Sweets and chocolate consumption are a hot topic for parents around Easter. Access to sweets seems to be omnipresent in our world: at school, with friends, at the optician and even in the office of your preferred healthcare provider. But when Easter is around the corner, having exposure to lots of play foods really seems to be inevitable.
One mother recently said to me: “Wherever we go, there is something special for my child for Easter, and it is often a sweet reward.”
I have no doubt that if your kids are like mine, they will have a higher-than-usual exposure to candy and chocolates in the next few weeks. It seems like, for some kids, that the obsession and focus around chocolate becomes even more urgent. Our response – as parents – is to want to rigidly control access to these play foods. We make rules: “Only if you eat your vegetables” or “only on the weekends.” We hide the candy. Or we just plain don’t give any play foods to our children.
We feel guilty if we give our children sweets and chocolate because we live in a culture that has labelled these play foods as “unhealthy.” It seems terrifying when we are being bombarded with daily requests to eat chocolate and sweets by our little ones. I get it. I totally do.
We have been educated about the potential diseases and negative health consequences of foods that are high in sugar. We feel that we need to make the responsible decisions for our children and their health is obviously very important to us. Eating sugary foods and chocolate fall outside the supposed ideal of healthy behavior and balanced food choices.
But restricting access and hiding the chocolates is making the situation worse.
Let me explain. We are naturally drawn to the things that we cannot have. We demonize certain foods, labeling them as “bad” and “unhealthy” while other foods are put on pedestals and held up high – categorizing them as “good” and “healthy” or even calling them “super-foods.” When we eat foods that have been labelled as “bad”, it creates a sense of guilt, shame and fear when we do eat them.
So, to stop kids from eating sweets in the first place, we try to explain to the kids that “too much sugar” is “bad for you” and “unhealthy for your body.” These well-intentioned comments, however, create an unsettling feeling and the take-home message for kids is that “they are bad” for wanting that food. That makes the preoccupation with these foods worse and may even result in developing adverse behaviors around food that might prove harmful to their body and mind later in life.
Research has shown that children who experience restrictive feeding practices, grow up with a poor sense of self-regulation and higher risk of having disordered eating habits. Kids who are obsessed with candy and go crazy when given access to chocolates may be experiencing food restriction and probably do not have access to enough candy. They feel anxious around certain foods and tend to overeat when the opportunity to have the food arises.
The goal is not to avoid candy altogether but to help kids eat and enjoy candy and gradually lose interest in these foods. Good health is not just confined to the physical definition but also includes mental and social well-being. Eating play foods regularly will not negatively affect your health or well-being. They serve to raise our sense of autonomy and competence and make our own choices around food.
One key aspect to exploring how play foods fit in, is to focus on being present in the moment when you or your children are eating sweets and chocolate. Try to pay attention to the messages that we have in our heads and stay away from the black and white thinking of “good” or “bad”. Be cautious of the language that you use around the sweets and chocolate. Kids are watching us, mimicking our attitudes and our issues around food.
In the long run, we want to have a positive relationship with all foods. You can help your child build a healthy relationship with play foods by allowing sweets regularly and reliably with meals or snacks without any stipulations or rules attached. Focus on listening to the body and honoring your body’s hunger and fullness signals. It is important to create a neutral environment for your child around sweets and let your child see how you, too, enjoy sweets and chocolate. Without judgment or guilt.
Sabine Maritschnik, MPH, RDN is a mom of 2 kids and a Registered Dietitian from California. She has a private practice specializing in Intuitive Eating in Lower Austria. She offers speaking engagements and 1:1 nutrition counselling in person as well as virtually in both English and German. Her website is www.intuitivesessen.at and you can follow her on Facebook and Instagram: @intuitives.essen.mit.sabine.
photo credits: Tina King