I am always curious about how families solve their dessert dilemmas. I recently asked my Facebook followers to share how they serve dessert to kids, and it generated a great discussion.

Among a variety of approaches, failures, and victories that parents shared, one thing was clear: managing desserts is complicated. Most of us understand that bribing with desserts to encourage kids to eat balanced meals is counterproductive, but many are afraid to let go of an effective way to get veggies inside their little ones.

Here are some suggestions on how to serve dessert to kids:

Strip dessert of its reward status. Dessert is not a reward for eating other things. It is a type of food that happens to taste great. By all means offer your kids a small serving if you planned dessert for the meal, regardless of how much they ate. This will help them think less about dessert next time they join you at the table.

Make sure kids are not overly tired by mealtime. If necessary, move mealtime a little earlier to “catch” children before energy levels start plummeting. If lunchtime interferes with your child’s napping schedule, offer a small snack, and serve lunch when your child is awake and rested. If your children are exhausted by 6.30 pm, move dinnertime an hour earlier. A tired child is a lousy eater. 

Serve at least one manageable food at mealtimes. If every item served at a meal is “beyond” your child’s eating ability, he will naturally focus on a safer option – dessert. Keep your child’s preferences in mind when planning meals. For example, if your child does not eat chicken (yet), round the meal with the starch and/or veggie that he typically enjoys when hungry.

Serve a SMALL portion of dessert WITH the meal. Your kids will probably eat it first, especially at the beginning. However, as they learn to trust that you are NOT going to take the dessert away under any circumstances, they will learn to wait until the end of the meal. When my 4-year-old was going through her “sweet tooth” phase, I often saw her taking a spoonful of flavored yogurt a few times during the meal. I have no idea if she enjoyed an unusual combination of flavors, or she was assuring herself that dessert was still within her reach.

Vary desserts. It does not have to be cake and ice cream all the time. Fruit, smoothies and yogurt make great dessert options. Here is a list of dessert ideas we use in my family.

Allow your children to eat as much as they want from time to time. Feeding expert Ellyn Satter recommends occasionally serving kids sweets for snacks and letting them eat until they are satisfied.

This practice sends an important message to kids: ” You can eat sweet foods from time to time and there will be more opportunities to eat them another day.”  It’s also a great way to manage seasonal candy overload.

Focus on self-regulation. Teach your kids to eat until satisfied without overeating. If parents insist that a certain amount of food be eaten before dessert, kids may not only end up paying less attention to satiety cues and eat beyond hunger but also eat more dessert foods at a different occasion, as shown in this study by Brian Wansink.

Maintain structure so kids arrive at the table with a good appetite. Being reasonably hungry is key to good eating and mealtime manners. If my kids are not hungry, they are not interested in my dinner offerings and focus on dessert instead.  Properly spaced mealtimes and snacks, with nothing but water in between, ensure that kids are more likely to eat well.

Of course, there is always a chance that kids will only eat dessert and refuse everything else– a fact of life!  It helps to remember that they have at least 4 opportunities to eat every day so their nutrition is not likely to be affected by just one mealtime. 

Tell me, how do you manage desserts in your household?


Ellyn Satter. Child of Mine: Feeding with love and good sense.

Wansink B, Payne C, Werle C. Consequences of belonging to the “clean plate club.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 2008 Oct;162(10):994-5.