How to Strike a Balance With Kids and Sweets

Busy parents are sometimes pushovers when kids ask for sugary snacks. Here, experts unpack the emotions and the science to land on a sweet spot for all.

orange, green and shattering red lollipop candy on light pink background
Photo: Adam Voorhees/Gallery Stock

From the first moment my then 15-month-old daughter, Molly, swiped a lick of her older sister's chocolate ice cream, she did everything in her toddler power to get sweets. She cried for donuts when her grandparents babysat (of course, they gave in) and negotiated a cookie stop after preschool in exchange for an end to her whining.

My kids' obsession wasn't the reaction to treats I had envisioned. In an ideal world, I'd introduce sugary foods to our kids naturally. Then, they'd understand sweets' place as a "sometimes" treat, sprinkled among the foods that make them grow healthy and strong.

These days, though, sweets are often weighted with the power of rewards: for a successful day of school, staying quiet while I'm on a work call, and finishing their broccoli. So, as parents, we often resort to bargaining or doing the math in our heads:

  • Should we skip dessert after dinner if they had a giant cherry lollipop at the zoo?
  • Will that root beer have them bouncing off the walls?
  • If we share a brownie, does it count?

All of our own emotional baggage with dieting bubbles back to the surface and complicates the situation further. So, how can you determine the right balance? Parents assembled a team of doctors and nutritionists to help you hit the refresh button without triggering an epic battle of wills. Read on for answers to some of your top questions about your kids' sweets addiction.

Why Are Kids So Addicted to Sweets?

Kids love sweets for many reasons, but it all boils down to a combination of biology and outside forces.

Nature's signals about sweets

Amniotic fluid and breast milk are both sweet, so babies are conditioned to like the taste from the get-go, says Parents advisor Jill Castle, R.D.N., a pediatric dietitian in New Canaan, Connecticut.

There's also an evolutionary reason for their sweet tooth: "Back in the hunter-gatherer days, sweetness indicated that a food was safe to eat and bitterness indicated that it was toxic," explains Alexis Conason, Psy.D., a New York City psychologist who specializes in eating disorders.

And before kids were old enough to develop the cognitive skills that say, "Um, maybe you shouldn't put that insect or rotting food in your mouth," the lack of sweetness would make harmful food less appealing. What's more, research suggests that sugar actually acts as a pain reliever in babies and small children, though not in adults, so it can literally make them feel better after an "ouchie."

Culture's messages about sweets

Beyond the internal cues that make kids crave sweets, there are also outside forces, including:

  • Commercials
  • Our national candy obsession
  • Cake as the pinnacle of every party

These things raise sugar's cred above all else for small children. As parents, we bring our own feelings about treats to the table. "Many of us have anxieties about desserts, and kids pick up on that from a very young age," says Dr. Conason, author of The Diet-Free Revolution (North Atlantic Books).

overhead view of sugary cereal and milk in cereal bowl with yellow spoon
Jenna Gang/Gallery Stock

Are All Sugars That Bad for Kids?

The issue is that there are different kinds of sugar; not all are equal, and they're not always easy to detect. Natural sugars are found in foods like fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). When eaten as part of whole food, these sugars are a healthy part of a child's diet.

Other sugars are added to food during processing, and those are the types linked with obesity, tooth decay, and diabetes. Added sugars may include:

  • Cane sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Sucrose

Ideally, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, added sugar shouldn't constitute more than 10% of your child's diet starting at age 2 (before 2, kids should avoid added sugars entirely). This percentage works out to be as much as 45 grams of sugar per day on a 1,800-calorie diet. However, the American Heart Association (AHA) has more conservative guidelines: They recommend that kids eat less than 25 grams of added sugar daily.

You may think of added sugar as being found in sweets, but foods kids don't necessarily consider "treats"—like pasta sauce, yogurt, juice, cereal, and oatmeal—pack extra sugar too.

"Once you combine all the added sugar eaten during meals, there's not a lot left for the rest of the day," says Anisha Patel, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and co-author of the cookbook Half the Sugar, All the Love (Workman Publishing Company). In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed how food products are labeled: Instead of lumping all sugars together, labels now list added sugars separately. So if you start reading labels it's easier to determine what fits within the guidelines.

Is It OK To Bribe Kids With Dessert?

Over time, setting up one food as the "chore" and the other as the "reward" can create an unhealthy imbalance. "If you're using sweets to motivate vegetable eating, sweets become much more important than vegetables," says Castle. "In the long run, that changes the child's preferences and perception of food."

Research has found that when kids receive sweets as a reward, they have a stronger preference for that food than kids who receive it without relation to accomplishing a task. Thus, it ends up causing kids to crave sweets more.

Food-based rewards also interfere with a child's ability to know their hunger, says Maryann Jacobsen, R.D., of San Diego, author of How to Raise a Mindful Eater (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). "Kids need to listen to their feelings of hunger and fullness, and when we say, 'You have to eat this to get that,' they're not really listening to it, and as they get older, they can have trouble regulating their food intake."

What to do instead

Dr. Patel suggests putting the focus back on good behavior by offering abundant praise. "If your child is behaving very nicely at the doctor's office while you're waiting, say, 'You're doing such a great job sitting here. Mommy is so proud of you!'" she says.

Castle also points out that separating food from the emotions of a reward sets up better eating habits as your children age. "If you add that emotional value to it, they'll turn to food when they're sad or mad. The emotional connection to food can be the underpinning of the drive toward sweets for adults as well as children," she says.

One strategy to level the playing field is to serve everything together, says Dr. Conason, who recommends putting a few cookies on the table with dinner, so your child can choose to have a bite of cookie, then a bite of chicken, then a bite of broccoli. "This gives all the food equal value and removes the idea of a reward from the dessert," she says.

Should I Hide My Sweets From My Kids?

If you prefer to eat dessert peacefully while watching Netflix after your kids have gone to sleep so you can enjoy it in peace, that's understandable. But be open about it. While your kids are eating their dessert, you can say, "I'm not hungry right now, so I will save my dessert for later when my belly tells me it wants it." Castle says modeling that it's OK to have sweets shows children how to self-regulate and balance foods.

But you may want to reconsider if you're sneaking ice cream just so the kids won't see you eating fattening food. That sends the message that sweets are bad or taboo, conversely making them more desirable.

"When we have a healthy relationship with food, why would we hide what we're eating?" says Dr. Conason. She adds that if you're dealing with your own complex feelings about food, raising children is the perfect incentive to make a change. So, speak with a therapist or a nutritionist to develop a healthy plan.

curly-haired tween girl wearing overalls and eating donut with icing and sprinkles

How Do I Limit Sweets Without Tantrums?

There are a couple of good strategies for reducing the wheeling and dealing when it comes to treats.

Reduce the sweets you keep in the house

First, be conscious of how many and what type of sweets you keep in the house, and don't hide them. As with holiday presents, kids have a knack for finding all your secret spots.

Dr. Conason points out that a theory developed by Ellyn Satter, called "division of responsibility," encourages parents to choose the snack, the place, and the time (say, right after school) but to allow the child to determine if they want to eat and how much. "This takes the power dynamic out of eating," she says. It also helps the child understand how hungry they are.

Watch the messages you send about sweets

Second, consider how you talk about sweets in front of your kid. Keep it casual, fun, and in line with all other expectations, says Castle. "If you're overdoing the conversation about sweets, kids sense this is something you're really worried about and need to control," she says.

Nutritionist Wintana Kiros, R.D.N., founder of, takes it a step further by getting her kids excited about nutritious food: "I tell my boys stories about the G buddies—gut buddies—who live in their bellies and need a variety of nourishing food, including fruit, vegetables, and protein, to stay strong so the kids can do the things they love. My son really gets it. He said, 'Oh if my gut buddies are strong, I can jump high!'"

How Should I Introduce Treats to My Toddler?

If you've made it to your child's second birthday without their having sugary treats, congrats! If you want to introduce them now, keep it casual, offering a cookie or a scoop of ice cream with a meal or as a snack.

Kiros recommends pairing treats with something more nutritious. "I give my boys, who are 3 and 5, two cookies as an afternoon snack, but I always serve milk, yogurt, or cheese as well, so there is something else to fill them up."

While you may feel anxious about introducing sweets, doing so in a healthy and low-key way can help your child have a balanced relationship with food. "I'd be more worried about my kids getting messages about restricting sweets than about having a little sugar," says Dr. Conason.

What About Grandparents and Parties?

It's one of those common points of contention: No matter how much you insist on feeding your kids only healthy, nutritious snacks, all the rules go out the window when the kids are with their grandparents. Of course, you may choose to set boundaries with your parents, but it's OK to let your standards slide sometimes if that feels right to you, too.

As long as you're not restricting sweets at home to the point where your kids lose control when they can finally have them, a few extra donuts with Grandma or a candy-fueled birthday party is usually nothing to worry about.

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