A little boy eating ice cream

Family Health

This Dietitian Mom Serves Dessert With Dinner (And You Should Consider It Too)

Feb 13, 2018

If you’re tired of the constant bargaining over how many carrots your kids need to eat before they get dessert, I have a solution for you. Serve dessert before or alongside dinner.

"Sugar is out there, people. Instead of ignoring it, let’s teach our kids how to eat it in a balanced way."

Crazy? Radical? Unfathomable? Nope. It’s actually a smart, practical idea. Let me explain…

Kids tend to rush through meals — they undereat, overeat, get distracted or prioritize dessert when it’s served after dinner. You can change that by making dessert part of the main meal. It will calm the dinner hour, help kids tune into their natural hunger cues and teach them that all foods can fit, not just green and orange ones.

Here are some examples of why this works:

You'll Also Love: How To Start A Family Meal Plan

Dessert Isn’t A Reward

When dessert is served after dinner, kids tend to see it as a prize or reward. They may think, “Mommy made me eat those gross vegetables, but I get rewarded with cookies after, so it’s worth it!” It also sends the message that kids need to eat a certain amount of food to be considered “good” and deserving of that reward. In some cases, it leads to children who won’t ever eat vegetables unless there is a cookie waiting for them afterwards (in other words, a reward junkie). Instead, we want to put foods on a level playing field — that food is food, not a prize, nor a punishment. When dessert is served with dinner, it’s just another option that they can put on their plate if they want to.

'I’m Still Hungry!'

For many kids, dessert is an end-goal that they are so excited to get to, so they rush through dinner. This doesn’t allow them to pay attention to their hunger or fullness cues. Picture this: your child eats a quick dinner so they can have dessert, and an hour later they are still hungry. That’s because they didn’t eat enough of the meal to satisfy their appetite! Or maybe they didn’t eat much at dinner because they wanted to save room for dessert. In either case, once dessert becomes part of the meal, kids can eat slowly and calmly, and will have more time to focus on their tummy and know if it’s hungry or full.

'I’ve Got No More Room.'

Or the opposite can happen: if dessert is served last and your child is already full from dinner, they may eat dessert anyway because it’s so tempting. Holding dessert until the end teaches kids to keep eating until they are full, and then eat some more. This message doesn’t help them learn self-regulation. Our goal is to teach kids to moderate their own food intake, and stop eating when they feel satisfied. It’s easier to do that when the entire dinner — including dessert — is served at the same time.

'What’s For Dessert?' 

The first bite of meatloaf hasn’t even been swallowed, and the kids are already asking you, “What’s for dessert?” If this drives you crazy, end the suspense by having dessert on the dinner table. When kids have the choice to eat it before, during or after the meal, it gives them a sense of control and makes them feel responsible and trusted. Win!

You'll Also Love: 5 Things To Do If Your Child Eats Too Fast Or Too Much

A Few Caveats

OK, so your first question is likely: why is this dietitian telling me to serve dessert every night? Rest assured that this is a personal choice, and there is no reason to begin offering daily dessert to your children if this is not your usual habit. This advice is meant for people who do offer a small dessert daily, and are finding that their current system isn’t working. I don’t do this every night. I do it randomly, just like I, from time to time, offer a treat with a snack. Again, the frequency and timing is up to you.

Now, what do I mean by dessert? These are kids, and the portion sizes should be small and manageable. I’m describing 50-100 calories of fruit, sweetened yogurt, pudding, cookies or ice cream, not a 500-calorie triple fudge cheesecake or a salted-caramel brownie sundae. You can also set rules that each child just gets one serving of dessert, but can have seconds of the dinner foods.

A small sweet treat will not diminish your child’s appetite for the other foods being served, and will help them learn important mealtime concepts like balance and moderation. Sugar is out there, people. Instead of ignoring it, let’s teach our kids how to eat it in a balanced way.

How Will My Kids React?

Can you picture the look on your child’s face when they see chocolate pudding alongside the chicken and quinoa? They will be excited and will likely eat the pudding first. But after a few weeks, the novelty does wear off. You’ll find that some days they will choose dessert first, some days last and some days they won’t even finish it. That’s when they’ve learned to normalize dessert as just another food, rather than an event.

Article Author Sarah Remmer
Sarah Remmer

Read and watch more from Sarah here.

Sarah Remmer, RD, is a pediatric registered dietitian and owner of Sarah Remmer Nutrition Consulting, a nutrition consulting and communications company based in Calgary, Alberta. Her website and blog contain practical tips and advice for parents and families on feeding and nutrition (everything from pre-natal nutrition to teens), as well as nutritious and easy recipes and videos. Follow Sarah on Facebook for free advice, tips and family-friendly recipes!

Add New Comment

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.