My daughter Molly was 18 months old the first time she tasted a piece of candy. We were at the hair salon watching her older sister get a trim when the stylist offered Molly a yellow lollipop. As she took her first lick, her eyes opened wide as saucers, and she looked at me as if to say, "Mommy, where have these yummy treats been all my life?"
That was just the start. Her sister soon introduced her to gummy bears and M&Ms, and now, whenever I offer apples or grapes as an afternoon snack, Molly pouts and says, "Nooo, chocolate!" It's a struggle, but I'm trying to teach her that treats are only a small part of an otherwise balanced diet.
Sure, it would be great if we could eliminate all sugary, fatty foods from our kids' lives and have them happily munch on carrot sticks all day. But unless you plan to lock them in the house until they leave for college, that's not practical. "As soon as you tell a child a certain food is forbidden, it becomes very desirable," says Laurie Higgins, RD, a pediatric dietitian at the Joslin Diabetes Center, in Boston. The first time he encounters a stack of Oreos at school or a Snickers bar at his friend's house, it could trigger an obsession as serious as the one you had for that bad boy your mother warned you not to date.
A more realistic approach is to accept the fact that children love sweets, and that there is a healthy way to integrate them into your family meal plan. Here, some simple rules for taming your child's sweet tooth.
1. Introduce treats as a regular part of your child's diet early on.
The little health fairy in your head may be telling you to avoid giving in to requests for ice cream and brownies for as long as possible, but dietitians say it's better for you to introduce sweets, usually between 18 months and 2 years, than to have kids pick up their eating ideas from friends or TV. "If your child has established a well-rounded diet including vegetables and fruit, it's fine to introduce treats as soon as she starts asking for them," says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, manager of the Fairview Hospital Wellness Center, in Cleveland. Just be sure to emphasize moderation and portion control.
2. Keep it small and sweet.
3. Don't attach emotional baggage to food.
Children should enjoy snacks and candy for their flavor and texture and not as a reward or comfort, says Jamieson-Petonic. We know it's tempting to dangle a bag of chocolate kisses in front of a child who's having a meltdown in aisle 12. Instead, try tempting them to behave with an activity, like an extra story or a Candy Land marathon.
4. Take care to preserve those pearly whites.
When it comes to caring for your child's chompers, you might be surprised to learn that a piece of chocolate is no worse for teeth than a Goldfish cracker. In fact, it may even be preferable, says Michael Hanna, DMD, a pediatric dentist in Pittsburgh. "It's not the food itself that causes cavities," he says, though some 90 percent of foods contain sugar and starches, both of which can lead to cavities. "What matters is how long they remain in your mouth."
Smooth, creamy foods like chocolate, cheese, and ice cream get washed down by saliva as soon as you finish chewing them; but crumbly snacks like crackers, pretzels, and chips tend to break up into smaller pieces that get wedged into your molars. And the longer they're stuck there, the more opportunities there are for the sugars and starches in the food to set off an acid attack, which eventually causes decay. Just be sure your child washes down cookies and crackers with water or milk and brushes her teeth soon after.
5. Sticky food should be an occasional treat.
"When Anna was 15 months old, we started giving her chewy fruit snacks, which I thought were a healthy alternative to junk food," recalls Tracy Bauer, of Kirkwood, Missouri. "When she turned 2, I was brushing her teeth and noticed some discoloration on one of her molars. I took her to the dentist, and she had a cavity." Dr. Hanna warns that fruit roll-ups should be given in moderation because they get stuck in the teeth, causing more decay. Although they are nutritious, dried fruits such as raisins and apricots fall into this sticky category as well, so brush your kids' teeth thoroughly after he eats them.
6. Be a healthy role model.
"Candy can become a culture in some homes," says Cynthia Northington, PhD, a psychology professor at William Patterson University, in Wayne, New Jersey. "If you don't want your child to become fixated on it, make sure it doesn't play a big role in your own life." Eat healthy meals and snacks, and your kids will follow suit. Besides, think of all the times you've sworn to cut down on the sweet stuff to fit into a swimsuit. Isn't teaching your child how to have her own positive relationship with food the best incentive of all?
What to do with that giant bag of candy that comes home on Halloween? This year, institute a buy-back program: Let your child pick out 10 or 20 of his favorite pieces of candy, to be doled out once a day, and offer to trade him an extra-special treat for the rest of the bag. Great options include a special day at the zoo, a trip to the movies, a T-shirt with his favorite character, or a new board game. But make sure you don't eat his booty in front of him -- either toss it or take it to your office.
Marisa Cohen, a mother of two, is a writer in New York City.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.