When people ask me which question I get asked the most by parents of picky eaters, they are often surprised at the answer. It isn’t: ‘how can I get my child to eat more veggies?’ or even: ‘how can I get my child to try new foods?’ It is: ‘how should I handle dessert?’
For the last few decades - at least in the UK where I live - it has been standard practice in many families, for parents to tell children that they need to eat all or most of their main course before they 'earn' their dessert .
When you are already concerned about the lack of variety in your child’s diet, making dessert conditional can feel like good parenting because it is a way (in the short term) of potentially increasing children’s food intake.
It can work, for sure. If your goal is getting your child to eat three more peas than they might otherwise have done, holding the ice cream hostage could possibly make that happen.
Instead of going for short term gain, I want to argue that withholding dessert can actually be harmful to your child’s long term relationship with food. Here are five reasons why:
It sets up an unhelpful dichotomy
Teaching your children that food can be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is psychologically unhelpful. It puts a moral gloss on food which can spill over into feelings about the self: ‘I ate some bad food - I am bad.’ I know it may sound extreme, but I don’t even like the words ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ when used in relation to food. Teach your children about eating well by preparing, serving and eating a good quality, fresh, balanced diet. This is much more effective than giving young children powerful moral messages about nutrition.
It is a move away from self-regulation
Self-regulation is such an important concept to understand, when it comes to feeding children. Research shows that when a child eats for external reasons (ie. because you have persuaded them to) rather than internal reasons (ie. because their body dictates it) this can be hugely problematic. Teaching them to eat something because they will get a sweet treat is in direct opposition to teaching them to eat because they are in tune with their physical cues.
It is shaming
Often, children reject a food because it is quite simply too tricky for them to eat it. There are several reasons for this (every child is different, but this post will tell you more about why eating can be genuinely difficult). To punish a child by making them go without - especially when siblings are being given dessert - is to publicly humiliate and deprive them because they are failing to do something that they can’t in fact do. It’s like making a dyslexic child stay in at break (recess) because they didn’t do well in the spelling test. The only things achieved by shaming children for their eating, are a battering of their self-esteem and the development of further negative associations around food.
It contributes to emotional eating
Let’s flip the concept of ‘you’ve been bad so you can’t have that’ (which, believe me, is how a child will feel if they have missed out on dessert, however carefully it has been worded). The other side of that coin is ‘you’ve been good, so you can have that’. Emotional eating is where people eat in response to difficult feelings rather than because their body needs food. When we conflate food and approval by using it to punish and reward, this can lay the foundations for a child turning to sweet or calorific foods later in life, in order to ease emotional discomfort. This excellent article written by leading UK academics researching children's eating, gives a fascinating overview of what the research evidence tells us about emotional eating in childhood.
It doesn’t work!
Even if withholding dessert results in a few more bites of a disliked food (and for some children, it won’t even do that) research shows that making one food conditional on another actually increases a child’s liking of the reward food and decreases their liking of the food you want them to eat more of. This is perverse, but does make intuitive sense. Giving food the status of ’reward’ or ‘hard work’ sends a clear message to children about how they should feel about it. So if you want your child to like broccoli even less, make them try some by rewarding them with chocolate.
How to handle desserts in a psychologically healthy way
You don’t have to have dessert every day - that is a matter of personal choice. But if you are serving it, give it to everyone regardless of how they have eaten or behaved. If you are in the habit of having filling and rich desserts and have noticed that your child is relying on them to fill up, think about changing your habits so that a meal ends with something less calorific, like fresh fruit.
Some feeding specialists recommend serving dessert at the same time as the main course (an idea that I believe came from Ellyn Satter originally). I find that this is an effective strategy for children who have put dessert up on a pedestal and are very caught up in when they will get something sweet. It is a great way to move towards giving all foods a more equal status.
I know this is contentious and it is a topic which can elicit some strong emotional responses from parents - I get it - it can feel really wrong to give a cake to a child who has just rejected the nutritious meal you have spent time preparing. However, supporting picky eaters is about being in it for the long haul. We need to prioritise children’s long term relationship with food over short term ‘wins’ because eating is not just about the physical, it’s about thoughts and feelings too.