How often do your kids start their meal with a chocolate macaron? This is exactly what my 3-year-old did yesterday, and I am completely fine with it.

Are you puzzled?

Let me explain why I allowed this to happen, and I hope you will let your kids do the same – start the meal with its frequently most desired course.

But first, let me give you a little background. I took two older kids to Paris last weekend, and we brought lots of yummy food, including a box of the most amazing macarons. As we came back from a morning walk and my 3-year-old, she saw the box and, naturally, asked for some. But it was almost lunchtime, I just needed to warm up the food and set the table, so I told her to wait.

Her natural response was to keep demanding a macaron, nonstop, for about 10 minutes it took me to get the lunch ready.  And in those 10 minutes, I repeated maybe a million times: ” We will have some at lunch when we sit to eat.”

She finally got a macaron after all the food was on the table, her hands were washed, and she was ready to eat. Naturally, she gobbled down the coveted sweet right away. And then (naturally) she asked for more.  I explained that we could have more at dinner and, after a couple more requests, she proceeded to eat a good portion of her lunch (cucumber and celery sticks with hummus, lentil soup, and blueberries).

Did you notice how many times I used “natural” or “naturally” in the last three paragraphs?

It’s because it is very normal and appropriate for kids (and adults) to enjoy and desire sweets more than other types of food. But we also know how important it is to eat a balanced diet. The good news is that we can be responsive to this natural penchant for sweets while “taming” it through the structure and even helping kids self-regulate better.

So let’s look at how this approach works. To make it more relatable, I will use the questions I get asked the most when I explain this strategy.

1/ Why not give her the macaron right away, while I was setting the table, just to get her out of my hair (or off my leg)?

The answer is: the structure is critical! If I do not follow the meal and snack schedule, what can I say if she asks for a cookie 30 min after lunch or a granola bar 15 minutes before dinner? So I stick to my guns and serve the treats only at mealtimes, together with the rest of the food. It is super hard to endure the whining and demands, but as kids grow, they usually have no problem waiting for their meal.

2/ Why not ask her to eat the entree first, before handing out dessert?

The answer is: to respect the natural drive for sweets and get them out of the way (both physically and figuratively) so that the rest of the meal becomes worthy of consideration as well.

When kids are hungry, they will likely have space in the tummy after a little dessert. If they are not hungry, what is the point of getting them to eat more than they need fighting a few spoons of the main dish before they polish off the coveted dessert? And here is how self-regulation skills come into play. Kids who are given dessert as a reward, at the end of the meal, maybe pushing themselves to overeat, just to finish the hard-earned treat, ignoring their fullness signals.

Babies need their favorite food too!

Did you know that the best way to get a resistant baby to sit in a high chair is to show him the food he likes on their tray?  My friend shared with me recently that her 9-month-old refused to sit on a high chair unless there was some plain yogurt she adores.

And I still remember how one of my babies demanded there was a banana on her plate before she would even look at otter food I planned for the meal. So if your baby suddenly started refusing to sit down to meals, sometimes it is just meals that he has developed certain preferences that need to be acknowledged.

Three important caveats:

1. You certainly do not have to serve desserts at each meal. All families have their own beliefs and values around sweets and the type of food they consider a dessert, so I leave this discussion for another time.
2. If your kids do not care about dessert and you do not serve it as a reward for eating dinner, it is perfectly fine to offer it at the end of the meal.

The strategy described above typically works wonders with smaller and/or sweet-loving kids. My older kids who are 9 and 12 are perfectly fine to wait to eat their dessert at the end of the meal, whether it is sitting in front of them or put out of sight.

3. Dessert is meant to be a small treat, not “eat all you can” or a cookie the size of your child’s head. Think an oreo cookie or a small tub of yogurt, or 1/2 cup of ice cream. It is fine to serve sweets in unlimited amounts from time to time, but better to do it at snack times, when there is no competition from other food.

Tell me, have you tried serving your kids desserts at the beginning of the meal?

More articles related to feeding strategy:

10-step plan to help a child who is anxious at mealtimes

3 real (and valid) reasons for screens at mealtimes

5 rookie mistakes that make picky eating worse

Toddler eating habits that can drive you crazy

Why one bite rule may not work for your child