A couple of years ago, at a New Year's Eve party, my kids discovered soda. Someone brought a one gallon bottle of Fanta, and the kids drank it all almost single-handedly. They just kept coming back for seconds, thirds, and fourths until it was all gone. As a mom and a dietitian, it was a very hard thing to watch as my mind was frantically trying to find a solution to this new problem.
Was I right to not expose them to soda before? They had never been into fizzy drinks so soda was easy to avoid. Scientists call it "covert" restriction, when we deny certain foods to kids by simply not bringing them to the house. But something seemed to have changed now. The kids clearly showed me their preferences, and I knew that as they grew up, creating a soda-free bubble around them wouldn't work any more.
I knew I had two options. The one that felt most natural to me was to officially ban sweetened drinks from their lives and teach them a nutritional lesson about the not so hidden dangers of sugar, preservatives and artificial colors.
But I knew from well known research and from my experience working with families that overt restriction, i.e. when food is visible, but given only in controlled amounts, makes it even more appealing.
My second option was to teach them how soda can fit into an overall balanced diet. This was harder since neither I nor my husband ever drink it. We simply do not enjoy it. So seeing our kids guzzling orange or blue liquid full of artificial stuff was not something we were looking forward to.
But we wanted to give our kids tools to survive in this crazy food environment and learn to stay in control when surrounded with super palatable yummies. So our goal was to neutralize the soda appeal as much as possible and to show them how they can still enjoy it sometimes, without a heavy blow to the overall quality of their diet.
That is why soon after that New Year's party, a pack of soda appeared on our kitchen counter. Not a pretty sight to a non-soda-drinker-dietitian's eye, but the experiment didn't go as badly as I feared. We maintain a fairly strict mealtime structure and Division of Responsibility at mealtimes. The rule was to treat soda like any other food or drink (except for water): have a glass only with meals or snacks and when sitting at a table. Over the first few meals the kids drank lots of it at first, then less, and by the time the pack was finished they seemed to have had enough, at least for the moment.
After that, we made sure that soda appeared somewhat regularly on our table. Although I do not bring it home often (covert restriction is hard to give up), the kids can choose it instead of a dessert when we eat out. We are also looking for compromises like offering fizzy apple or other juice drinks, and we're considering buying a fizzy machine to add festive bubbles to any drink at home.
By treating soda just like any other food, I hope to take away at least some of its "forbidden" allure. I am also learning to respect my kids' eating preferences, however different they may be from mine. Most importantly, I am embracing another lesson my little ones are teaching me, that being a parent is rarely about right or wrong, but rather about what works for your own family.
Natalia Stasenko MS, RDN is a registered dietitian and recognized pediatric nutrition expert. A mother of three, she uses evidence-based and always practical strategies to foster parents' confidence and skills in feeding their children right. To read more of Natalia's articles, visit her website, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.