Are your kids fixated on dessert? Do they rush through dinner to get it? Does it drive you bonkers? If so, what I'm about to suggest may change your life—but it may also sound a little nuts at first: Start serving dessert with dinner. Put it on the table, alongside the peas and the chicken and the rice. Don't make a big deal about it. Let your kids eat it whenever they want. (Will they eat it first? Probably. And that's okay.)
Serving dessert with dinner comes from the playbook of dietitian Ellyn Satter, an expert on feeding kids and author of Child Of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense, among many other books about feeding. The idea is this: When dessert is taken down from its end-all-be-all pedestal—the grand finale of dinner, the good stuff you get after eating the yucky stuff—it becomes just another part of the meal. It loses its power, including as a bargaining tool (in other words, no more "two more bites of broccoli and you can have a cookie" negotiations!).
I'll admit, I was a little nervous the first time I tried this several years ago. A neighbor had brought over frosted cupcakes, and as we sat down for dinner, those cupcakes were all my kids could talk about. So I decided to let everyone take a cupcake and put it on their dinner plates. What happened? My older son ate his first and continued on with dinner. My younger son took a bite, decided he didn't like it, and ate his dinner.
This strategy also works well at parties and buffets, when sweets are often presented on the table along with the other foods. At a birthday party we attended, mini cupcakes were set on the buffet with the dinner foods. My kids each put a cupcake on their plates, ate it, then ate the rest of their food. Other parents spent a lot of time bargaining with their kids and insisting they had a certain number of bites of the dinner food before they could get a cupcake. Their kids were whining, the parents were aggravated (and I'm sure a few people were giving me the hairy eyeball for setting a bad example of eating cupcakes first). But ultimately, it was a much saner solution. My boys each had a cupcake, just like everyone else, but also ate other food too (and I wasn't stuck at the kids' table bickering with my children).
One caution with this approach: Make sure the portion of dessert isn't so big that it wrecks their appetites. Give only one serving. For little kids, that might be one small cookie or a small scoop of ice cream. With my kids' fresh haul of Easter candy, we've decided on two small pieces as a reasonable dessert, which they can have with their meal or after. It's up to them.
Have you ever tried this approach? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
Image: Kid focused on cupcake via Shutterstock