be predictable and be spontaneous.
This is when treats happen as a matter of course in a way a child can predict. Here are some real-life examples from parents I have met:
One family go to McDonald's for breakfast every time they go on a long-distance trip (which is a few times a year). Another family get an ice cream for everyone each time they go to a particular beach. Another family enjoys sweets (candy) after lunch every Saturday and at no other time. This way, there's no scope for pleading for treats as children know when they can expect them and it isn't about them or their behaviour.
Embrace that instance when you see a waffle stall and it smells amazing so you all decide to have one... Enjoy un-planned food moments as the opportunities presents themselves - it can even be at a child's suggestion, as long as you say 'yes' first time or hedge your bets while you take some time to consider with the classic 'we'll see'. Spontaneous treats are about the moment, not the child. Enjoying eating as a family is so important and unplanned treats can be a part of that.