How to Tame Your Kid's Sweet Tooth in 30 Days

Would you let your child eat 50 pounds of sugar? That's how much the average 4- to 8-year-old goes through in a year. As researchers are finding that sugar harms kids in ways never imagined, the government is finally setting limits.

Curly Haired Boy Next to Bags of Sugar
Photo: Dane Tashima

Flavored Greek yogurt plus a cup of chocolate milk for breakfast, 24 grams. PB&J at lunch, 17 grams. Brownie for dessert, 21 grams. You see how easy it can be for 4- to 8-year-olds to eat 60 or so grams of added sugar a day—the amount they typically consume, according to the National Institutes of Health. Sixty grams doesn't seem like a lot, but it amounts to 15 teaspoons daily, which adds up to 50 pounds in a year. Naturally occurring sugar in fruit, plain milk, or fruit juice isn't even counted in these eye-popping tallies.

The USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans recently recommended that kids and adults limit added sugar to 10 percent or fewer of daily calories—about half as much as kids ages 4 to 8 are downing now.

Time to Take Action

Before you change a thing about your family's meals, know exactly what you're up against: Children are biologically programmed to prefer a higher level of sweetness than adults do, says Daniel E. Lieberman, Ph.D., chair of the department of evolutionary biology at Harvard University. "Sugar is full of calories, and in the calorie-poor environments in which we evolved, craving sugar must have been adaptive," he says. "As a result, we have always craved sweet food at an early age." And that craving doesn't start to ease up even a little until the teenage years.

But you can't wait that long. Studies show that young children who consume too much added sugar overall—or even two sweetened beverages daily—are at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, or both. One recent report from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine discovered that 3- to 11-year-olds who drink about 12 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages daily have significantly higher levels of C-reactive protein, an indicator of harmful inf lammation in their organs and tissues—compared with children who skipped these sugary thirst-quenchers.

Eating too much added sugar may also trigger metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that greatly increase a person's chance of having heart disease, diabetes, and strokes, points out Robert Lustig, M.D., a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco. In his new study, kids ages 12 and up who consumed roughly 80 grams of added sugar daily were nine times more likely to have metabolic syndrome than those whose intake hovered around 30 grams per day, slightly less than the USDA's suggested limit. "Our research suggested that metabolic syndrome is associated with added sugar regardless of how many calories the children eat or their body-mass index," says Dr. Lustig.

Convinced you need to make some changes in your family's sugar intake? Use our flexible plan to help everyone get close to—or even under—that 10 percent level in just a month. In the process, you'll retrain their taste buds for a lifetime.

Curly Haired Boy Eating from Yellow Bowl
Dane Tashima

Week 1: Refresh your breakfast routine.

GOAL: 6g of added sugar or fewer for breakfast (note that all goals are for kids 4 to 8; for toddlers, reduce the goal by 25 percent) Surprise: Your family is probably eating more sugar at breakfast than for dessert. And the sweetness isn't just coming from kiddie cereal, juice, and chocolate milk. A single-serve container of flavored yogurt or even two home-style frozen waffles with syrup may pack as much added sugar as a full-size candy bar, says Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, R.D., founder of City Kids Nutrition, in New York City. Make over your family's go-to breakfast so the meal is less sweet; save changes to drinks for later.

Flavor yogurt yourself. Mix your child's current favorite with the same amount of plain yogurt, suggests Jessica Cording, R.D., founder of the blog Keeping It Real Food. Then top with fruit. (See "Aren't All Sugars the Same?" at right to find out why the sugar in fruit is fine for kids.) Eventually add more plain than flavored yogurt. Or try just flavoring plain yogurt yourself. "I'll stir in a tablespoon of cocoa powder and a bit of cinnamon and vanilla extract," Cording says. If you would rather buy individually portioned flavored yogurts, try Wallaby Organic Purely Unsweetened; it only adds fruit to its whole-milk Greek yogurt. Brands that go easy on the added sugar include Chobani Tots, Siggi's, and Yoplait Kids.

Work in eggs. A protein-packed breakfast helps keep kids fuller than one heavy on sugary carbs. A quick scrambled or hard-boiled egg is easy (the Dietary Guidelines give the all clear even to the yolks), but you can up the fun factor. "I make egg muffins by putting chopped veggies in each of the slots in a tray, pouring a whisked egg inside, and baking for 15 to 20 minutes at 350°F," says Malkoff-Cohen.

Try new toppings. Save syrup, jam, or—sorry—chocolate spreads for special occasions. Instead, opt for peanut butter, which is great because it provides protein too. Although most brands contain a gram or two of added sugar per tablespoon, that's less than the 4 to 8 or so grams of sugar in a tablespoon of syrup. Other smart choices: cottage, ricotta, or plain cream cheese or simply butter.

Swap cereals. Cold cereals pack 9 grams of added sugar per serving on average—and ones marketed to families generally pack even more, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. Stick with brands that supply no more than 6 grams of sugar per serving, says Kristi King, R.D., a senior dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston. Some products that fit the bill: Cheerios, Chex Corn, Kashi's Heart to Heart Honey Toasted Oat, and Wheaties. If your family is a fan of oatmeal or other warm cereal, opt for a plain variety and sweeten it yourself with a smidge of brown sugar or, better still, fresh fruit. Be sure to make it with milk for protein.

Week 2: Rethink your family's dessert habits.

GOAL: 60g of added sugar or fewer from dessert per week Adopt one of these approaches to end the constant battle. Put a treat on their dinner plate every night. A chocolate-chip cookie next to the green beans? Yep— that's okay because it takes dessert down from its be-all-and-end-all pedestal, says Sally Kuzemchak, R.D., author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. Read a blog post about how the strategy worked with her kids (yes, they ate the other foods on their plate too). Just keep the portion small—and establish a no-seconds rule for treats. Try to make your own desserts so you control the amount of added sugar; you can scale back by at least 25 percent in most recipes.

Teach kids that fruit counts as dessert. And make it the mealender on most nights. If they balk at first, melt dark chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa (it has less than half the sugar of its milky cousin) and let the kids dip. Or top fruit with homemade whipped cream (1/2 cup heavy cream, 1 tsp. powdered sugar, and 1 tsp. vanilla extract whipped until fluffy). Then a couple of times a month, let the kids have what they want, whether it's a cupcake at a party or an ice-cream cone with their friends.

Week 3: Look for sugar in your fridge and pantry.

GOAL: 10g of added sugar or fewer for lunch, dinner, and snacks combined You know there's some in the cinnamon-sugar pita chips and the honey granola bars (duh). But it's also lurking in foods you'd never suspect, like some brands of chicken broth, mayo, pasta sauce, and salad dressing, says Eve Schaub, a mom of two, who chronicles her family's quest to avoid all added sugar in A Year of No Sugar: A Memoir. While you probably won't be going to this extreme, you can rejigger your shopping list to cut way back.

Break out of your snack rut. Make your new options just as easy as whatever you're buying now. Pick up a couple of ready-to-eat fruits and veggies they like, such as edamame, baby carrots, bananas, and apple wedges. Buy a package of hummus or guac for dipping. "For on-the-go snacks, I buy Larabars and Original Triscuits—they don't have added sugar," says Schaub. (Split one Larabar between two young kids since it's portioned for adults.)

Make a list of the sugar content in the packaged products you buy regularly. Then shop around to see if you can go lower. "You may have to opt for a product that contains a little more fat overall, but that's preferred over the sugar," says Dr. Lustig. Scan the ingredients list to confirm that what you're buying doesn't contain added sweeteners like sugar alcohols, stevia, or sucralose. Artificial sweeteners haven't been well tested in kids, and they'll stand in the way of helping your child adjust to the taste of lesssweet foods. If you can't find a good lower-sugar version, go in a different direction. For instance, you could put a spice rub, in place of barbecue sauce, on chicken. Or give your kids salsa for dipping (several brands don't have added sugar) rather than ketchup (which can contain 2 to 4 grams of added sugar).

Week 4 And Beyond: Rethink drinks.

GOAL: 50g of added sugar or fewer per week for beverages (about 2 cups of juice or lemonade or 6 cups of lightly sweetened chocolate milk) Even if your child doesn't drink soda, chances are he has juice or lemonade frequently. While the American Academy of Pediatrics gives the green light to up to 6 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice daily for 1- to 6-year-olds and 12 ounces for older kids, some nutrition experts frown on any juice. Here's what to do.

Play up water. Let your child pick out a bottle that's only for water, suggests King. "We use a SodaStream without the flavorings and the kids love the bubbles," says Schaub.

Go easy on juice. But don't water it down. The reason: "You want to get your child used to drinking beverages that aren't sweetened, so I'd rather kids have a tiny glass of juice in the morning than some juice in their water all day long," says Cording.

Limit soda and lemonade to special occasions. Some have up to 25 grams of added sugar—that's 6 teaspoons—per cup.

Push plain milk. Premade chocolate milk usually packs 10 to 13 grams of added sugar per cup. But many nutritionists cut it some slack because it delivers nutrients. If your child won't drink plain milk, flavor it with a little syrup or powder.

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